If you were a cognizant being in the '90s then you're familiar with the spastic comedy stylings of Jim Carrey. For me, a child of the decade with an older brother entering his teens at the time, Carrey wasn't just a popular actor in our household -- he was a god. My own adolescence was timed with Carrey's departure from physical comedy to measured sadness, beginning with The Truman Show in 1998. My first true heartbreak came just in time to appreciate Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, cementing the idea that sad Jim Carrey is in fact the best Jim Carrey. So it makes sense that I'm a little obsessed with Carrey's series regular return to television this fall on Showtime's Kidding.
Carrey stars in the half-hour dark dramedy as Jeff Pickles, a Mr. Rogers-type children's show host who's on the verge of a nervous breakdown after tragedy strikes his family a year prior to the beginning of the series. On one hand, Jeff's estranged wife Jill (Judy Greer) can barely stand to be in the same room with him as Jeff seems incapable of showing normal signs of grief. On the other, Jeff's father (Frank Langella) refuses to allow Jeff to process what's happened to him the only way Jeff knows how, through the show-within-the-show, in fear of losing the empire the Pickles family has built together. Caught between the two sides and suffocating from his own drive to do "the right thing," Jeff is a volcano slowly bubbling to eruption in the first four episodes screened for critics.
Dave Holstein (Weeds) created the series, which also reunites Carrey with Eternal Sunshine director Michel Gondry as executive producers. The show is a touching portrait of grief, levied by surreal moments as we journey through Jeff's deteriorating mental state. Puppets and semi-animated vignettes come to life to help illustrate Jeff's sometimes childlike mentality and gives the show a dream-like quality, like an adult version of the PBS shows we used to watch as kids. This element actually allows some of Carrey's physical genius to come through as well, uniting his two great talents of spastic comedy and depicting relatable heartbreak.
Carrey's strongest moments come as Jeff toes his breaking point. There are brief moments of rage under his exterior, illustrated by startling images of a shattered mailbox or a broken faucet. But we only see the result rather than actually seeing Carrey's rage. These shots are jarring, but so is the trauma that caused them. At times, Jeff veers into the menacing, at one point vaguely threatening a teenager he deems to be a bad influence on his son, but then immediately reverts back to the good-loving Jeff who hates curse words and only wants to fill the world with hope. Those moments, when he realizes he's made a trespass, show Jeff's own awareness of his mental frailty. It makes you question, is Jeff going to make it? I really hope Jeff makes it. The balance played in those scenes is a reminder that when Carrey is on his A-game, he's one of the best actors of his generation.
This is not a one-man-show, though. Greer is equally affecting as a mother trying to hold it together in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies imaginable for a parent. Catherine Keener is in her usual impeccable, biting form as Deidre, Jeff's sister and puppetmaster for the show, who is trying to save him from his impending implosion while her own personal life is falling into shambles. After four episodes it is Jeff's son Will (Cole Allen) who is the breakout star. The pre-teen is wrecked with guilt and his identity crisis is only inflamed by his parents' impending divorce. He falls in with a group of kids that give him an outlet for his pent up aggression, leading to nowhere good but Allen's calculated performance makes you want to follow anyway.
There's a cheap version of this premise that could have been, "What if your childhood emblem of goodness was actually an asshole?" but Kidding isn't trying to deconstruct heroes. Instead, it makes you wonder how someone who represents the best of us handles extreme personal tragedy. How do you continue to hold the world, and yourself, to such high standards when everything inside of you is falling apart? This is a story about a man who is suffering but continues to put those he loves ahead of himself. It's simultaneously tragic and inspiring. Showtime has something special with Kidding, and there's no reason to joke about that.
Kidding premieres Sunday, Sept. 9 at 10/9c on Showtime.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, Showtime's parent company)