The Return of One of 2018’s Great Joys
One of the most wonderful experiences of 2018 was Showtime’s delightful dramedy Kidding. Jim Carrey played Jeff Pickles, a host of a children’s show somewhere between Mr. Rogers and H.R. Puffenstuf, where Jeff’s indelible imagination had made him beloved by children and parents for 30 years. But behind the show, Jeff was in a world of pain. One of his twin son’s Phil had died in an auto accident six months before. He had separated from his wife Jill, and she was seeing an anesthesiologist from the hospital she worked at. His remaining son Will was starting to smoke pot. And his father Seb (Frank Langella) was doing everything in his power to keep all of his feelings at bay, while keeping his son’s ‘brand’ alive. It hardly comes as a shock that he finally snapped in the season finale, had a nervous breakdown while lighting the nation’s Christmas tree, and reacted to the knowledge that his wife’s boyfriend (Justin Kirk) had probably started his son on dope by running him over.
It may have taken more than a year for Season 2 to premiere, but the show takes up a mere minute later, with Jeff trying desperately to save the man he ran over, trying to cover the fact that he spent the last several months living in the house next to his wife without her knowing, and trying to rebuild things with his family at Christmas, all while trying to uphold the duty of Mr. Pickles. And as always, Jeff’s strict moral code — the one that he has been pushing children to live by for thirty years — is his undoing. Despite everything his beloved sister Deidre (Catherine Keener, a marvel to watch) tells him to avoid doing, he finds himself telling his wife what happened rather than try and keep everything he’s dreamed of.
Jim Carrey built his career in the 1980s and mid 1990s playing rubber-faced comics who expressed their hostility toward to the world with cartoonish antics, and then much of the following decade playing dramatic roles which tried to reign the madness in. Kidding is the first thing that I’ve ever seen him do where it exposes the rubber faced antics as the mask for a deeper level of pain and anguish. ‘To the outside world I’m cheerful, but inside I’m Mt. Saint Helen and its 1980” he said at one point last season. This is a man who in the opening minutes of Season 2 we saw get married by the Dalai Lama, mainly because he considered him an ideal, and in a way the series gives us a rare insight into just how truly agonizing it must to be a celebrity. It’s an extraordinary performance worthy of Emmy consideration.
But the entire show has a feel to it that is unlike anything even in the age of Peak TV. The world of Pickleboro Falls is filled with songs and puppets and surrealism that we can’t picture, which is even remarkable considering that the force behind it — Deidre — had been undergoing her own level of pain for even longer than Jeff has. (Her husband is gay, but refuses to accept it, and her daughter is going through a mess of psychological traumas). In the second episode of the seasons, Jeff undergoes surgery and ends up in a live-action version of his creation, and its one of the most unique experiences you’ll ever see in any format — musical, funny, painful, and leaves Jeff with the clear message of just what a monster his father has been to him all his life.
Yes, it’s not a show for children. By definition almost nothing on Showtime is. But Kidding is an utter rarity in the world of television. For all his flaws, Jeff is trying so hard to live up to the ideals he set for children and to be a role model, not only to his family, but to yours. (It’s telling that when Jill invites Jeff’s family to the hospital, they treat her with utter contempt, but remark how much they admire Jeff.) In a world where so many of the leads on TV pride themselves on being assholes, it’s moving to have a series where the central character doesn’t like it when other characters say that word. When Jeff breaks his own vow for the first time in the season premiere, there’s genuine hurt because he knows how badly his sinned. That’s awareness that Tony Soprano or Walter White or hell, Ray Donovan never had. If this is the brick that a post Homeland/Shameless Showtime wants to build off of, they could do a heck of a lot worse.
My score: 4.75 stars.