Jeff Pickles, the children’s television show host played by Jim Carrey in the new Showtime series Kidding, is not Fred Rogers, the beloved American icon responsible for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But the two share a few things in common.
They both bring a calming sense of comfort to children everywhere via their television shows. Both are viewed as beacons of goodness by the general public, including adults who grew up watching them on television. As made clear by a scene in the first episode of Kidding, which airs Sunday night, Jeff Pickles, like Fred Rogers, has testified before Congress, as illustrated by footage that looks remarkably similar to Rogers’s famous 1969 appearance before a Senate subcommittee. The difference is that while Jeff provides his testimony, back home, his wife Jill (Judy Greer) and their twin boys are about to get into a car accident that results in the death of one of those sons.
That incident highlights the fundamental difference between Jeff Pickles and Fred Rogers, and the underlying question raised by this uneven series, created by Dave Holstein of Weeds and the Carrey-produced I’m Dying Up Here: What happens when the equivalent of Mr. Rogers suffers from profound grief?
What happens is that you get another post-comedy comedy, which means Kidding is melancholy more often than laugh-out-loud funny, and well-acted even if some of its character development is lacking. More than anything else, it’s a showcase for Carrey, who returns to television in a regular role for the first time since In Living Color, no doubt lured by the prospect of bringing to life yet another off-kilter protagonist. (Jim Carrey playing someone who’s a little odd? Never!) To his credit, he keeps Jeff firmly tethered to the ground in an understated performance that conveys childlike gentleness, but at times also comes across as just the tiniest bit unsettling. That seems right, somehow; there’s something a little disturbing about a middle-aged man who still can’t figure out how to look at the world through entirely seasoned eyes. (That’s another way that Jeff Pickles differs from Fred Rogers: Nobody ever doubted that Mr. Rogers was a grown-up.)
When Kidding begins, it’s been a year to the day since Jeff and Jill’s son was killed in that accident, which was caused by a faulty traffic light and a snack-cake truck driver who ran through an intersection. Separated from Jill and still trying to help raise their surviving son Will (Cole Allen), Jeff is fraying at the edges. For starters, he’s intent on discussing Phil’s demise during his show, Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time — “I want to do a show about death,” he announces — an idea that his producer Seb (Frank Langella) thinks is absolutely terrible. He’s also a bit unpredictable. At one point, Jeff shaves part of his head so that there’s an empty landing strip right in the middle of his pageboy haircut. “You look like Lee Harvey Oswald’s creative younger brother,” observes Seb, who’s worried that his star’s psychological collapse will mean the financial collapse of the lucrative ancillary merchandise machine generated by Mr. Pickles.
Seb isn’t the only one who’s worried. Jeff’s head puppet maker, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), is concerned about him — that is, when she’s not distracted by her own problems, including a husband (Bernard White) who’s unfaithful, and a daughter (Juliet Morris) struggling with her own emotional issues. Keener is a natural at playing the part of a no-nonsense, slightly frazzled mother and colleague, and it’s clear that this side plot serves a purpose: It’s another way for Holstein and the show’s writers to demonstrate that Jeff isn’t the only person in denial about his family life. There’s also something darkly funny about a woman who devotes her days to making fuzzy puppets to entertain children, but has next to no patience for her own daughter. But at least in the first four episodes, the only ones made available for advance review, Kidding doesn’t depict Deirdre’s family life with anything more than surface sweep, even though the situations she’s confronting cry out for more depth.
As is customary in any non-children’s piece of pop culture about a kiddie show, Kidding highlights the depravity that lurks beneath the world of Mr. Pickles. Two guys who share the Snagglehorse costume routinely have sex in it; there’s more than one joke about how funky it smells underneath all that blue fuzz. Many of the more mature fans who write letters to Mr. Pickles are women who also send revealing photographs. “Why can’t you meet a new fuck friend?” Seb asks Jeff, while suggesting that perhaps one of those Pickle-loving ladies could take Jeff’s mind off of his sorrow. Most of these attempts at perverse humor seem a little too played out and Happytime Murders–ish for their own good.
Kidding is much better when it leans away from the crass and embraces a sense of odd whimsy. Michel Gondry, who directed Carrey in the sublimely bizarre Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, helms the first two episodes and he’s perfectly suited to a milieu that involves ukulele puppets named Uke-Larry, purple bumblebees, fluffy clouds that hang on strings, and a tone that hopscotches from sweet to slightly subversive. When the house next to his former home, still occupied by Jill and Will, goes on the market, Jeff buys it in a very sly nod to Mr. Rogers: Instead of, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” it’s, “I’m going to be your neighbor whether you like it or not.” Gondry has fun capturing the close proximity between these not-quite-identical suburban dwellings, particularly in one scene that tracks Jeff spying on Jill while moving up the stairs and down again, mirroring his estranged wife’s path through the house that they used to share. The writing also sharpens as the series progresses. When Jeff is introduced to the word neuroplasticity, he delights in the sound of it. “That’s a fun word to say,” he declares. “Neuroplasticity! Makes your mouth into a bouncy house.” Even the way Jeff expresses himself is steeped in the imagery of childhood.
Jeff is a true believer in the idea that the world is good. It’s unclear whether he’s bought too heavily into his fake persona, or if he’s just that much of an optimist at his core. But in the fourth episode, the best of the ones I’ve seen, Jill makes it clear that his naivete and the fact that she’s always played second fiddle to his perceived perfection is what really drove a wedge into their marriage, even before they lost their son. “You’re Santa,” she tells him. “And I’m Mrs. Claus.” It’s a shattering scene, played with all kinds of raw edges by Greer, who brings new dimension to the role of a practical, grounded wife, and Carrey, who’s just heartbreaking. That exchange tells me that Kidding has the potential to be great, even if it’s still finding its footing four episodes into its ten-episode debut season.
Unlike Jeff, the team behind Kidding doesn’t want to make a show about death. Not exactly, anyway. But the more it focuses on the messy aftermath of loss, and how that affects Jeff and Jill specifically, the more interested I am in seeing where it bounces next.