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'Kidding' review: Jim Carrey plays a Fred Rogers wannabe in Showtime's dark but poignant comedy

Catherine Keener  and Jim Carrey star in

Catherine Keener  and Jim Carrey star in Showtime's "Kidding." Photo Credit: Showtime/Erica Parise

SERIES “Kidding”

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Mr. Pickles (Jim Carrey) is the beloved host of a kids' puppet show, "Mr. Pickles' Puppet Time," which has been distributed by PBS for three decades. Privately, he's in crisis, struggling to cope with the death of a son, killed when a driver ran a broken light and plowed into the minivan driven by his wife, Jill (Judy Greer). The other son, a twin, Will (Cole Allen), survived. Mr. Pickles — his real name is Jeff Piccirillo — is good, kind and generous in real life, just like the person he plays on TV. He doesn't want to hide anything from his youthful audience, and doesn't want to pretend that nothing terrible happened to him. Something did, and he now wants to do an episode about death. The executive producer, Sebastian "Seb" Piccirillo (Frank Langella) — also Jeff's father — resists. It'd hurt the brand, he argues. "Puppet Time" is a family affair: Jeff's sister, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), makes the puppets for the show.

The 10-part "Kidding" — Carrey's first TV series in decades — is directed by Michel Gondry, who also directed Carrey in 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." The first four episodes were offered for review.

MY SAY The tragedy at the core of "Kidding" occurs before the opening episode, so that by the time viewers arrive, there's only the human wreckage that's left. Everyone's devastated, but attempting to go on as if nothing had happened. Jeff and Jill are separated. Will is a pothead. Deirdre and her husband are close to a rupture. Seb is a show-must-go-on autocrat who dismisses Jeff's grief as a form of temporary insanity and, worse, one that threatens profits.

Obviously, "Kidding" is only sporadically a comedy, or halfheartedly one. And besides, unless the paycheck is big enough (2014's unfortunate "Dumb and Dumber To"), Carrey stopped doing comedy years ago. He's a serious actor now and a pretty good one at that. He's pretty good here. The problem or (better word) the obstacle is syncing up the strangely disparate parts of "Kidding" to fully understand what's going on, and once that's done, deciding whether it was worth the effort in the first place.

Here's one of those obstacles. The patriarchal white male children's TV host as national treasure is an atavistic construct that essentially ended with the death of Fred Rogers in 2003. Rogers was a sui-generis-honest-to-goodness-one-of-a-kind. When he died at the age of 74, there was no one to take his place because no one possibly could or would. Yet "Kidding" demands that we embrace its 50-something kids' TV host who looks like an older version of the Cable Guy. It's a feat of mental contortion that takes a few episodes simply because the initial impression is that Mr. Pickles is a little weird, or perhaps even a little creepy. Example: What self-respecting parent would let their precious offspring watch a show with an adult male host who plays a ukulele he has dubbed "UkeLarry"?

But move past all of this, if you can, and there's a reasonably intelligent, at times sensitively drawn series here about loss and grief. It's intermittently sidetracked if not quite derailed by attempts at levity, including a creepy (that word again) running gag about the letter "p." But, like "The Truman Show," it's about the about the false reality of TV — yup, a paradox — and how people believe in what they see on the tube with all their heart. The poignancy of "Kidding" is that Mr. Pickles still does.

BOTTOM LINE 

Initially sullen and bitter, "Kidding" improves as it goes along. At the very least, you get used to Jim Carrey as an ersatz Fred Rogers. 

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