“You’re not a person. You’re a man in a box.” Jeff Pickles’s producer, Sebastian (Frank Langella), who is also his father, is delivering a frank diagnosis of his son’s celebrity. But an undeniable cornerstone of Kidding’s appeal is that he could easily be talking about either of the character’s component parts. Showtime’s latest half-hour is located directly at the cross section of two legends: that of Jim Carrey, the comic actor for whom Mr. Pickles represents the first regular TV role since In Living Color, and that of Fred Rogers, the children’s show host who serves as the obvious inspiration for Carrey’s protagonist.
It’s not tremendously difficult to draw a line between the two men, whose preternatural talents for connecting with others gave them tremendous success while putting them palpably out of step with the rest of humanity. But in a strange bit of timing, Kidding arrives toward the end of a year that’s seen full-length documentary treatments of both: first Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Chris Smith’s Netflix feature revisiting Carrey’s Method transformation into his idol Andy Kaufman, and then Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s unlikely hit codifying a legacy of radical kindness. Created by cable veteran Dave Holstein and directed, at least for its first two episodes, by Michel Gondry, Kidding has an impressive pedigree that’s nonetheless overshadowed by its supernova of a star. Several years ago, Holstein wrote a script about a children’s TV personality in crisis with Carrey in mind. Now that the finished product is upon us, it’s easy to see why Jeff is a perfect avatar for another nostalgia-laden figure marooned by his own cultural footprint.
My colleague Rob Harvilla describes the present-day Carrey who appears in Jim & Andy’s talking-head segments as “alluringly calm and frightfully intense,” both qualities he channels directly into his portrayal of Jeff Pickles. The film is, among other things, a cautionary tale in the side effects of extraordinary fame: the abhorrent behavior of Carrey’s past, in which Jim-as-Andy established himself as an unprofessional horror on set, but also the eerie idiosyncrasy of his present, in which Carrey remains convinced he was literally possessed by the spirit of Kaufman. The documentary is one of the most sustained and intimate portrayals of Carrey-the-man in years, yet it’s entirely consistent with the quirks on display in his more recent talk show appearances, let alone his Twitter feed. Carrey’s calling card these days isn’t exactly naivete, but it is a perceptible oddity that lends itself to Jeff’s.
Mr. Rogers never went to such public extremes. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? nonetheless makes clear there were certain trade-offs to being America’s sweater-clad conscience: for Rogers’s children, who had to share a parent with millions of their peers, and for Rogers himself, who appears noticeably out of sync with the adults around him. Kidding seizes on the uncanny contradiction of a Rogersesque entertainer — the soul of a child, in the body and circumstances of a grown man — and places Jeff Pickles against a very different backdrop. Rather than the postwar heyday of American public broadcasting, Jeff preaches his gospel of kindness and empathy in the ruthlessly capitalist landscape of 21st-century programming. And rather than a peaceful home life, we meet Jeff in the depths of a profound personal tragedy: one year before the events of the pilot, he lost one of his twin sons in a freak car accident.
“My family is shriveling up like a Polaroid in a puddle,” Jeff tells Sebastian, his voice a soulful whisper. “I need to pull it out before it falls apart.” It’s too late for that. Jeff’s surviving son, Will (Cole Allen), is acting out, smoking weed in a cemetery and stuffing bees into the trunk of his mom’s car. Jeff’s wife, Jill (Judy Greer), is really his soon-to-be-ex-wife, a fact Jeff is in denial about until he learns in the final moments of the pilot that she’s seeing someone else. It’s this discovery that finally unleashes some of the anger that Jeff is clearly holding just beneath the placid, patient surface.
This is, to put it mildly, a profoundly tragic role for a master of comedy to take on. But we’re long past the point of hand-wringing over whether comedies can be sad, or whether half-hour shows have to be comedies at all. Dave Holstein is an alumnus of Weeds, where Jenji Kohan prompted critics to put the ungainly portmanteau “dramedy” into heavy circulation. (Holstein also wrote on I’m Dying Up Here, the ’70s series that Carrey executive produces.) More than 10 years later, the Emmys have tied themselves into a pretzel trying to make an arbitrary distinction look rational, while series like The Girlfriend Experience, Vida, and the forthcoming Homecoming have left audiences more comfortable with the 30-minute drama.
Kidding has humor, but it’s the melancholy kind that feels true to the actual experience of grief, especially when it befalls someone whose existence seems so separate from the vagaries of adulthood. “Isn’t growing up funny and sweet?” Jeff sings to a rapt Conan audience in the opening scene, a line that doubles as a thesis statement for a good chunk of contemporary television, Kidding included. Almost all of the jokes come from juxtaposition. Jeff, trying with all his might to buy his own silver-lined bill of goods, responds to expletive-laden road rage with a cheery wave. With Langella’s soothing baritone, Sebastian certainly sounds like a Mr. Rogers type, but what he says sounds more like Mr. Burns. It’s he who forbids Jeff from discussing their family’s loss on air, his genuine concern for his son’s well-being (“Sometimes when we think we’re opening up, we’re actually falling apart”) mixing uncomfortably with his desire to protect “the $112 million licensing industry of edutaining toys, DVDs, and books that keep the lights on in this little charity of ours.”
Rather than the full-commitment slapstick Carry is known for, Jeff Pickles puts the actor’s comic talents to a different use: selling Jeff as every bit the beloved touchstone Carrey is in real life. An all-time great impressionist has little trouble slipping into the voice of an anthropomorphized instrument named UkeLarry, or crooning a lullaby that likens death to a lost stuffed animal. When the cameras are off, though, Jeff is an open wound. Carrey practically exudes raw feeling, and therefore raw pain; you can feel your tear ducts activate just looking at him. Kidding reunites Carrey with Gondry, and though the story requires less high-flying magical realism than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry ekes a similar vulnerability out of his lead. Jeff was already a man existing in a world that wasn’t made for him or his pure-hearted optimism. Now he’s living a life that isn’t, either.
At the end of Kidding’s pilot, the family ties between Jeff, Sebastian, and other characters are treated as something of a revelation. Along with Deirdre’s daughter, the fractured family unit meets in the spartan, Ohio State–adjacent studio where Jeff has opted to spend his renewed bachelorhood. Jeff rationalizes Phil’s death and folds it into his Panglossian worldview by telling himself it must have served a purpose — that the sweets truck collided with Jill’s minivan due to a malfunctioning traffic light for a reason. He’s staving off the inevitable, spirit-crushing revelation that sometimes bad things are both bad and pointless. But for now, he’s clinging to the only structure he’s got left. One gets the feeling that Jeff, and Kidding, are on the brink of something great and terrible.