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Jim Carrey’s extraordinary new series, Kidding, is grimly funny and sometimes disturbing

Years and years ago, when I was a lad, I interviewed Jim Carrey. It was just when In Living Colour had made the Canadian comic and actor a true star. For a while the show was the hottest thing on TV.

It was a terrible interview. Carrey was a dreadful interview subject. He was in Toronto and accompanied by a young writer from the show. Accompanied at all times, because the young man’s job was to write down anything remotely funny that Carrey said. In the interview session, Carrey didn’t want to look at me, let alone talk. I’d ask him a question and he’d say, “Yeah!” looking at the ceiling, before turning to the young writer and muttering something. I wrote the experience off as the kind of encounter with showbiz weirdness that is better not to dwell upon.

Then Carrey went from In Living Colour to a stellar movie career. Now he’s back on TV and starring in one of the most extraordinary new shows of this year, a grimly funny and sometimes disturbing excursion into the pain that exists behind a very successful showbiz figure.

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Kidding (Sunday, The Movie Network, Crave TV, 10 p.m.) has Carrey as full-throttle strangeness embodied playing Jeff Pickles, a Mr. Rogers-type children's show host who is enormously popular, leading a lucrative franchise from a small PBS station. And, as the series opens, he's on the edge of a massive breakdown. A man who seems impervious to misanthropy, he’s barely holding it together because his young son died and, in the following period of trauma, his wife left him. He’s a deeply strange figure, this guy. The epitome of unnerving niceness, he also seems incapable of grief and of grasping that adults have to deal with terrible pain and loss.

The series – made for Showtime – is not conventional drama, and that should be underlined. Some viewers, those not braced for a requiem, and not ready for brutal cynicism triumphing over optimism, will be chilled by the daunting bleakness that is under the surface.

Jeff is trying to deal with terrible events and do the right thing. We see him on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, bravely countering the snarky blather of the entertainment world. We see his grave power to move children with his plain statements about life and its vicissitudes. We see his childishness – Carrey is still extraordinary at physical comedy – and the lure of that charm in an adult male. At the same time, Kidding is really about the gap between the fantasy and the reality that is presented by any popular entertainer.

We meet Jeff's father Seb (Frank Langella, who is outrageously threatening in a living, breathing way), a man with so much riding in Jeff that he cannot permit his son to truly process what has happened to him. And then you’re obliged to wonder, “Is this man really Jeff’s father?” You think maybe this is a construct, a way of coping, and all of these characters are stand-ins for elements of show business that clutter the mind of a truly decent person.

So much about the series is disconcerting. (Some critics have dismissed it as an oddity, a great and noble failure. But that suggests the reviewers are people made uncomfortable by genuine anguish.) Catherine Keener plays Deirdre, Jeff's sister and the puppet master – literally – on his show. And there is a fierceness to her attempts to save Jeff from himself that border on cruelty, while simultaneously, the woman’s own life deteriorates into such disarray that you’re again obliged to wonder what is real and what is Jeff’s terrible personal meditation on the awfulness of ordinary life and relationships. There is a point where Seb says to Jeff, “Jeff needs to heal. Mr. Pickles is fine." You hear that and you wonder what mad voices are coming from reality and what are from within Jeff’s mind.

Kidding is created by Dave Holstein (who also wrote part of Carrey's dark I'm Dying Up Here), and directed and produced by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, perhaps Carrey’s great triumph as an actor) and it is bitterly funny, wise and heartbreaking. It’s about the sheer, disconcerting distress that is seething beneath so many people who are so expert at being funny and reassuring. But Jeff’s not a crying clown; he’s an icon of goodness. The series is about the weirdness you might not want to see, the skull beneath the skin.

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