For all the reasons separating “Kidding” from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — and there are many — the two are inextricably linked by a pair of key creative entities… and their willingness to explore the value of deep, piercing, unbearable pain. Jim Carrey and director Michel Gondry’s latest collaboration focuses on the loss of a child, told primarily from the perspective of a man who values children more than most. That’s not far off from their Oscar-winning 2004 film’s look at a romantic’s frenzied pursuit of memories he’d chosen to erase; like all bad break-ups, it sure feels like pieces of Carrey’s lovelorn lead are dying off.
Stretching out that examination to series-length can prove taxing, but “Kidding” offers a lot of upside for those willing to listen. Carrey’s committed turn as Jeff Pickles, a children’s television host whose son recently died, is immediately convincing and endearing. Gondry crafts dueling universes in Jeff’s vivid TV playground and stark real-life existence, while series creator Dave Holstein delivers sharp commentary on corrupted innocence and toxic cynicism. The half-hour non-comedy is fixated on death enough to make even the most morbid fan uncomfortable, but through four episodes, it shows signs of a lighter, broader scope and is buoyed by unrelenting optimism.
“Kidding” opens on the set of “Conan,” with the TBS host himself being prepped to interview Mr. Pickles. Through a concise bit of exposition, it’s clear Jeff’s character is a beloved public figure and has been for a long time. He takes the stage, answers a quick question, and then pulls out Uku-Larry, a ukulele with eyes and arms that Jeff uses to play a song the entire audience (and fellow guest Danny Trejo) knows by heart.
Erica Parise / Showtime
Though this isn’t his own show, it’s clear “Conan’s” TV world isn’t far removed from Jeff’s idealized version of life. The lights are bright, the people are polite, and everything is relatively clean. All it takes to unite the masses is a funny puppet singing a song. But Jeff’s reality is far removed from Mr. Pickles’, no matter how hard he tries to blend the two together.
Walking into his apartment complex, Jeff sees a homeless man asleep with green beer bottles nestled around him and once inside, he bumps into his drunk neighbor with the same 40s taped to her hands. Jeff sits inside, alone, and the cast shadows on his face signify the contrast between the world he wants and the world he lives in; Gondry’s lighting paints everything with a dark, insipid green, as if the people drinking aren’t the only ones sick from too much booze.
The aesthetic applies outside of Jeff’s perspective as well. His estranged wife, Jill (Judy Greer, finally given a role worthy of her talents), is much more than a mourning mom in the corner; she’s bearing the brunt of their other son’s wrath, trying to move forward by acknowledging her loss, and pushing herself in adventurous new directions Jeff wouldn’t dream of pursuing.
Jill could still be fleshed out a bit more when she’s on her own, but there’s promise there, and the same can be said for Catherine Keener’s Deirdre. As the lead puppeteer and puppet maker on “Mr. Pickles Puppet Time,” Deirdre isn’t only concerned with her co-worker: She’s got her own kid to worry about, her own budding career to work on, and her own muddled marriage to clear up.
Erica Parise / Showtime
There are more issues of legacy and pain to be mined from the supporting cast (including Frank Langella’s boss figure, who’s often treated as a business-minded businessman who only does business), but there’s also a whole lot of pain being dealt with already. Jeff wants to acknowledge his son’s death through the show — “I want to do a show about death,” he tells his producer, which goes over about as well as you can imagine — but he refuses to consider the obvious downside of losing his son. Part of him continues forward as if nothing has changed while the other part convinces himself something good must come out of all this.
“Kidding” aspires to honor the difficult emotions associated with loss while balancing out its story with a positive attitude. Jeff’s belief in human nature isn’t a joke; his sincerity is treated with genuine respect and it’s often seen as the solution instead of the problem. After the worst happens, how he can continue living his trademarked inspiring lifestyle without losing his marbles is an intriguing challenge for anyone who wants to move past cynicism as the accepted cultural discourse: If Jeff can’t do it, what hope do we mortals have?
As Jeff, Carrey is terrific. Outbursts of his big, boisterous self — the version originating in “Ace Ventura” and “Liar Liar” — are kept to a minimum; a useful tool to exhibit how much Jeff is is repressing. But Carrey finds more nuanced ways to convey his disrupted serenity. Disappointment and worry flash across his face like cars on a race track — just when you think they’re gone, they zip by again until the blur becomes permanent. Carrey has always been able to evoke melancholy when called for, and heaps of it are demanded here. What’s more impressive is how convincing he remains when earnestly advising his audience or standing up to his producer.
Dave Holstein’s don’t-call-it-a-comedy isn’t “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” For one, Gondry doesn’t direct the whole season, and for another, it’s yet to be proven this kind of sustained grieving can consistently find meaning in the misery while progressing toward a discernible goal. (It takes “Kidding” a few episodes to solidify a real-world problem to overcome instead of emotional issues best sorted out in therapy.) “Eternal Sunshine” conveyed its message in less than two hours. “Kidding” is trying to do it in five, at least twice over. Near the end of the pilot, Jeff’s producer tells him, “You don’t force the audience to have a conversation they don’t want to have.” It’s as close as the series gets to a motto, and whether an audience shows up to hear Jim Carrey talk to kids about death every week will be an interesting test of his star power. But for now, Mr. Pickles is the adult Mr. Rogers viewers need.
“Kidding” premieres Sunday, September 9 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. The first episode will be available during Showtime’s free preview weekend from August 31 – September 3.