The Showtime series Kidding, created by Dave Holstein (Weeds), is about the faces we present to the world and the many layers of human underneath. Jim Carrey plays Jeff Piccirillo, and Piccirillo plays Jeff Pickles, the host of a wildly popular children’s television show in the vein of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where he shepherds his mostly young viewers through the lessons and trials of growing up. Jeff’s Mr. Pickles character is not a major stretch for him. His gentle wisdom and nurturing disposition aren’t a façade timed to the rolling cameras. Jeff genuinely embraces life with a belief in the inherent goodness of people and an eye toward the effervescent kindness enduringly present in the world.
Jeff’s rose-colored outlook begins to dim, though, when a random accident takes the life of one of his children. In the aftermath of this devastating loss, Jeff’s wife, Jill (Judy Greer), leaves him; his surviving son, Will (Cole Allen), becomes increasingly distant; and Jeff himself struggles to meet the cameras with the unfailing saccharine buoyancy expected of the Mr. Pickles brand.
“Welcome to the exciting world of internal conflict,” as Frank Langella’s character announces in episode four. Langella plays Seb, Jeff’s father, who also happens to be the executive producer of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time. Seb isn’t necessarily torn by matters of conscience when deciding how to both care for his bereaved son and protect his multimillion-dollar marque. For Seb, market solutions are the best solutions: Exchange real-life Jeff for animated Jeffs — cartoons and puppets — and suddenly changeable, traumatized Jeff is unchangeable and inviolable, a rock-solid investment, a perpetually profitable entity.
Seb’s gruff utilitarianism plays the foil to the moral dilemmas that mire everyone else. He enlists his daughter, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), the puppeteer behind Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, to build him a life-size Jeff made of felt and plaster to replace the fickle flesh-and-bone version. Seb argues that it’s in everyone’s best interest to provide audiences with a reliable, stable product and to allow Jeff the time to heal by relieving him of his obligations to the show. But Deirdre believes Seb’s calculus doesn’t take into account the possibility that being Mr. Pickles may be the only thing keeping Jeff alive, that the face he presents to the world is the one thing that can save the man underneath.
A similar conundrum plagues Deirdre in her home life, where she painfully tries to ignore her husband’s infidelities in order to preserve an intact family for her young daughter. Do she and her husband lose more by keeping the family together and lying to themselves or by being honest and letting the marriage go? Even the puppeteer herself can’t decide which strings to pull.
Jeff plays the puppet to two masters: one his career as Mr. Pickles, the other his grief. And neither master can be trusted. As an actor, Carrey is most at home playing characters not at home with themselves. From the comic possessions of The Mask, Liar Liar, and Me, Myself & Irene to his dramatic turns in The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Man on the Moon, Carrey is a vessel for a man at war with himself, for a psyche under siege.
Here, he again teams with Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine. Their last mind-bending collaboration imagined literally hunting down individuals lodged in one character’s consciousness and extracting them piece by piece to free the character of their influence. In Kidding, the boundaries of relationship are again central to Carrey and Gondry’s work: Whom do we allow to pull the strings in our life? Can we even trust ourselves with such a responsibility?
Like nearly all of Carrey’s dramatic work, Kidding promises a revelatory interrogation into the limits of control without shortchanging viewers on laughter and tears along the way.