Have you heard the one about the two comedians and the director who made a TV show about a wannabe French clown? Because boy, is it a weird one — and a really good one, besides.
This is the story of FX's newest comedy Baskets, from co-creators Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and longtime Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel. It almost feels like a dare: Could these three experienced men create a compelling, serialized show about a failed French clown trying to get by in Bakersfield, California?
The answer, much to the surprise of anyone reading that synopsis, is yes. But as anyone familiar with Galifianakis and C.K.'s individual brands of comedy could guess, Baskets is particular, and it's strange. Baskets is stubbornly confusing and heartbreaking and surprising, all at once. It takes some time to get used to the show's rhythms — but it's understandable if you never do.
Everything about Baskets is an absurdist twist on something we've seen many times before
Stop me when this starts to sound familiar: An emotionally stunted man with thwarted dreams of making something of himself has to move back in with his mother and grapple with his failure. His job sucks, his mother is overbearing, and the woman he loves doesn't care. But he muddles through anyway, as best as he can.
These are the bare bones of Baskets, but they in no way encapsulate the meticulous, practiced oddity of the show. When Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) moves back home to Bakersfield, it's because he's flunked out of French clown school. His terrible job is playing rodeo clown "Chips" to entertain drunk cowboys, and the woman he loves is an aloof Parisian (Sabina Sciubba) who only married him for a green card. His failure bumps up against him whenever he sees his twin brother Dale (Galifianakis with an exaggerated drawl) advertising the community college he founded. His overbearing mother is played, empathetically, by comedian Louie Anderson, in drag.
Chip and the people around him are almost living in their own surrealist world, with the politely bewildered residents of Bakersfield and downright confused rodeo cowboys blinking at their absurdity.
No one straddles that line between the banality of Bakersfield and the surreality of Chip's world quite like Martha (Martha Kelly), Chip's insurance adjuster turned accidental best friend. While Martha is socially awkward to the point that she often forgets how to function as a person, Kelly keeps the character grounded with a line delivery that's somehow both heartfelt and completely deadpan. Chip treats her poorly, as he does most people (he tends to lash out when he feels slighted, which is more often than not). But — crucially — the show knows he's the one who needs adjusting, and the problem isn't people like Martha and his mother, who keep trying to make him happy.
Chip is a sour, sad man who thinks the world owes him success. Sometimes it's overwhelming and downright unpleasant. But when Galifianakis can find something more than pure resentment to play with, like unearned pretension or unexpected sympathy, Chip is much more interesting than your typical frustrated artist character.
Though Louie Anderson as Zach Galifianakis's mother sounds like a stunt, it's treated as anything but
At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Galifianakis said that when casting Chip's mother, he originally had prolific British actress Brenda Blethyn in mind for the role. But when Blethyn was too busy, he and C.K. went back to square one, brainstorming about the kind of woman they envisioned as Christine Baskets. When Galifianakis said he imagined her with a voice like Anderson's, C.K. suggested they call Anderson in, and the actor didn't hesitate when presented with the part. They all agreed, almost defiantly: The casting just made sense.
And when you watch Baskets, that holds so true it's almost stunning. From the second we see Anderson's Christine trundling around her homey kitchen, we know exactly who this woman is. She loves her family and scrapbooks, the Costco brand Kirkland, and the United States of America. She's fiercely loyal. She appreciates a good Easter brunch buffet.
Anderson never treats Christine or his casting like a punchline. Throughout the five episodes of Baskets that FX screened for critics, Christine is the bedrock upon which the series stands. While she's confused by Chip's specific set of ambitions — not to mention his love of Europe — she never wavers in her support him. She simply does so unequivocally, even as she gives him more shit than anyone else. Anderson's sympathetic treatment of the character makes it clear that there's much more to Christine than the unflattering portrait her frustrated son likes to paint.
Anderson and Galifianakis trade their bickering, pointed lines effortlessly. The familiarity in their rapport easily sells the depth, complication, and history of a mother-son relationship. And as with Chip's French clowning ambitions and Martha's social unease, what could become an easy joke becomes something much more satisfying.
With Jonathan Krisel's unfussy direction, the world of Baskets is decidedly, purposely unglamorous
Watching Baskets is like stepping between Two Ferns and stumbling into a dusty Charlie Kaufman movie. Through Chip's eyes and Krisel's direction, Bakersfield is boring and blanched, bereft of the capital-C Culture Chip craves.
The rodeo where he works is unfamiliar and hostile, bright lights winking and widening at the corners of the frame. His mother's house is flat and unremarkable; it feels as though Christine painted everything with a thick coat of mauve. The apartment complex where Chip's wife has sequestered herself away is white and cold, as cosmopolitan as Bakersfield will allow. One very funny sequence in the first episode takes place entirely at a drive-thru, the bright colors of the fast-food display beaming down at Chip he tries to order a series of increasingly esoteric sodas from Martha's drab car.
Every so often, though, Baskets will let Chip fantasize himself away from his hometown. He'll light a pretentious cigarette and escape somewhere inside himself, where he can unicycle through Paris in his clown costume without judgment.
Yes, it sounds ridiculous, as so much of Baskets does. But Krisel and Galifianakis play such scenarios perfectly straight. As unpleasant and lofty as Chip can be, and as dubious as his actual talents are, his longing for something bigger is very real.
And so as Chip indulges in his daydreams, so does the entire show, as Krisel follows Chip down Parisian streets to Andrew Bird's lovely original score. Outside of these escapist sequences, Krisel finds warmth in small moments of triumph, whether it's Chip bonding with his nieces around Dale's dinner table or with his mother at the slot machines, on Easter Sunday.
Baskets makes itself compelling by refusing to make a total caricature of Chip, or Martha, or Christine. The show genuinely loves these characters, as stunted and confused as they are. Even if Chip never becomes a devastatingly brilliant French clown, Baskets entertains in exactly the fashion that Chip dreams of: by staring straight into melancholy, and finding a way to make us laugh at something true within it.