Editor’s Note: This early review of Baskets is spoiler-free.
Zach Galifianakis has written for and appeared on television before. He was a writer and actor on Comedy Central’s underrated Dog Bites Man. And of course there is his ongoing successful online TV “talk show” Between Two Ferns. Those shows, however, were merely involving Galifianakis. His new FX series, co-created with Louis C.K, Baskets, IS Galifianakis.
Baskets is perhaps the most pure, uncut version of Zach Galifianakis brought to television yet. Then again, it’s hard to articulate precisely just what pure, uncut Galifianakis is. He has one of the most undeniably hilarious yet dry and inscrutable sense of humors in comedy. A Zack Galifianakis character is someone who is completely unprepared for the vagaries of adult world but also blissfully unaware of that. A Galifianakis character is usually singularly obsessed with a single topic or handful of them and has a way of over-pronouncing words as though he is the only person in the world privy to the correct pronunciation. It’s no coincidence that the first promo FX produced for Baskets is Galifianakis’ character making comedic mincemeat of the word “Schweppes.”
Galifianakis’ eponymous character in Baskets, Chip Baskets, fits that archetype to a T. He’s an overgrown man-child whose impressive beard and drawn-back stage-hand hair suggest he’s far more mature than he really is. Chip is singularly obsessed with one thing and one thing only: becoming a clown. He spent months in Paris (which is in France, which is in Europe, as a running joke continually reminds us) training to become a classically trained clown despite not knowing how to speak French. After flunking out he’s forced to return home to Bakersfield, California to continue to try to live out his dream. This means living in a run down motel* and working as a rodeo clown, while his estranged French wife, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), lives in relative Bakersfield opulence.
*”So this is where you live?” “Yeah, it’s only permanent”
Baskets is going to draw a lot of comparisons to FX’s other half-hour comedy series from a legendary comic, Louie…especially since Louis C.K. is actually involved in it. The tones are relatively similar in that both Baskets and Louie somewhat continue he welcome trend of “melancholy comedy” or “melanchomedy* – shows where cringes become laughs, laughs become cringe and the whole thing kind of makes you feel terribly sad as you also laugh your guts out.
*There’s no official term for this yet but that’s the one I prefer to use. Other adherents to “melanchomedy” would include You’re the Worst and BoJack Horseman
Aside from that, however, the fundamental goals of Baskets and Louie are quite different. The appeal of Louie is that no two episodes will be the same. An episode of Louie could be a joke-free examination of childhood Catholic guilt or a 22-minute melodrama leading to an elaborate fart joke or even a genuinely scary Lynch-ian dream-like horror. Baskets, on the other hand strives for consistency. Each episode of Baskets (or at least each of the first five screened for critics) is very serialized. Each new episode is a fresh tableau of another awful day in Chip Baskets’ life but after awhile you begin to notice the that each day is awful in a similar way due to Chip’s unchanging flaws.
Baskets is then the rare treat of a show that begins to grow funnier the longer you watch it, as is fitting for Galifianakis bizarre but rewarding sense of humor. In terms of goals and comedic storytelling fundamentals, I’d place it closer to something like Trailer Park Boys than Louie. Both Trailer Park Boys and Baskets share the theory that the same handful of strange character traits repeated over the span of countless episodes equals surefire comedy. And based on eight-plus seasons of Trailer Park Boys and these first five episodes of Baskets, they’re certainly right.
The recurring humor is stellar as are the characters’ strange traits. Baskets neuroses have been fairly well-documented, but in addition to the clown obsession and the Schweppes over-pronunciation, Chip has a penchant for pouring nearly an entire salt-shaker on everything he eats. Other characters have similarly bizarre traits. Martha Kelly as the co-lead Martha, in particular, is a tremendous character and acting find. Martha is an insurance claims adjuster who takes a liking to Chip after assessing the damage to his French scooter. She forces herself into his life by driving him to all of his appointments. She’s soft-spoken and milquetoast but randomly, utterly devoted to Chip. She also wears a cast on her arm for unknown reasons, which is funny for five episodes but may end up being truly hysterical if she’s still inexplicably wearing it in season five (which I suspect she will be).
In another inspired bit of casting, comedian Louie Anderson turns up in drag as Chip’s mother, Christine. Christine Baskets is utterly devoted to her children, the Reagans and Costco. Anderson wisely plays Christine completely straight and lets the insanity of his presence in a wig and his characters strange neuroses do the heavy lifting.
In the end, that’s the real charm of Baskets: it looks effortless, when in reality it can’t be. Dedication to consistency in characters can’t be easy but Galifianakis and Louis C.K. are well-trained in these arts. At times the show seems to be leaving easy jokes on the table and episodes pass without as many laughs as one would expect from a half-hour comedy. The laughs Baskets does produce, however, are earned and thanks to that aforementioned consistency only build as episodes go on.
Baskets may seem like it has reinvented the comedic wheel due to Galifianakis’ truly unique persona, but its penchant for recurring jokes and character-work is absolutely fundamental. At times, it may seem strange and off-putting but there’s substance in the center. And that center is Baskets himself. Though his behavior may not always make complete sense, it’s grounded in something real: fear of not having a place in the world. Or as Chip tells one of his nieces about clown-ing in a later episode: “No matter what terrible thing that happens to you, you’re in on the joke.” Chip Baskets is a joke and he just wants to feel like he had a choice to be that way. Baskets makes sure we’re all in on that joke with him.