Kidding is weird. It's tough to know what to make of it.
This is not a complaint.
The premise — a beloved, earnest, Mister Rogers-like host of a children's show finds himself plunged into a deep, dark emotional crisis — seems like a set-up for cheap parody, for taking cynical pot-shots at, well, a lot of things: kids' shows; earnestness; serene public facades that hide private chaos and cruelty.
Kidding takes some of those pot-shots. More than a few. But you can tell, sort of, that its heart isn't in them.
You may not be able to tell this right away; I sure couldn't. The series seems determined to keep viewers off-balance with frequent, whiplash-inducing tonal shifts from light to dark and back again. Normally, in such situations, we'd look to the show's central performance to anchor us. But Jim Carrey's Mr. Pickles, host/puppeteer of a long-running public television children's show, has come unmoored himself. So he's no help.
Carrey is a kind of quiet revelation here. He's made a career of broad, rubber-faced mimicry, and even his most grounded performances come tinged with a pang of neediness, a hunger for our attention, and an ache to be loved. The character of Jeff Pickles seems, at a first, a naked expression of that need for approval, especially in his interactions with his estranged wife (the Woefully Underused Judy GreerTM.)
In this role, an actor known for contorting his features wears a blank, affectless expression. Where once he lunged after every joke, here he remains still, rarely speaking above a murmur. His eyes stay dark and unblinking, fixed on the person before him, yet vacant. Carrey's face is more lined than we remember, but he wears his hair in a long pageboy that seems a parody of youth. The end result is oddly and stubbornly inscrutable — a man serene on the surface but increasingly capable of shocking outbursts.
Wisely, the series surrounds him with audience proxies — people who sincerely care for him, but who are just as confused by him as we are. That turns out to be important.
The show's producer Seb (Frank Langella) at first seems to slot neatly into the familiar gruff-but-lovable boss archetype — The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Lou Grant mixed with The Larry Sanders Show's Artie, say — but Langella delivers his lines with an arch diffidence. He's given some great, filthy dialogue that other actors might tear into, but his line readings are muted, reserved, almost .. reluctant.
Catherine Keener (man, this cast!) plays Deirdre, creator of the show-within-a-show's puppet characters, who navigates some choppy marital/parental waters of her own even as her concern for Jeff's well-being increases.
There's also Jeff's young son Will (Cole Allen) who seems at first a surly, thoroughly repellent kid of the sort that has come to saturate prestige television in recent years, but even he is granted the opportunity to deepen, and complicate, and surprise.
One of the show's recurring themes — often expressed in the cold opens at the top of each episode — is how universally beloved Mr. Pickles has become in the world of the series. We watch his influence rippling through the world, inspiring viewers to change their lives, to make smarter choices, to become better people. We see this manifest in different ways, again and again, and we keep waiting for the show to unleash the take-down, the rug-pull, the sardonic "gotcha!" It never, or at least rarely, comes; Kidding posits Mr. Pickles' quietly messianic affect on the world sincerely, so that the contrast between his public beatitude and private hell emerges all the more acutely.
Showtime made only the first four episodes of Kidding available to press, which turns out not to be quite enough to develop a clear fix on who these characters are, or where they might be headed. That critical uncertainty is the inevitable by-product of the show's propensity for whip-sawing between the most extreme reaches of the emotional spectrum, often within individual scenes.
What is achingly clear from the very outset, however, is just how great this thing is to look at. The first two episodes are directed by Michel Gondry, and thus represent an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reunion of actor and director. Gondry's trademark visual inventiveness is all over the series, but carefully couched so as not to disrupt or distract.
Under the eye of Gondry and production designer Maxwell Orgell, the puppets and sets of Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time become fascinatingly baroque creations that unsettle, then delight, then unsettle again. There's a handmade quality to the details of that world — as when we watch the children's show's construction-paper special effects at work.
There's another remarkable set piece that takes place in the real world, a long and fluid tracking shot involving Carrey's Mr. Pickles as he spies on his wife and son. It's an unshowy yet magical sequence, in a deliberately low-fi way.
So no, four episodes in, I can't draw a bead on where Kidding is headed. If it were a more consistently caustic series, I'd expect Jeff Pickles' breakdown to accelerate and end dramatically, even violently. But the show's darkness is always undercut by moments of humor, or wonder (the former prove more effective than the latter).
I suspect it might end badly for everyone involved. I expect it might. But as the credits rolled on episode four, I found myself sincerely hoping it won't. And eagerly awaiting episode 5.
Kidding premieres Sunday, September 9th, on Showtime.