As those who recall Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon or, better yet, watched as that performance bled into some fascinating and sometimes awkward encounters between Carrey and his co-stars (or Kaufman’s own family) in the documentary Jim & Andy, they know the actor is capable of giving himself over entirely to a role. And for the most part, Carrey’s knack for fully inhabiting his characters makes the fascinating but otherwise erratic Kidding work.
Showtime’s newest series, a tragicomedy about Jeff Pickles (Carrey), a beloved children’s entertainer, and the media empire built up around him by his father Seb (Frank Langella) and sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener), hails from creator Dave Holstein and reunites Carrey with his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry. It’s an ideal pairing that, like the show, blends whimsy and melancholy in such an interesting way the actual differences between the two become difficult to discern.
Carrey is well-suited to the role of Jeff, a man whose public persona, kindly duality, and astounding grief have him on the verge of what appears to be a nervous breakdown. Jeff’s son, Phil, recently died in a car accident, though the boy’s twin brother Will (Cole Allen) and mother Jill (Judy Greer) survived. Jeff’s marriage has subsequently fallen apart, too; he’s separated from Jill and living a spartan existence in an apartment building inhabited mostly by drunk college students. Jill, meanwhile, is ready to move on and to seek intimacy with a co-worker played by Weeds co-star Justin Kirk.
The show’s tricky premise, its exploration of grief, makes it something of a hard sell. That’s compounded by the feeling that, after the first four episodes, Kidding still isn’t entirely sure what kind of show it is, or what, in its heart of hearts, it wants to be about. There’s a disjointedness to the presentation in the early going; it begins to feel as if Kidding’s hard sell is, in its own way, also the object of the series. But just because the parts don’t yet add up to an entirely cohesive whole doesn’t mean they’re not also worthy of attention or praise on their own.
Chief among them is Carrey as Mr. Pickles. He doesn’t shoulder the series so much as elevate it to the point where, despite its difficult first steps, it still pulls you in. Carrey manages to make Jeff’s ultra-wholesome persona feel authentic and appealing rather than genuinely creepy. He is, thankfully, not playing a disgruntled antihero whose kid-friendly image masks a dark, cynical nature. Kidding isn’t aiming to be Death to Smoochy or some dark-hearted riff on how children’s entertainers are aching to escape the restrictive creative confines of their roles. Jeff does yearn for more, though, but he does so within the parameters of his status as Mr. Pickles. That need puts him at odds with his father, who runs the business of Mr. Pickles by envisioning a time when Jeff may no longer be around. That relationship is key to the show’s exploration of grief and the ways in which it makes Jeff more of a space cadet and, at the same time, allows him to connect with members of his family in a more honest and sincere way.
To that end it’s not just Carrey; the series is also bolstered by a stellar supporting cast that helps Kidding succeed, sometimes in spite of itself. Greer and Keener are given actual characters to play, rather than being asked to merely orbit Carrey’s planet-sized screen presence. Greer has the tough job of playing the wife of yet another TV dad whose perceived shortcomings are also the show's main storytelling opportunities. Greer plays a more developed variation on past roles, like the one she had in FX’s Married, but the manner in which she expresses her own grief over the loss of a child, as well as the tentative termination of her marriage to a very public figure, helps fill in some of the gaps that might otherwise not have been attended to properly. Keener's character is given a life removed from her brother’s show and celebrity, one where her husband, Scott (Bernard White, Silicon Valley) is exploring questions regarding his sexuality, while their daughter Maddy (Juliet Morris) responds to an increasingly complicated familial situation with bizarre behavioral outbursts. The intent is to give most of Kidding’s characters interiority or a sense their lives are lived-in beyond the parameters of the Mr. Pickles show or the blurred lines demarcating his onscreen persona and the man who is and is not Mr. Pickles when cameras are no longer rolling.
As integral as Carrey and all the other performances are, the degree to which Michel Gondry (who directs the first two episodes) and his stylistic influence compliment the cast is evident from the start. Gondry’s eccentric formalist flourishes work as a kind of release valve to the time spent lolling about in the damaged psyche of its lead character. The show within a show presents an opportunity to be unlike any other series on television, and to capitalize on Carrey’s presence and ability to bring fascinating, broken characters to life. In the end, Kidding is a sometimes unfocused but nevertheless fascinating showcase for Carrey and for Showtime.
Kidding continues next Sunday with ‘Pusillanimous’ @10pm on Showtime.