Photo: Erica Parise (Showtime)

In Kidding, the new Showtime dramedy that re-teams Jim Carrey and Michel Gondry 14 years after Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, family entertainment has a dual meaning. Carrey stars as Jeff Pickles, a children’s television host with Fred Rogers’ lilt and Sesame Street’s merchandising might, who’s become a pop-culture institution while staying true to his humble, Midwestern roots. He takes time out of a late-night talk-show appearance to serenade his wife, Jill (Judy Greer), on a puppet/ukulele hybrid; he works side by side with his sister, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), who builds the creatures that populate Mr. Pickles Puppet Time and its neighborhood of make believe, Pickle Barrel Falls. It’s a wholesome, profitable image, and it’s maintained in large part through the machinations of Jeff and Deirdre’s father, Seb (Frank Langella), who oversees the entire Mr. Pickles enterprise from his wood-paneled time capsule of an office in the studios of fictional Columbus, Ohio station WROT.

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The call sign should give you a hint that not everything is as it seems at Puppet Time. This successful workplace family that’s also a biological one must confront the holes in their fabric when faced with a tear that can’t be mended: The traffic accident that killed one of Jeff and Jill’s twin sons. While the surviving twin, Will (Cole Allen), copes by picking up his ne’er-do-well brother’s bad habits and defiance, Jill plunges headlong into grief, getting a memorial tattoo and generally feeling all the feelings her estranged spouse is tamping down. The fissures spider web through the whole Mr. Pickles organization/clan, threatening to expose the show’s other dysfunctional household—Deirdre, her closeted husband, Scott (Bernard White), and their peculiar daughter, Maddy (Juliet Morris)—and Seb’s iron fist. The star of the show struggles in vain to hold everything together, but the combined stress is ultimately written on Carrey’s crinkly face, as the ironies of creator Dave Holstein’s premise and Gondry’s phantasmagorical direction (he helmed six of the first season’s 10 episodes) tug at the threads of Jeff’s reality and loop them into Mr. Pickle’s.

In his highest-profile role since Dumb And Dumber To in 2014—and his first regular TV gig in more than 20 years—Carrey isn’t showing us anything we haven’t seen before. He played someone attempting to write over their past in Eternal Sunshine; he did a cracked Mr. Rogers impression for In Living Color. His default mode for Jeff is a muted and aloof variation on Mr. Pickle’s gentle onscreen patter, catalyzing the frustration and confusion of Jill and Seb, and drawing the grace out of his scenes opposite Keener, who’s playing a creative spirit accustomed to standing outside of the spotlight. “When kids don’t talk about their dark feelings, they get quiet,” Jeff tells his father in the pilot. “It’s the quiet ones that make the news.” Kidding looks intent on fulfilling that prophecy.

The Secret Chef
Photo: Erica Parise (Showtime)

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Jeff is architect and sovereign of Pickle Barrel Falls, but Mr. Pickles Puppet Time is populated by personalities who are just as interesting, if not more so, than the namesake star: a sentient baguette with cheese for a tongue, a goggle-eyed bathmat who breathes bubbles, a mysterious cook who hides vegetables in the desserts of Puppet Time-branded microwave dinners. If only Kidding were so generous with its human supporting characters. The first four episodes constitute a character study more than a TV show, adhering to the “Whenever Poochie’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie?’” school of dialogue. Worrying about Jeff is a primary topic of conversation among the characters who aren’t Jeff, and while those worries take root in logical motivations—Jill frets about a man she loved and bore children with; Seb plans for the collapse of his son and golden goose—they also make for thin characterization. Everyone’s dependent on Jeff in one way or another, but Kidding also gives off the feeling that if he ceased to exist, everyone around him would poof into nothingness, too. (In which case: Maybe there’s a big “It’s all in his head” reveal waiting around the bend?)

It can make the show feel weirdly small and limited, in spite of valiant efforts to build the world of Mr. Pickles Puppet Time and show the good it’s done beyond the studio walls. The same goes for the show’s comedic repertoire, which contains repeated duds about having sex in a two-man horse costume and Jeff’s slow dawning realization about the “P” in fellow Conan guest Danny Trejo’s “P Hound” necklace. As the Artie to this knee-high Larry Sanders Show, Seb’s prodigious profanity shoulders much of the joke burden, the laughs highly dependent on getting the curse words to harmonize with Langella’s leonine gravitas. (It’s not always a perfect match, but he does wonders with “a $4 million otter twat.”) Were it not for Justin Kirk’s recurring role, this degree of Showtime cheek would be the starkest reminder of Holstein’s time on Weeds, and it’s an odd fit with the weird and whimsical flourishes of the Gondry house style. Far more effective is a quick sight gag involving Maddy, a homemade puppet, and some stray baby teeth.

Judy Greer
Photo: Erica Parise (Showtime)

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In making Jill the stern realist who’s hellbent on moving on, Kidding threatens to lump Greer in with the one-dimensional wet blankets who are so often married to head-in-the-cloud cable guys. (It never quite makes that hackneyed turn, if only because the show, for all the attention it lavishes upon Jeff, never really comes down one way or the other on him.) It’s a promising sign that Kidding at least seems to notice that Keener and Greer are going to waste in the early episodes: They each get meaty, fighting-back-the-tears monologues in the fourth episode, spotlight moments where they’re actually talking about themselves for once. Sure, those speeches are directed at Jeff, but they are the rare moment when he’s around and not sucking up all of Kidding’s oxygen.

It makes sense that Carrey and his character would be the center of attention here; he’s uniquely suited to play an entertainer longing to grow, change, and evolve within the role that made him famous. But that story is just one leg in Kidding’s pantomime horse, and it places too much weight on it, at the expense of the other legs and their ability to move the horse forward. As in their last collaboration, Kidding finds Carrey and Gondry drilling into the bedrock of memory and trauma, displaying how two people can perceive and channel the same source of pain in distinctly different fashions. It just doesn’t do a great job of doing that beyond people who aren’t Jeff or his onscreen alter ego.

And Jeff, for all Carrey does to enliven him, isn’t really anybody. He’s Mr. Pickles, and Mr. Pickles is an amalgam of Fred Rogers, Jim Henson, Pee-wee Herman, and other entertainers who displayed a knack for reaching kids while inspiring speculation about what they were like when the cameras turned off. Out from under the stage lights, Jeff is a void, and it’s Kidding’s big challenge to color him in, doing so in haphazard, erratic fashion. There’s nobility in the guy, evidenced by other character’s testimonials and his sincere desire to use Mr. Pickles to address nitty-gritty topics like death. But his numbness and myopia lead to miscalculations that Kidding never strikes a solid stance on: How do the spur-of-the-moment, unilateral changes he’s making on Puppet Time stack up against, say, buying the house next door to Jill’s and spying on his family through its windows? And does it muddy the waters that the latter sequence is staged with balletic dreaminess on a dollhouse-cutaway set?

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There is ambition, talent, and imagination to spare here, which is what makes Kidding worth watching where other, similarly messy cable series in this register aren’t. The ghosts of Happyish and Blunt Talk and their miserable media men protagonists haunt the edges of Kidding, but the puppets and the raw emotion do a pretty good job of scaring them off. Like the real-world programs reflected in Mr. Pickles Puppet Time, Kidding shows in uncomplicated terms that everyone feels sad, mad, jealous, scared, and alone sometimes. The lessons it seems to have missed are the ones about sharing.