There are plenty of impressive elements within Showtime’s Kidding. The creator, Dave Holstein, previously worked on the hit Weeds. It stars the immensely talented Jim Carrey, who puts in a memorable (and perhaps awards-worthy) performance. The first two episodes are directed by Michel Gondry who, alongside Carrey, is also an executive producer. It prides itself on being a mixture of comedy and drama—a genre that’s all the rage these days. And each episode is only a half-hour, which feels like an actual blessing in a world of bloated cable shows. Frequently, Kidding uses all of this to its advantage to build a compelling series but sadly, it also spends too much time struggling to find its balance.
In Kidding, Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, the longtime host of a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood-esque show. Like Mr. Rogers, Jeff is a beloved figure — many who grew up with him now watch his show with their children. We meet Jeff on the one-year anniversary of his son’s death, a tragedy that’s understandably still running through Jeff’s veins. He’s since separated from his wife, Jill (Judy Greer, wonderful as always and getting a chance to show her range), but is going to great — not always healthy — lengths to remain close to her and his other son, Will (Cole Allen).
Jeff wants to do a show about death, much to the chagrin of his executive producer, Seb (Frank Langella). Jeff insists that the show would be helpful to children: “Kids know the sky is blue. They need to know what to do when it’s falling,” he explains. (For the record, I would 100% watch a children’s puppet show about death.) Really, it just makes Seb wary of Jeff’s continued involvement with the show because he wants the two sides — the man who is still grieving the loss of his son, and the edutainer who sings with puppets and teaches colors — to never meet.
So much of Kidding is about grief: Jeff’s ongoing narrative at the forefront of the series; Jill, who resembles more of a zombie than a person except when she lashes out; and Will, who shoves away his interest in magic in favor of smoking weed with the older kids and who, after losing his twin, laments that often people look at him and “see both of us.” Even the characters not actively responding to death are grieving in other ways, like Jeff’s sister (and puppeteer) Deirdre (Catherine Keener, another brilliant casting choice) who is learning truths about her husband and dealing with her daughter’s regressive behavior. A potential romantic interest spends a date recounting her sad background; Jeff spends some free time with cancer patients. It’s as if Jeff is followed by a rain cloud and everyone near him gets a little soaked, too. Every time I attempted to describe the basic plot, I felt like a huge downer. Kidding, by the way, is also a comedy.
There are some funny lines and interjected levity, and Gondry’s whimsical-as-ever directing helps to bring this out in the first two episodes — plus the puppets are adorable! — but it doesn’t seem to stick. Even some of the funnier moments, like the idea that Jeff only uses a flip phone or a few classroom scenes involving the younger cast, end up mostly feeling forced. Kidding is pretty successful when it wants to be a meditation on death and grieving but it tends to stumble when it leans the other way. Plus, to be fair, much of the show’s success is due to Carrey’s nature as a skilled performer — the series is certainly reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As Jeff, Carrey sometimes says more with a small smile or a long look than he does with his actual words. It’s fascinating to watch him act, embodying Jeff’s affability and naïveté, even if the characters — both Jeff and Mr. Pickles — don’t always work.
Jeff is kind, he’s childlike, he’s caring, and he’s a genuinely nice guy. This last quality, unfortunately enough, results in an episodes-long obnoxious obsession with the word “pussy” and, occasionally, the same boring conversations about being a “man” that grew tired decades ago. (“Women don’t want to see your crying face,” “I am a man. I am! Just a different kind.”) It’s disappointing to see within Kidding, a series that is trying to tell a different kind of story.
But it’s easy to see problems like that, or like Jill’s general undeveloped character, being better sorted out in future episodes. It’s harder to predict that Kidding will figure out the right balance for its tone. There have been a number of great, half-hour, dramatic comedies on Showtime (United States of Tara) and Starz (Vida) but those series found ways to make the humor seem more natural, more fitting with the stories they’re telling. Kidding’s approach is more overt and frequently confusing, as if spotting a brightly-colored puppet wandering amongst our real world.
‘Kidding’ premieres on Sunday, September 9th on Showtime.