Jeff Pickles (Jim Carrey) is a man paralyzed by grief in the new Showtime series “Kidding.”
His son, Philip, was killed in a car accident one year before the premiere episode kicks off, but Jeff’s job demands that he put a happy face on everything. That’s because he’s Mr. Pickles, the host of a hit PBS children’s show that has become a $112 million licensing industry for Jeff and his family — his executive producer father (Frank Langella) and his sister, Deirdre (Catherine Keener). In a typical TV problem pileup, Jeff is also separated from his wife Jill (Judy Greer) and disaffected from his surviving son, Will (Cole Allen). When Jeff can’t pull himself out of the pit of despair, dad contemplates substituting an animated version of Mr. Pickles. “Jeff needs to heal,” he says. “Mr. Pickles is fine.”
As subsequent episodes suggest, Jeff’s inability to reconcile his loss stems from job burnout. His reliance on the bromides and silly songs that his show sells to America’s children to get him through his dark night of the soul aren’t working. While Jill has started a new relationship, Jeff won’t embrace the life that is still there. He buys the house next door to the one he used to live in and rips out the kitchen faucet when he sees Jill embrace her boyfriend (Justin Kirk). Jeff’s idea of starting a new relationship is to sleep with a terminally ill woman.
“Kidding,” created by Dave Holstein and directed by Carrey collaborator Michel Dondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), rests entirely on Carrey’s shoulders. With a Prince Valiant haircut and a hangdog expression, he is the picture of aggressive isolation. Fans of his early films, or of his work in his previous series, “In Living Color,” will be disappointed if they expect to see the goofball of “Ace Ventura” or “Fire Marshall Bill” suddenly pop up; “Kidding” suggests that the Carrey of yore is long gone. Like Will Truman, the insurance salesman who discovered his life was a reality series in “The Truman Show,” Jeff is one of those guys trapped between the real and the pretend world. Carrey knows how to capture the pain and bewilderment of that predicament.
Aside from that, “Kidding,” like shows that start with the aftermath of a tragedy, parks viewers with a cast of damaged characters, each with weird problems. It wants your sympathy without exactly earning it. Deirdre, for instance, not only has a gay husband, but a kid that won’t bathe or eat vegetables. Why are we supposed to care about her? Attempts at humor don’t deliver the right contrast to the show’s “Poor Jeff” agenda. The worst gag involves a pair of “Mr. Pickles” cast members whose roles in wearing the front and rear ends of an animal costume give rise to a string of stinky sex jokes.
Dondry works in an abstract style with a minimum of narrative momentum, but sometimes the characters seem stranded from one another. That we’re all disconnected may be his message, but “Kidding” is going to have to give us more than Carrey’s sad-sack face to stick with the show — though it’s got some promise.
By Robert Rorke