Throughout his nearly 20-year career, Jim Carrey has become one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood. Film after film, he has delivered iconic performances through dramatic movements and charismatic acting. Oftentimes his movies are pure comedy, using Carrey’s naturally goofy essence to craft a lovable and dumb character. Others present a warped reality — part comedy, part drama — Carrey’s highly emotive face telling the audience exactly how they should be feeling.
His newest project, “Kidding,” falls in the latter category. A rare journey into television, Carrey assumes the role of children’s television star Jeff (Mr. Pickles), a Mr. Rogers-esque character who struggles to balance the happy-go-lucky nature of his popular TV show with the crushing realities of his own life. On television, Mr. Pickles is a smiling, singing and sweater-wearing man who radiates joy. In real life, Jeff is a seperated husband coping with the loss of his young son Phil (Cole Allen, “Professor Isle’s Laboratory”).
“Kidding” succeeds in making the viewer feel the exact tug-of-war that Jeff himself is experiencing. The series premiere is bright and happy, featuring bouncy songs and warm colors. Yet there are glimpses of the darkness Jeff is facing and those glimpses grow bigger as the episode progresses.
The episode opens on Conan’s talk show, with Mr. Pickles being interviewed and dedicating a sweet little song to his wife, Jill (Judy Greer, “Driven”). As he sings “You can feel, anything at all, anything at all, you can feel,” the scene shifts to Jeff returning to his dingy hotel room, straightening the hair of a drunkenly passed-out teen and putting on a violent movie. Later the viewers find out that Mr. Pickles is separated from the wife he sang to, and, in fact, he cannot feel very much at all. While Mr. Pickles promotes the expression of emotion, Jeff is wearing a mask of happiness as he internalizes deep trauma and sadness over the death of his son.
In the pilot, this mask is artfully shown through the formatting of the show itself. The general vibe is lighthearted, but as Jeff begins to break down, the atmosphere of the show does as well. In the beginning there are only short, sporadic cuts to the tragedy that underlies the plot. Between scenes, a car crashes into the screen or a green traffic light glitches, referencing the death of Jeff’s son in a car accident. These scenes grow longer and more intense as Jeff loses control of his life, his family and even of his very own likeness.
The ending scene in particular sticks out, as the cohesive persona Jeff has maintained instantly falls apart. In the final minutes of the pilot, Jeff rushes home and shaves through the center of his head, leaving him looking crazed and unsettled. The obsession with his wife that has shown itself throughout the episode comes to a peak as he buys the house directly across from her. He is able to spy on her through the window and when he sees her with another man, Jeff rips a faucet out of the wall. In this vital scene, “Kidding” tells its viewers from this point on, Jeff’s life will cease being polished and contained.
Every scene in “Kidding” binds together to craft a show that perfectly maps the life and demise of this troubled man. It is almost unsettling in the way a horror movie is: Even when everything feels right, you can’t help feel that something is about to go horribly wrong. It is beautifully disturbing and hauntingly reminiscent of the lives of Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain — real, beloved stars who hid dark lives behind a veil of smiles and comedy. “Kidding” will no doubt be a shining mark on the legacy of Jim Carrey, one that speaks to his ability to add comedy to thoughtful topics, and leave us all wondering if we really should be laughing.