It took Mister Rogers, the beloved PBS children’s show host who died in 2003, many more years to posthumously break free of the condescending jokes and weird rumors about his true nature. As the hit documentary film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” made clear this summer, there was no big mystery behind Mister Rogers — his goodness was the real deal, as near-perfect a representation of kindness, caring and spirit as one can ever hope to encounter, especially in these times. His status now is sacrosanct.
That’s not entirely great news for Showtime’s new dramedy “Kidding” (premiering Sunday), a melancholic and strangely fascinating character study starring Jim Carrey as Jeff Pickles, the Mister Rogers-esque star of a long-running, Ohio-based educational TV show called “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time,” where all is not well backstage.
Even though “Kidding’s” creator Dave Holstein (“I’m Dying Up Here”; “The Brink”) and producer/director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) have said their show is not intended as a cheap comic exercise in imagining Mister Rogers having a nervous breakdown and a darker private life, there are too many initial similarities to completely dodge: Mr. Pickles journeys each episode to an all-puppet realm; he sings clever songs and delivers messages about expressing our emotions (“I like the part of you that you don’t like — and you should, too”); his fans light up whenever he walks into a room, whether it’s a cancer ward or a restaurant.
For some of us, anything that smacks of edgy — even dirty — satire where Mister Rogers is concerned can kindly show itself out. But stick with “Kidding” for a while anyhow, because its empathy for its main character is no mere folly, and the performances — especially Carrey’s — subtly push the material toward an achingly valid exploration of the human side of hero-worship.
We meet Mr. Pickles at a personal nadir, enduring a forcibly cheerful appearance on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, where much is made of his innocent nature (he doesn’t know what the “P” in “P-Hound” stands for — ha-ha!). Mr. Pickles’s outside friendliness masks the fact that, as Jeff, he’s still deeply grieving the death of his adolescent son, Phil, who was killed in a car crash a year earlier. Now separated from his wife, Jill (Judy Greer), and struggling to relate to his other son (Phil’s twin brother, Will, both played by Cole Allen), Jeff is barely holding on.
Frank Langella co-stars as Seb, Jeff’s executive producer, whose worry for his star’s state of mind is more of a concern for the future of the show, which, even though it airs on public TV, is a cash cow of licensing and merchandising deals. Jeff feels that enough time has passed since Phil’s death for Mr. Pickles to do an episode about mourning; Seb refuses to air it and keeps urging Jeff to move on, perhaps even start dating women. To that end, he offers Jeff a peek inside the drawer full of Mr. Pickles’s tawdriest fan mail:
“Dear Mr. Pickles: What a rare, sublime kindness you bestow upon the world. Attached, please find a photograph of my clitoris. . . .”
While Jeff founders and begs Jill to let him move back into the house, Seb confides to the show’s chief puppet-maker, Deirdre (Catherine Keener), that he is already exploring ways to retire Jeff by turning Mr. Pickles into a cartoon character voiced by an impressionist.
After watching four episodes made available for review, it’s easy to detect in the writing and structure a steady twinge of the surreal, which matches Gondry’s peculiar yet effective tone.
For example, “Kidding” lets us figure out that Seb is Jeff’s father and Deirdre is his sister — making the “Mr. Pickles” show a family endeavor, going back years and hinting at past dysfunctions. At the same time, a viewer could be forgiven for wondering whether the show is not staving off some later reveal, that the family is an ersatz arrangement that props up Jeff’s necessary naivete. (It’s also just as possible that the characters are who they seem to be, and I’ve grown too accustomed to more blunt degrees of exposition while watching all the new fall TV shows.)
What’s not murky here is the deep river of sadness that flows through “Kidding,” even as it puts Carrey’s comedic skills to their best use in a long time. And the faint comparisons to Mister Rogers turn out to be more of an asset than a flaw, because there’s really no need to waste time demonstrating to a viewer how a children’s TV host could occupy such a revered spot in the cultural psyche.
When car thieves unwittingly make off with Mr. Pickles’s PT Cruiser and take it to the chop shop, they make a horrifying discovery in the trunk: Uku-Larry, a puppet who is half-ukulele, known to all as Mr. Pickles’s dear friend and co-star. They immediately put the car back together and return it to its parking space, with Uku-Larry safe and sound, so high is their regard for Mr. Pickles.
That tracks right with the power Mister Rogers still has to inspire us to be better people. In real life, Fred Rogers was as good-natured about the Mister Rogers jokes as anyone else, and something tells me he’d find plenty to appreciate in “Kidding,” particularly in one regard: At its core, it offers a story to grown-ups about healing and forgiveness.
Kidding (30 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.