Image: Showtime

What if Fred Rogers wrestled with grief and rage when he wasn’t calmly charming millions of children on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? What if Michel Gondry, the mastermind of brain-twisting music videos from the likes of Björk and Daft Punk and director of one of the best movies of this millennium, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, made something utterly grounded in reality? And who are we, really, anyway?

These are a few of the questions posed in the first four episodes of Kidding, Showtime’s new half-hour series created by Dave Holstein (whose previous credits include I’m Dying Up Here and Weeds) and executive-produced by Gondry, who also directed the first two episodes. The press materials deem Kidding a “comedy,” but the actual execution tells a different story. It’s generally dry, often quite serious, and intensely philosophical about the nature of identity. Granted, even when they don’t ponder it openly, all shows are inherently about identity—to portray a character is to stretch, contort, obscure, and play with the very concept. Prestige TV’s predilection for antiheroes, though, means the past 20 years have presented us with a rash of characters intended to contain multitudes and wriggle out of clear-cut designations, like those of good and bad. Who they are is as important (and subject to change) as what they do.

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Few shows are as overt about interrogating this notion as is Kidding. This is the kind of show whose fourth episode opens with two extras discussing Sartre. What most impressed me about Kidding is how ingeniously it has been devised to illustrate the inherent conflict between societal conformity and authentic, individual existence. Jim Carrey plays Jeff Piccirillo, the revered children’s television host known to PBS viewers as “Jeff Pickles,” whose squeaky clean, affirming persona is clearly meant to invoke Mr. Rogers (we even briefly see Jeff speaking at a senate hearing, just like Rogers did). The veneer of perfection is a burden, of course, as he’s foremost a human—grief over his dead son often boils to rage (objects wind up smashed in his wake, but as if to protect viewers from the extent of Jeff’s pathos, we never see the actual smashing of mirrors and mailboxes, just the aftermath). Or maybe being a flawed human, unable to skate by on the platitudes he’s made a career of espousing, is the actual burden.

Jeff’s predicament is explicated by his father, Seb, who produces Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time with an iron fist. He reminds his son of his distinct duality early in the first episode: “You need to understand something, there’s two of you: there’s Mr. Pickles, the $112 million licensing industry of edutaining toys, DVDs, and books that keep the lights on in this little charity of ours. And then there’s Jeff, a separated husband and grieving father who needs to hammer out a few dents in his psyche. And trust me, never the two should meet in order to prevent the destruction of them both.”

We watch Seb attempt to keep the two apart (and, failing that, devising a plan to replace the increasingly uncontrollable Jeff with a larger-than-lifesize puppet rendering of him), and Jeff struggle to keep it together. His television persona is a gift that allows him to change lives, while it stifles his own. After forcing his son to arrange a date with a woman who wrote him a fan letter, Jeff frets over how people will perceive seeing Mr. Pickles in a restaurant opposite a woman, doing a human thing in the human world. “The general populace doesn’t see you as a sexual being,” his father tells him. “We see eyes, we see ears, we see a nose, but there’s nothing between the legs. We see Mr. Potato Head. No one sees a man.” It’s a hell of a position to be in, and it gives Jeff a mission: he has to break out of the box he’s been placed in by an adoring public that only sees him in one dimension.

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You see how it’s all devised to be “interesting”—his date ends up being a former drug addict/sex worker who was inspired to change her lifestyle via the gentle affirmations of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time. She contains her own multitudes, informing him as they dine that once she rid herself of her old habits, “There I was, the total absence of myself was myself.” Jeff’s surviving teenage son, Will, talks about only being seen as his dead twin brother, Phil, when people look at him. Jeff’s sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener), who makes the puppets featured on her brother’s show, is realizing that her husband is living a double life (and is, in a way, living her own double life by acknowledging this but refusing to come to terms with it). And there are a whole lot of puppets—little identity scramblers you wear on your hands.

Playing a character who feels so constricted (he lashes out in the second episode by shaving a stripe of stubble across his head with clippers) requires a great deal of range, and this is the kind of role that seems tailored for Carrey to show off his silliness, seriousness, and seething. But range here turns out to be as oppressive as it is impressive. There’s so much going on tonally that it’s hard to feel committed at all as a viewer. The quirk factor is so high, the show at times feels like a rainbow that just shot out of Miranda July’s butt—there’s a small child (Deirdre’s daughter) who starts screaming intermittently one episode with her hands over her head in response to minor trauma, a pair of puppeteers who operate a giant puppet and fuck inside of it at one point, an argument over the gender fluidity of a human-sized puppet character named Astronotter (literally an otter astronaut), a young teen who smokes weed out of a pineapple, a puppet with plastic slinky hair named Soap Scum.

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Carrey’s performance is great, and that of Judy Grier, who plays Jim’s estranged wife Jill, is almost as captivating for being a study in shades of frustration. And it’s always great to see Keener, though she’s called on to do little more here than play another wry Keener character (with a twist of detectable ennui). Everything here is at least competent, but there’s a pervasive soullessness that results from the show’s overarching exercise in identity. Kidding is a comedy that isn’t particularly funny, a drama that isn’t particularly wrenching, and a character study that isn’t particularly satisfying, at least not in the first four episodes that were provided to journalists ahead of the show’s Sunday premiere. Of course, part of the point here is that nothing is just one thing, but anyone who’s been paying attention to pop culture in the past 20 years has gotten this message loud and clear. Within that landscape, Kidding isn’t adding much to the conversation and asking many of the same questions. Within its own multitudes, Kidding is one thing a show featuring Carrey, Grier, Keener, the mind of Gondry, and a pile of puppets should never be: tedious.


Kidding premieres on Showtime September 9.