No laughing matter.
Kidding premieres Sunday, Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. on Showtime, but the premiere is available online now on Showtime’s website, YouTube and Facebook. Check out how the series conceived of its puppet show-within-a-show as part of our IGN First sneak peek. This review contains minor plot details for the series premiere.
There’s a deep cynicism underscoring “Green Means Go,” the first episode of Showtime’s Kidding, though it isn’t necessarily unwarranted. The first chapter re-teams director Michel Gondry with his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind star Jim Carrey for a show inspired, at least aesthetically, by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers, subject of the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, was an American icon who ushered entire generations into kindness, though as the doc goes on to detail, he had a temper behind the scenes. Carrey steps in as Mr. Pickles of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, a similarly-aimed PBS institution that’s been on air for decades, but Carrey’s Rogers-esque star feels suffocated by the spotlight. He exists in two worlds at once, on and off camera, as the show offers a haunting look at loss, kindness, and even anger in the age of social media; little happens in this first episode, but it’s gearing up for something special.
The show opens with Mr. Pickles as seen through the eyes of the audience. Not the child audience that tunes in to his show, but the curious adults who want to peer in on his life as he makes a naive guest appearance on Conan. A year removed from tragedy — the loss of one of his sons in a car accident — Pickles feels out of step with the world, especially his family. His wife’s name is Jill. His sons were named Will and Phil. His name… is Jeff.
Coming up on thirty years of public broadcast television, for which he’s had to maintain a kind face and a harmless aura, Jeff Piccirillo’s private life is a mess. He’s separated from his wife (Judy Greer), who keeps him at arm’s length. His rebellious, uncouth son Will (Cole Allen) thinks he’s “a pussy.” His money-minded producer Seb (Frank Langella) won’t let him process his grief on the air, and Jeff is hardly adept at doing so on his own. He attempts to walk through life with the same sunny disposition as his on-screen counterpart, but there’s an unseen rage to Jeff Piccirillo that he can’t seem to deal with.
Shattered mirrors and broken mailboxes can be found in Jeff’s vicinity; he’s most definitely the one who broke them, but we, the audience, are never allowed to see these vulnerable moments, or rather, any moments he doesn’t want us to. Gondry, by design, keeps us at a distance from Jeff in his private life, as if we were only allowed to scroll through his Twitter feed, though the kindly Mr. Pickles and his overlap with Jeff Piccirillo feature frequently in scenes of dialogue.
Is Jeff really the kind face he puts on? Probably. His mission is to talk to kids on air, but when the cameras stop rolling, he allows himself to be a little more personable, a little more vulnerable on set, though not enough to feel fully human. Away from the studio, whether at home or walking the neighborhood with his son, he tries to connect on a one-to-one basis rather than to a broad audience of four-year-olds, but something feels amiss. Much as he might try the further he gets from the camera, he doesn’t seem to know how to process his grief; then again, his wife and son don’t seem to know either.
There isn’t much we see of Jill and Will just yet (at least in private), a pointed narrative choice as Jeff seems to have trouble looking past the surface of how they, and he, are dealing with Phil’s death. Elsewhere, Jeff’s head puppet maker Deirdre (Kathleen Keener) deals with the trials of parenthood in her own messed up way, depriving her daughter of hygiene until she eats her vegetables – obvious abuse that goes un-commented upon by the other adults, hinting at something of a surrealist streak in the show’s future. Deirdre’s connection to Jeff, and Jeff’s to Seb, is sure to be explored in future episodes, though the fact these specifics are left vague for most of the episode only adds to the distance Jeff feels from everyone around him. Carrey is adept at playing quietly isolated, and Jeff Pickles feels like a role he was born for; a constant performer, Carrey slips effortlessly into Jeff’s uncomfortable shoes, shuffling awkwardly between conversations as he fights to maintain his shattering sense of self.
Jeff Pickles is a man trying to be kind — to himself, and to others — but that becomes all the more complicated when he’s tasked with being a brand (not unlike the identities we carve for ourselves on Twitter and Instagram). He’s constantly performing, even when he doesn’t want to. After all, he has a reputation to uphold. Even when he wants to wield his influence for good, pushing his producer to let him film an episode about death, the blockade he’s met with is ultimately for the good of his public persona. Which begs the question: how can one be kind, or feel sadness, or process any emotion at all, when forced to live under constant public scrutiny?