Jim Carrey positions himself as a modern Fred Rogers in "Kidding," a return to big lead roles for the comedy legend. But whereas the current Mr. Rogers documentary renaissance of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" and "Mister Rogers: It's You I Like" has us wondering what we'd learn if Rogers were here with us today, "Kidding" offers empty whimsy within a stale tragicomic tone. Carrey plays a man named Jeff Pickles who hosts a kid's TV program called "Puppet Time," but you see, he's in more pain than his smiling presence suggests. Just like ... wait for it ... everyone else.
This new Showtime series is the creation of Dave Holstein, but viewers will likely be thinking even more about the presence of Michel Gondry, who directs the series’ first two dinky episodes, and Carrey. It’s a collaboration of sensibilities that helped make a classic out of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” back in 2004, but leads to a disappointment with this series that feels like a knock-off of their past work.
“Kidding” is part gloomy suburban drama and part backstage dry comedy: In the former, we see Jeff as a depressed entertainer, dealing with the tragic loss of his young son, which has separated Jeff from his wife Jill (Judy Greer) and his other son, the awkward and angsty Will (Cole Allen). Jeff is treated like a celebrity by kids and adults, but off-camera he's like a melancholy alien, relegating himself to a gray studio apartment and his miseries.
Sometimes Jeff is able to express his pain on “Puppet Time,” to the stress of his producer and father, Sebastian (Frank Langella) who is fixated on preserving Jeff's brand. In moments of “Kidding” that don’t quite work, Jeff tries to base his shows around adult ideas like death, the fear of heart attacks, or changing the gender of a space otter character named Astro-nauter. In the larger scheme these passages make for simple commentary about how Jeff is a business, his images of happiness out of his control and bigger than him.
Meanwhile, Catherine Keener plays Jeff's sister Deidre, who also builds puppets for the show. As she deals with her own crumbling relationship during a dull storyline that wastes Keener, she too lays witness to Jeff's gradual implosion, offering some counsel backstage when Jeff is not driving Sebastian crazy, or oh-so dramatically shaving a line down the middle of his head.
Things gradually improve in the third and fourth episode, when "Kidding" starts to feel more original with its mature take on a kid's show. Riki Lindhome has a sturdy mini-arc in which she plays someone whose life is changed by his words, illustrated by a sharp passage-of-time montage, and it leads to a deep connection. One hopes that as "Kidding" continues it builds out its universe with other unexpected souls, and offers nuanced images of how we can be so important to someone else. But viewers will have to be patient to get to this breakthrough, and even at the end of the four episodes offered to press, I didn’t have enough faith it'll stay on this path.
Jeff's "Puppet Time" is very much "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," which works to "Kidding"'s favor only to an extent. It’s funny when “Kidding” references the (false) rumor that Rogers killed hundreds of people in wartime, with Carrey delivering a scary monologue to a kid that suggests it might be true in Jeff's case. And the premise of someone having a show that equally speaks to kids and adults seems rife for emotional groundwork.
But when you compare the presence of Fred Rogers to that of Jeff Pickles, Carrey's character starts to shrink. He’s meant to be so innocently naive in the cruel real world of "Kidding," yet we hardly believe how he got into this once-harmonious marriage, or how he can’t wrap his head around the “p-word.” Instead of a striking portrait of what a Fred Rogers-type would be like aways from the cameras, Jeff feels like a barely-sketched imitation of someone who has been put on a moral pedestal. Even Carrey's charisma can't make Jeff's emotionally-layered monologues on "Puppet Time" resonate.
Carrey has always had a hard time balancing the idea of performing compared to a fuller sense of acting (which might be why his Method-heavy Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon" is his best performance). He wants you to lay witness to even his most restrained characters (like a mute drifter in “The Bad Batch,” which he refused to talk much about), and “Kidding” shares that mentality. It’s in your face about Jeff's troubled emotions and quaint, sad ironies. And when Carrey has a tearful moment in the fourth episode, the camera is grotesquely close on his face, all so that we can soak in the single drop that falls down his cheek.
With showy forces like Carrey and Gondry behind it, there’s a deep self-amusement to “Kidding” that makes it all the more frustrating. David Wingo’s score uses music boxes and gentle flourishes as if to frame the off-set drama as the actual kid’s show; Gondry’s bouncy, non-chronological editing makes for quirky reveals, like when Jeff’s young son is killed in an accident involving a t-boning sugar truck. These ideas would hit harder, maybe, if this show existed ten years ago; in 2018, it's like any trope-filled, glum indie comedy that became wholesale in the late '00s after "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". It's surprising, for example, that it only takes four episodes for someone to wear a giant head, while they utter something sad.
But the series' quirks don't translate to a rich cleverness, or create the heartbroken laughs that "Kidding" dreams of. For a show that's full of pain, on-screen talent and so much potential, "Kidding" is just not very special.