That Jim Carrey would reunite with his “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director Michel Gondry was one of the more exciting bulletins from the now-arriving fall television season. Anything connected to Gondry interests me – from his early French music videos to his Instagram account – and Carrey, though he has made occasional appearances on the small screen, has not done a TV series since “In Living Color” went off the air almost a quarter century ago.
“Kidding,” which premieres Sunday on Showtime, is the place fixed for their meeting. Created by Dave Holstein (a writer on “Weeds” and “Raising Hope”), with Gondry the director of its first two episodes (and possibly more; four were available for review), it is almost inevitably an odd show, though perhaps not always in ways it means to be. I found it interesting and frustrating by turns, but worth recommending on the strength of its cast and its best scenes.
Carrey plays Jeff Piccirillo, host of “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time,” a long-running and beloved public television children’s show that bears a distinct, clearly intentional resemblance to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” though the puppets are bigger and better, and Jeff is the only human in sight. Gondry’s touch is apparent in the design of the show within the show, as well as the opening credits, which change from episode to episode and are reminiscent of the cut-paper and Sharpie animations the director posts on his Instagram feed.
America has grown up on Mr. Pickles as a supplemental or surrogate parent; they know his songs by heart. In one episode’s cute cold open, thieves steal his car, break it down for parts and, discovering it belongs to Mr. Pickles — his talking ukulele puppet, Ukularry (spelling approximate), is in the trunk — put it back together and return it to its parking spot.
With his measured way of talking, as if he were dishing out words by the teaspoon, and his nerdish style of dress, he is a Fred Rogers type, but (if you can imagine it) less worldly. That Carrey himself has, at 58, the face of an aged child, framed here by a haircut flown in from the less stylish years of the 1970s, makes Jeff seem all the stranger, in ways that are not always easy to parse.
Jeff is not quite recovering from the accidental death of one of his twin sons a year before. That event has opened a space between his public and private selves – between a person compelled to care for strangers (not merely children) and someone in poor command of his own life.
He’s unhappily separated from his wife, Jill (Judy Greer), and seeing less than he would like of their surviving son Will (Cole Allen) — though enough for Will, who finds him heavy going. “Do you always need to talk to people like they’re 4 years old?” he asks his father.
Jeff is also in conflict with his producer, Seb (Frank Langella), over his desire to address death on “Puppet Time.” Though “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “Sesame Street” have tackled the subject and survived, for Seb — who is also (mild spoiler) Jeff’s father — any messing with the product is foolhardy and forbidden: “You don’t put the Pope in a Speedo,” he says. He’s Mike Love to Jeff’s Brian Wilson, you know what I’m saying, Beach Boys fans.
“You need to understand something,” Seb tells Jeff. “There’s two of you; there’s Mr. Pickles, the $112-million licensing industry of edu-taining toys, DVDs and books that keeps 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 never the two should meet to prevent the destruction of them both.”
But in fact, it’s hard to tell where Jeff Piccirillo ends and Mr. Pickles begins, or whether Jeff was a substantially or even a slightly different person before the accident — that is, a sort of normal, adult person who can carry on an entire normal conversation without his inner child smearing raspberry jam and glitter all over it.
Jeff’s goodness is impractical and compulsive; perhaps he is meant to be a little like Prince Myshkin, the saintly main character in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” Waffling between needy confusion and a calm certitude, he is wise about some things and a dope about others, sensitive and also overly sensitive. (Fist-bumping someone who works on “Puppet Time,” he says, “I always feel like I’m hitting you when I do that.”)
He has a horror of “bad words,” but watches violent movies in the loneliness of his barely furnished studio apartment. There’s no reason a character can’t be complicated like that, but the effect here is more inconsistent than complex.
“Kidding” has elements too of “sad life in the suburbs” narratives in which the grown-ups lie to themselves and each other and mourn what they’ve lost, while their kids, looking ahead, try to make a life. These stories usually do better by the younger generation, and this is no different. Will falls in with a small tribe of slightly older, lackadaisically delinquent kids he finds smoking pot on his brother’s grave, and as familiar as their scenes are, they feel true. And the show’s young actors are all very fine.
That includes Maddy (Juliet Morris), the daughter of Jeff’s sister Deirdre (Catherine Keener), who fabricates his puppets and is the closest thing in his life to an ally. Maddy is refusing to eat vegetables and is being punished by not being allowed to bathe. Later she will emit brief, high-pitched screams. There is a psychological mystery behind this war of wills that will productively fill out Deirdre’s own story line.
In sum: I don’t know yet. There’s much in “Kidding” that merits hanging around for. And nothing is perfect. I hope that’s helpful.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd