The new season of “Kidding” is exactly the kind of Season 2 every show should strive for. Dave Holstein’s debut episodes offered an intriguing premise, imaginative storytelling, and strong performances (especially from star Jim Carrey), but the show’s morbid subject matter was overly emphasized by dark atmospherics and difficult tonal swings — a black comedy where the descriptor overloaded the genre. But in Season 2, beloved children’s show host Jeff Pickles (Carrey) is emerging from his grief trap, engaging with his feelings, and providing enough earnest entertainment to make his quest for happiness feel not only attainable, but already in action.
And still, “Kidding” doesn’t lose the distinctive traits that made it click in the first place. Mr. Pickles’ melancholic perspective remains, even as his surroundings brighten; puppets new and old fill the frames, earning a half-hour spotlight during an episode told within “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time”; Carrey remains at the top of his game, getting a much-needed haircut that doesn’t just show Jeff is willing to change, but the show is, too. What’s been honed this year is just the kind of tightening, tweaking, and trusting needed to make a good show great, and “Kidding” delivers on its ambitious potential in an excellent Season 2.
It also helps that creator Dave Holstein has a savvy plan to follow Season 1 finale’s jaw-dropping cliffhanger. After Peter (Justin Kirk) offers Jeff a joint, the fiercely anti-drug father politely declines, walks back to his car, and promptly drives through his separated wife’s new boyfriend. While viewers had seen Jeff snap before — tearing apart his office, among other outbursts — this was a step further. What does it mean that a man who preaches kindness, forgiveness, and family tried to murder another human being?
Season 2 doesn’t shy away from the question, nor does it let Jeff off the hook. To say more about what happens to the odd love triangle of Peter, Jeff, and Jill (Judy Greer) would spoil a unique yet honest intermingling of lucky breaks, hard choices, and emotional breakthroughs. But what Holstein does with the group works, as he somehow manages to stay true to each individual without drawing out the conflict too long or taking an easy way out.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pickles has problems at work, as well. His show is off the air for the first time in 30 years, the result of a sponsorship fallout from his Christmas Day speech about death, and Jeff chooses to split from his father, Seb (Frank Langella), to pursue a new, morally dicey means of helping children. In short, Jeff creates a doll of himself with a built-in, two-way communicator so kids can talk to him whenever they want and he can talk back. From Mr. Pickles’ innocent perspective, he’s just helping kids through difficult times, when they can’t talk to anyone else. But when parents start to realize the toy’s capabilities, plenty turn on Jeff, and he’s forced to confront the two sides of himself: the side that wants to give up his own identity for the sake of the kids, and the side that’s who he is when he’s not Mr. Pickles.
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Holstein teases out the conflict over 10 memorable and moving episodes. Each entry stands out with its own arcs, while building to a rich, surprising ending. Executive producer Michel Gondry returns to direct two episodes, including one set entirely within “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time” and another set on the open ocean. Jake Schreier and Kimberly Peirce add to the talented directing team, taking full advantage of a world filled gorgeous puppetry, set design, and tangible props. “Kidding” Season 2 spends more time sharing Jeff’s playful mentality with the audience, integrating the show-within-a-show in ways that make for more engaging emotional arcs and visually striking scenes. Watching Jim Carrey climb into a giant hand is a lovely, unforgettable image — as is Catherine Keener wielding an axe, but for different reasons. (Another bonus: Keener is given even more to do this year.)
Considering the challenging subject matter, the ambition, and the adjustments made between seasons, there’s a comparison to be made between what “Kidding” has done and what Damon Lindelof’s “The Leftovers” did in 2014-2015. The goals of “Kidding” aren’t as seismically profound and the changes are less drastic — a haircut with highlights doesn’t equate to introducing a brand new cast in a brand new city. Yet, just like critics did after seeing a few episodes of the refreshed “Leftovers,” I would strongly encourage anyone who tried to connect with “Kidding” last year to give it another shot now. Whatever you hoped to enjoy, be it Carrey’s enlivening comedic energy or the sincere lessons of children’s programming told from an adult’s perspective, it’s more accessible now.
What Holstein, Gondry, Carrey, and the “Kidding” gang have accomplished is bold without reaching, sweet without turning saccharine, and thoughtful without getting pushy. Season 2 is lighter, yes, but only enough to let it fly.
“Kidding” Season 2 premieres Sunday, February 9, at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.