By Kristen Baldwin
August 24, 2018 at 10:11 AM EDT

What would it be like to watch Mr. Rogers lose his s***? That’s the premise — on the surface, anyway — of Showtime’s new dramedy Kidding (premiering Sept. 9 at 10 p.m.), but this bittersweet family saga just might be more hopeful than it lets on.

Jim Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, star of a universally beloved children’s TV show, and the face of a “$112 million licensing industry,” as his executive producer/ father Seb (the wonderfully brusque Frank Langella) regularly reminds him. When the Pickles family endures a terrible loss, everyone is allowed to react — Jeff’s estranged wife Jill (Judy Greer) gets a tattoo and a new boyfriend, Peter (Justin Kirk); his son Will (Cole Allen) starts hanging out with troublemaking stoners — but Jeff must remain Mr. Pickles, both onscreen and off. “You are not a real person,” Seb notes gruffly. “You’re a man in a box.”

As the pressure of his bottled-up sadness builds, Jeff acts out with little flashes of rebellion — like shaving a bald stripe through his chin-length hair to teach kids about “things that are missing” — but the Mr. Pickles machine is always there to make sure that nothing, not even the pull of fathomless grief, will tarnish the brand Jeff embodies. With his son’s behavior becoming more unpredictable, Seb begins cajoling his daughter Deidre (Catherine Keener), the show’s head puppet maker, to build him a new Jeff — “a version of him we can control.”

Must Mr. Pickles go mad in order to be heard? The easy answer is yes — but four episodes in, Kidding seems to be going for something a bit more complicated. Executive produced by Michel Gondry (who directs 6 of the 10 episodes), Kidding cultivates a mood of reality-adjacent dreaminess; when Jeff hides inside a darkened house to watch his wife and child eat dinner in domestic tranquility, Gondry frames the scene with storybook playfulness, which only underscores the poetic loneliness of the moment. But Kidding remains rooted in themes that are all too relatable — loss, isolation, the constraint of unmet expectations. Carrey, his usually elastic face settled into a gentle, melancholy mien, gives us a man whose innate kindness serves as both his motivation and his strength in the face of messy emotions.

“It’s terrifying for kids to have a feeling and not be able to describe it,” Jeff explains to his dad. He’s speaking for himself, the children who love him, you and me. It may be too much to hope that Kidding won’t send Mr. Pickles to crazytown — Carrey does excel at transforming a character’s inner torment into outer hijinks — but for now, it’s a compelling story about the beauty, and difficulty, of giving your pain a name. B+