Jim Carrey Tackles Grief With a Smile in Showtime Dramedy ‘Kidding’

It is indeed a cruel world, and some people cope with it feigning joy at every turn. Showtime’s new dramedy “Kidding” is about a man who walks and talks like a subdued volcano, hiding behind a mask of kindness while keeping boiling emotions at bay. The driving force of this show is an alluringly strange performance by Jim Carrey, who channels tenderness and rage with a fine balance.

Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, the host of a children’s show named “Mr. Pickels’ Puppet Time,” an obvious riff on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Jeff has spent a year now grappling with the sudden death of his son Phil in a car accident. Phil’s twin brother, Will (Cole Allen), survived the crash but chastises Jeff for being weak. You see, Jeff isn’t playing a Mr. Rogers-like persona on TV, he really is that guy. Every phrase, every sentence is uttered with an overwrought softness. When road ragers cuss at him, Jeff simply waves, smiles and keeps driving. The network running Jeff’s show is owned by his father, Sebastian (Frank Langella), who wishes his son could be more of a classic, masculine type when it comes to dealing with tragedy. When Jeff begins to insist that they do an episode about dealing with death, Sebastian grows more frustrated. Separated now from his wife Jill (Judy Greer), who is coping in her own way (dating a co-worker, getting a tattoo), Jeff moves into an apartment swarming with drunk college students. Yet he keeps his subdued, cheery façade…for now. When Sebastian agrees to the taping of the death episode and then cans it, the emotional bubble finally begins to burst. One violent tear at the sink and Jeff slowly begins to unravel.

The season premiere of “Kidding” revisits some of the terrain now familiar in the world of peak TV drama. The decay of American suburbia, the violence and sexual innuendo hiding beneath the façade of civility, all this is again explored. Puppet performers in Jeff’s show have sex behind the scenes, Will gets high near his brother’s grave with local stoners, and Jeff’s sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener), finds out her husband Scott (Bernard White), is having a gay affair with their neighbor. Here we have every item on the “American Beauty” suburban manual checked. The major difference is Carrey, who has crafted a persona that is both satirical and haunted.

Carrey takes the very idea of Fred Rogers and channels it into a portrait of quiet despair. Himself having recently experienced the tragic death of girlfriend Cathriona White, Carrey has recently been taking on roles both somber and introspective. Earlier this year, Carrey starred in the Polish thriller “Dark Crimes,” a film which was not successful but featured Carrey in a strong performance devoid of all humor. In “Kidding” he brings humor to the role, but it is subtle and based more on his surroundings. The set design of “Mr. Pickels’ Puppet Time” is a funny jab at the whole Fred Rogers aesthetic, including the puppets themselves, like “Soap Scum.” But Carrey evokes authentic pain underneath the smiles. He’s pitiful at times, taking people’s insults with a slouched friendliness. He finds Will plotting to put a buzzing bee hive in the back of Jill’s minivan and can barely bring himself to properly chastise the kid. Will calls him a “p—-y” and Jeff pathetically asks him not to swear. But when he finally hosts his episode on death and uses the metaphor of a beloved stuffed animal being put away in a box, Carrey’s Jeff delivers the moment with a voice that cracks in a way that must be pure honesty. There is real sorrow when the character describes the death of his son, saying before going into a song, “we put him in a box, and we buried him.”

The director here is Michel Gondry, who worked with Carrey in 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” one of the great films about the lasting scars of broken relationships. Gondry directs the pilot of “Kidding” with his trademark mixture of depth and quirk. The recycled humor about secret gay love affairs and sex in the office falls a bit flat, where the material delivers a stronger punch is when it goes oddball in a very dark way. A flashback to the car accident that killed Jeff’s son is scored to “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the bouncy musical number suddenly becomes unnerving. The opening scene of the pilot shows Jeff appearing on Conan O’Brien next to Danny Trejo, singing one of his feel good songs with a puppet guitar. The moment isn’t goofy, but funny with a mood that is ominous.

It’s hard to tell how audiences will respond to “Kidding.” It is not an unpleasant show at all, but it is not all sunshine. In a way it is very similar to Netflix’s animated “BoJack Horseman,” another show about a celebrity grappling with loneliness and hurtful memories. The heart of it all is Carrey, who seems to be choosing roles that are both rewarding and cathartic. Even if this isn’t “great” TV there is honesty in the way it bares its protagonist’s scars.

Kidding” season one premieres Sept. 9 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.