Jim Carrey makes a triumphant return to TV with “Kidding,” a Showtime series that reunites him with the director of one of his best movies, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The result is a sweet, melancholy, occasionally funny show that marks one of the new TV season’s early highlights.
Owing a thematic debt to Mr. Rogers, albeit with a more jaundiced view of things (including PBS), Carrey plays Jeff, the beloved star of a children’s program known as “Mr. Pickles Puppet Time.” He’s introduced appearing on Conan O’Brien’s show, where his cultural footprint is quickly established as the entire audience happily sings along with his signature tune.
Still, in true “tears of a clown” fashion, Jeff is also nursing wounds from an enormous personal loss, one that has left him immersed in grief, estranged from his wife (Judy Greer) and struggling with how to move on.
That anguish risks derailing the “Mr. Pickles” gravy train, a point that’s stressed to Jeff — repeatedly — by his producer Seb (Frank Langella, terrific even by his standards), who dryly describes the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic at play by telling his star, “Jeff needs to heal. Mr. Pickles is fine.”
Directed by Michel Gondry, and created by Dave Holstein, the early episodes of “Kidding” mix a darkly comic streak with genuine angst, flashes of absurdity with potent drama. Surrounded by actors like Langella and Catherine Keener as Deirdre, the show’s head puppet maker (with a few issues of her own), Carrey deftly conveys the contradictions that Jeff entails, putting on one face for the world — along with a vest and tie — while laboring to hide the turmoil within.
The basic premise certainly doesn’t break any new ground, but landing Carrey for this vehicle — with whom Showtime had already forged ties as the producer of its standup-comedy drama “I’m Dying Up Here” — still feels like a coup. (Carrey appeared on Fox’s “In Living Color,” but hasn’t been a series regular in more than 20 years.)
Even during the height of his movie career, Carrey was always a better actor than his comedic wild-man routine would suggest, as demonstrated by films like “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine.” To the extent that “Kidding” creates an opportunity to indulge both of those halves — to wear both the comedy and tragedy masks — it’s a nifty wedding of talent and material
As with any new series, there are a few caution flags in the early episodes, but enough of the key building blocks work that it’s clear “Kidding” isn’t just kidding around. In the process, Mr. Pickles and his puppet pals — or rather, Mr. Carrey and his collaborators — have moved Showtime into what feels like a very classy neighborhood.
“Kidding” premieres Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.