Five episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
American humorist Erma Bombeck once wrote about a “thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt,” and many modern comics still hang their hats on toeing that same divide. From Tig Notaro, propelled to the big leagues by a 2012 set about her stage-two cancer diagnosis, to Louis C.K., made a household name due to his dark and cynical worldview, the most cutting-edge comedians out there have perfected the art of channeling personal pain into professional gain.
No one’s looking for high-flying escapism from stand-up – feel-good fizz is out, and gallows humor (particularly the kind rooted in questions of morality made fresh by thorny social issues like sexism and class privilege) is unquestionably in.
In his new FX series Baskets, Zach Galifianakis clearly subscribes to Bombeck’s “thin line” theory – but perhaps even more than C.K. (involved in the series as co-creator and exec-producer), he delights in blurring it. His protagonist is the “sad clown” incarnate: Chip Baskets, an aspiring buffo whose inability to speak French (despite the stage name Renoir) proves so debilitating to his studies at a prestigious Parisian clowning academy (go figure) that he eventually slinks home to his dusty hometown of Bakersfield, California. An urban wasteland flooded with Costco products and rust-bucket cars, everything about the locale screams “dead end” – especially for Chip, who has tried to leave it and his family still residing there (including his mother, played by Louie Anderson in drag, and his twin brother, also Galifianakis) in his rear-view mirror.
And yet, with financial hardships hanging heavy around his neck (including upkeep for his callous French wife Penelope, played with snooty remove by Sabina Sciubba), this clown is forced to check his pride and ambition at the door. He gets a $4 an hour job as a rodeo clown, only to discover that playing Renoir in ghastly white face paint, tossing glitter into the air to the funereal strains of an ancient French record, doesn’t garner him nearly as many laughs as getting knocked flat by the rodeo bull elicits. Seeing what makes spectators cackle, his crusty manager kicks Renoir to the curb and insists Chip use his real name, not minding the affront to his clown’s honor such a request represents. “You know how many clowns end up in baskets?” He asks. “That’s the most perfect clown name I’ve ever heard!” And Chip, running low on self-esteem and creative energy, obliges. C’est la vie, non?
Desperation and dismay don’t just linger at the edges of Baskets – they dominate the majority of its scenes, which makes the show a bitter pill to swallow (especially for any real-life performers, many of whom will no doubt sympathize with Chip’s broken dreams, if not his hostile and conceited demeanor). In its pilot, an aesthetically bleak and doleful introduction, the series does some very crafty world-building but is so consumed by Chip’s struggle for respect that it winds up much more depressing than comedic. With its pitch-perfect musical choices, sparse setting and visually inventive direction, the show is breathtakingly beautiful to behold on occasion, but its early episodes quickly rein in those moments, usually with a glum outburst from Chip. At first, it’s hard not to wonder whether anyone’s in the joke-y premise.
If Baskets focused exclusively on Chip and painted his residence in Bakersfield as a kind of artistic purgatory, which he clearly views it as, the show would scarcely be a comedy. Caked in white makeup and waltzing around the rodeo, Baskets is pitiful enough to reduce you to the wrong kind of tears, and Galifianakis buys into his misery wholesale. Watching him wallow, one tear streaking slowly down his cheek, is thoroughly uncomfortable – certainly not amusing in the slightest – and Galifianakis seems happy to revel in unsettling viewers as frequently as he makes them laugh. There’s also the matter of how awfully he treats everyone around him – stuck in his mope, Chip is such a self-centered prick that he in many ways deserves every misfortune that befalls him.
But after the pilot, Baskets course-corrects just slightly by broadening its scope, expanding outside of Chip’s storm-cloud disposition to let in two rays of light: his brassy, talkative mother Christine, and poker-faced insurance claims adjuster Martha (Martha Kelly), whom Chip befriends through a series of mishaps.
Neither of these women, polar opposites in terms of their demeanor (Martha is mousy and meek, while Christine is physically and verbally imposing) and relationship to Chip, seem willing to let him slip away into solitude, in spite of his egotism, and subsequently it’s with their characters that Baskets shows its humanity. As Martha, Kelly somehow emotes without breaking from her monotone, and it’s shocking how much we feel for her with every cruel insult Chip lobs her way. And Anderson, inexplicably embodying Christine without an ounce of pretension, is increasingly wonderful over the first five episodes, creating an indelible and (in her own way) profoundly sad figure who is responsible for almost all of the show’s hardest-hitting lines.
Chip, Christine and Martha are all wounded creatures in their own ways, which makes their centrality particularly curious for a show billed as a comedy. Their pain only sometimes elicits laughter, and their hurt is only humorous in a pitch-black kind of way. And Baskets doesn’t concern itself with handing them easy punchlines – it’s more interested in heightening the slightly surreal, nuanced atmosphere of Bakersfield. There’s an episode in which Chip and Martha face down a coyote with existential results, and another in which Chip puts his all into training a Juggalo, giving the audience a crystal-clear picture of the kind of goofy lug-nut Chip would daftly consider a kindred spirit.
If Baskets is to be called comic, it might as well be dubbed tragicomic. The series’ jokes are mined from its pervasive pathos, and it may cause viewers to ache from sadness more often than from laughter. But this feels intentional – Baskets, in terms of content and presentation, is exactly the show that Galifianakis, C.K. and company wanted to make.
After five episodes, their vision is still crystallizing, but by that point Baskets has already proven itself to be good television (if not necessarily good comedy, which is far more subjective). It needs to rein in its venom for its Americana setting and consider toning down the misery just a tad, lest it eventually sink the series into a dramatic quagmire. But Baskets, unlike Chip, is a quick study, and most of the issues present in its self-indulgent pilot are worked out in later installments.
The biggest question it has left to answer – does Baskets, with its idiosyncratic blend of mirth and mournfulness, want to be a comedy or a drama? – may be one it chooses never to engage with directly. And if its oddball first impression holds true throughout this inaugural season, that same caginess, and the free-form opportunity that comes with it, could very well emerge as the best thing Baskets has to pull from its bag of tricks.
Strange and surreal more frequently than it's flat-out funny, Baskets wants the laughs to catch in your throat long enough for it to ask why you're amused by its characters' sorrows in the first place. That's an odd comic strategy but also a damnably intriguing one.