The great joy and relief of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the achingly lovely documentary about Mr. Rogers that was an art house hit this summer, was what it wasn’t: a memory-shattering exposé. Fred Rogers, the gentle, cardigan-wearing children’s entertainer, a secular saint (and Presbyterian minister) who taught kindness, understanding, and tolerance to generations of young people, was as good as he seemed to be.
In Showtime’s downbeat new series Kidding, which premieres Sunday, Jim Carrey stars as Jeff Pickles, a beloved Mr. Rogers type who has entertained children for 30 years. When he plays his “Uke-Larry”—a puppet-like ukulele—and sings “You Can Feel It” (“You can feel anything at all/ You can feel it/ Happy, sad, big, or very small/ Anything at all, it’s fine”), even grown-ups cry. Like Mr. Rogers, Jeff Pickles is a man slightly out of time, an emissary from some softer time and place that we wish truly existed. “Please don’t use a bad word when you can use a good one,” he insists; as a guest on a late-night show, he earnestly asks a fellow guest (Danny Trejo) what the P in his “P-hound” necklace stands for; he walks along in sweater vests, radiating fuddy-duddy constancy. But Kidding is a fiction, and not one for children: For the show, goodness is not quite enough. There’s another aspect to Jeff Pickles. He is tremendously sad.
Exactly one year before the show begins, one of Jeff Pickles’ twin tweenage sons was killed in a freak car accident (a broken red light at an intersection flashed two greens). His marriage to Jill (Judy Greer) has unraveled even though he wishes it hadn’t; his surviving son finds him irritating; Jeff’s living in a crappy apartment near the Ohio State University campus, tending to blackout-drunk college students. Every day Jeff goes to work and has to pretend nothing is wrong.
Kidding, when it works, which isn’t always, wrestles with the difficulty of goodness and the strictures of persona, of having to pretend to be happy when you are so unhappy and the difficulty of treating other people—and yourself—decently when you are so sad. It’s about the way events can irrevocably change you and how to best acknowledge that change. It’s all stuff that could—and should—be put in a wise, wistful kids’ song, which is exactly what Jeff wants to do—if only his father and executive producer, Sebastian (Frank Langella), would let him.
The show is not just about Jeff Pickles’ persona but its star’s, as well. Not so long ago, Jim Carrey’s arrival on television would have seemed like a big deal. A movie star—OK, a movie star who hasn’t had a hit in a while—deigning to do television! But this has become such a commonplace that the most surprising thing about Carrey’s performance is that he is not playing some slightly less successful version of himself. Kidding, like most half-hour cable shows, is not a comedy or a drama but, like the brown color of finger paints that have been swirled together, some muddy mix of both. Carrey’s Mr. Pickles is not as antic or funny as Carrey’s hit movie characters, but he’s not quite a regular guy either: He’s a freakishly decent man, holding something volatile inside. (From a certain angle, Kidding might be the depressed, homemade version of The Mask, the story of a meek man with an assertive alter ego who has to try to integrate the two personas so one doesn’t completely blot the other out.)
Through the first two episodes, Kidding has the slightly whimsical but basically naturalistic vibe of an indie family drama. (It even features that mainstay of indie family dramas, Catherine Keener, playing Jeff’s sister, who makes the puppets for Mr. Pickles and who has been caught by surprise by her own unwelcome change, having to do with her beloved husband.) It’s shot through with the lo-fi cleverness of Michel Gondry, who worked with Carrey on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed the first two episodes of Kidding. Gondry clearly had a wonderful time designing Mr. Pickles’ puppets—which include a talking French baguette and a space otter— and the hand-cut paper credits.
But as the show goes on (only four episodes were sent to critics), it’s clear someone, somewhere, worried that the show needed stakes. Sebastian is sure that Jeff’s going to do something to undermine the franchise. Jeff is a little unhinged—he shaves a stripe off his head, he tears a heart puppet right out of his chest—but he is so fundamentally decent that he doesn’t seem irretrievable: After shaving that stripe in his hair, he goes to the children’s cancer wing he’s funded and cheers up a little boy with a similar post-op haircut. His idea that an episode about grief would help kids seems perfectly sound. (Both Mr. Rogers and Big Bird have taught kids about death in landmark episodes, for example.)
But Sebastian, fixated on the financial health of the Mr. Pickles empire, sees disaster. He recruits Deirdre to accustom audiences to a Mr. Pickles without Mr. Pickles, whether that means creating an animated show using the voice of an erotic puppeteer or putting an ice-skating Tara Lipinski in a Jeff costume—whatever. When the series turns to Sebastian, a cold and implausible father, and his plotting, it feels as though Kidding is not quite confident that its two elegiac central questions—how to be sad and how to be good—are interesting enough. If the show could make itself comfortable with Mr. Pickles’ gloom, they could be.
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