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Carrey shines through, occasionally darkly, in Showtime's one-of-a-kind Kidding


Jim Carrey gets finely Pickled in Kidding. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 9th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Jim Carrey, Frank Langella, Catherine Keener, Judy Greer, Cole Allen, Juliet Morris, Justin Kirk, Bernard White, Ginger Gonzaga
Produced by: Michel Gondry, Dave Holstein, Jim Carrey, Michael Aguilar, Roberto Benabib, Raffi Adlan, Jason Bateman, Jim Garavente

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This has been a big year for Fred Rogers, who’s been extolled in a first-rate documentary film and is now reprised in fragile form via Jim Carrey as Mr. Pickles.

But don’t get the wrong idea about Showtime’s daring comedy series Kidding. The star of public television’s “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time” is not an on-air poser whose gentle, kind demeanor vanishes as soon as he’s off-camera. In real-life, Jeff Piccirillo (Carrey) painfully strives to always do the right thing. It’s just that those around him aren’t fully cooperating. He’s estranged from his wife, Jill (Judy Greer), whom he desperately wants back. His resentful surviving twin son, Will (Cole Allen), more or less sees him as a joke. And his father, Seb (Frank Langella), the executive producer of Jeff’s sing song-y show, is a marrow-sucking authoritarian.

So no, this isn’t Death to Smoochy, the initially maligned but now somewhat cultish 2002 film that starred Robin Williams as a corrupt and thoroughly phony children’s show host. Jeff is much better than that, and so is Kidding.

Some of Carrey’s very best work as an underrated actor came in 2004’s oft-surreal Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was directed by Michel Gondry. Kidding is their first collaboration since then, with Gondry a co-executive producer who also directs the first two half-hour episodes.

Jeff is first seen in his standard TV garb (sweater vest, short-sleeved white shirt, single-color tie) as a guest on Conan O’Brien’s Conan. He’s soon captivating the audience by playing “You Can Feel Anything At All” on his trusty ukelele. O’Brien’s performance is a little off here, mainly because he seems kind of put-off by a song that Jeff’s been performing for much of his 30 years as host of “Mr. Pickles.” You’re supposed to be charmed, Conan.

Back at his workplace, Jeff is more intent than ever on doing an episode about death in the aftermath of his son, Phil’s (also played by Cole Allen), fatal encounter two months earlier with a snack truck. At the time, Phil had been riding and bickering with his brother while mom was behind the wheel.

“Kids know the sky is blue,” Jeff pleads to Seb. “They need to know what to do when it’s falling.”

“You’ll traumatize the kids,” an unyielding Seb insists.

Langella, who excelled as the Soviet overseer Gabriel in The Americans, is in impeccable form again as the curt, controlling and soon conniving master of both his son’s and the show’s destiny. His verbal slashes cut deep and are intended to do so. When Jeff impulsively alters his appearance, Seb tells him, “You look like you’re about to climb a Texas tower and shoot people . . . You look like Lee Harvey Oswald’s creative younger brother.”

Showtime made the first four episodes available for review, and some of the sexual content is a jolt, particularly when it involves Jeff. Throughout, though, Kidding is in sync with an open question posed on the first page of the network’s press booklet: “What if the story of our life, yours and mine, suddenly had half its pages ripped out?”

Kidding also stars Catherine Keener as Jeff’s sister, Deirdre, who’s in charge of his show’s puppet department. Her daughter, Maddy (Juliet Morris), is a handful, and becomes even more so after witnessing her father, Scott (Bernard White), in a starkly compromising position.

Jeff’s above and beyond acts of human kindness are countered by a sad and increasingly voyeuristic fixation on his estranged wife, who has a new boyfriend named Peter (the recurring Justin Kirk). There’s also another woman in Jeff’s life, but with the understanding that this won’t and can’t be for very long. To say any more would ruin the sudden impact.

The Jeff-Will dynamic in Kidding is strikingly to the point. When Will calls his dad a “pussy,” gentle Jeff replies, “Please don’t use a bad word when you can use a good word.”

“And change that outfit,” Will rejoins. “You look like Rosa Parks’ bus driver.” Jeff then praises him for making “an excellent historical reference.” But there’s also a little bone from the kid: “Hey, you didn’t suck on Conan last night.”

At age 56, Carrey’s forehead is now noticeably lined and lived in. He doesn’t need to ever work again, but he’s a wonderment in a challenging role that at least gives him a fighting chance to win an acting Emmy or at least be nominated as a performer for the first time. He’s still without any Oscar nominations despite very worthy work in both Eternal Sunshine and The Truman Show.

Kidding isn’t for kids, and there’s no telling where Jeff’s psyche might head. Each of the first four episodes has a short vignette that illustrates the generational impact Mr. Pickles and his show have made. But how will he personally continue to hold up -- or will he?

“The general populace doesn’t see you as a sexual being,” but rather as “Mr. Potato Head,” Seb tells his son as a backhanded way of encouraging him to go out on a date. At the same time, dad’s plotting against him continues, because “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time” has become far too valuable a cash commodity to risk its star going off the rails.

The real Fred Rogers didn’t live to see Kidding, and perhaps that’s for the best. No kidding, though, you’ll never experience anything quite like this. Bold, provocative and at its core heartbreakingly endearing, it borrows from the original mold -- and then breaks it.

GRADE: A-minus

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