REVIEW: ‘Kidding’ delicately balances Carrey’s talents, at least for now

“Kidding,” starring comedic actor Jim Carrey, premiered on Aug. 31. The show was renewed for a second season Wednesday. (Courtesy of IMDb)

At first glance, Showtime series “Kidding” serves as a comeback role for Jim Carrey, who’s starred in critically-panned and forgotten projects in recent years.

The show also marks Carrey’s second collaboration with Michel Gondry, who directed three episodes and serves as the show’s executive producer. Gondry’s involvement with “Kidding” speaks to its potential — his first collaboration with Carrey resulted in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” At the first season’s midpoint, however, it’s clear that it won’t recapture the magic of that film, despite being renewed for a second season Wednesday.

For 30 years, Jeff Piccirillo (Carrey) has played Mr. Pickles in the acclaimed PBS children’s program “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time.” However, when his son Phil dies in a truck accident, he starts to have trouble coping with reality. His ex-wife Jill (Judy Greer) leaves him, and he finds difficulty connecting with his son Will (Cole Allen). As a result of the trauma, his perception of these changes is warped and he views life as a sanitized version of a children’s show.

Mixing a “Mr. Rogers”-esque tone with heavy moral quandaries, “Kidding” raises questions about the staged nature of children’s shows and their tendencies to avoid dealing with pressures of reality. For example, in the show’s pilot, “Green Means Go,” Mr. Pickles talks about Phil’s death to a live audience of children by comparing it to accidentally putting your favorite stuffed animal in a donation box when moving to a new town. Much of the dialogue and themes are driven by a mix of tragedy and irony.

Piccirillo’s desire to teach children about mature topics are more than a projection of his distorted reality; his decisions for the show’s direction provoke discussions about the creative conflict between artistically-focused individuals and money-driven producers, a constant problem in Hollywood.

Piccirillo’s father, Sebastian (Frank Langella), is opposed to his son’s creative decisions, as he becomes more intent on franchising his son’s creation with “Pickles on Ice” and an animated rendition of the show. Even when it seems like Piccarillo is putting the show back on track in the fifth, “The New You,” with a song about clouds, Sebastian still requests the scene be reshot because Piccarillo was not wearing his wedding ring.

“We are losing control of him,” Sebastian tells his daughter and head puppet maker Deirdre (Catherine Keener). “We need versions of him we can control.”

Outside of these introspective themes, “Kidding” is also filled with incredible technical elements. Both the set and production design of “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time” are brimming with creativity — combining props, visual effects and variance in design and operation of the puppets.

However, the highlight of the season thus far is when a character named Shaina (Riki Lindhome) remodels her house in “Every Pain Needs a Name.” Despite showing her performing many tasks over a few days in the show, the entire scene was filmed in one take, further emphasizing the talent present in the cast and crew.

Unfortunately, what restricts “Kidding” from becoming an exceptional show is how staged it feels at times. In the fourth episode, “Bye, Mom,” Greer overflows with emotion in a long tirade during the episode’s last minutes, but it feels disingenuous. Viewers are often reminded that they are just watching a television show because while the characters are well-written, the connections between them feel inauthentic.

As a result, “Kidding” lacks a sense of empathy that would have greatly elevated it. Although there are no glaring flaws in the show, it does not leave a resonant, lasting impact.

With only five episodes released, it is concerning to see what the show’s future will hold. “Kidding” feels like it works better as a mini-series than a long-running, multi-season program, as its impressive cinematography and editing are ambitious. Additionally, many character arcs feel like they’ve already reached a halfway point.

Perhaps, Carrey and Gondry have the series’ heaviest moments saved for the season’s last episodes. Judging from these five episodes, reaching the same impact the pair achieved in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” feels like a longshot. But given the show’s potential direction and viability, it is certainly possible.