Having followed the career of Zach Galifianakis for a long time, I’ve always been sort of surprised that he became a superstar. As both a standup and actor, his style has always been so uncompromisingly odd and niche – even in his breakthrough Hangover role – that he never seemed like someone who would achieve significant mainstream success.
But he did. In fact, his star power became so big that when Baskets, the FX comedy series he created with Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel, debuted in January, it became the highest-rated cable premier in two years. And yet, when presented with this particular bit of audacious weirdness from Galifianakis, a good chunk of the show’s initial audience seemed turned off and by season’s end, viewership had dipped by almost 50 percent.
And that substantial loss of audience, dear readers, is a pity, because those people tuned out one of the best and most strangely endearing shows to hit the airwaves in some time.
Unable to speak the native language, aspiring clown Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) fails out of a prestigious academy in Paris (which is in France, which is in Europe) and is forced to move back in with his mother in Bakersfield, Calif., where he attempts to improve his craft by working as a part-time rodeo clown.
The success of the series begins and ends with Galifianakis’ performance as the bitter, antagonistic Chip, and, as usual, he delivers the goods. While his blind devotion to chasing what some would consider to be a silly dream is mined for laughs, it works because Galifianakis plays Chip’s ambitions with total seriousness, and injects enough humanity into the role that we want him to succeed, even if he is unpleasant to be around at times.
For good measure, Galifianakis also plays Chip’s obnoxious, effeminate twin brother Dale (because of course the brothers would be named Chip and Dale), which is basically an extended take on his real-life fictional twin brother Seth Galifianakis. Though he’s played this character several times before, it’s one that’s always made me laugh, and since it did so again here, I can forgive the repetition.
Good as he is, Galifianakis gets plenty of help from the supporting cast, who with the help of the writing staff, turn familiar character types into three-dimensional people.
Take for instance the character of Martha, Chip’s monotone chauffeur/insurance adjuster/friend, played by Martha Kelly. Though the deadpan sidekick has become a bit of a cliched sitcom trope, Kelly, a stand-up with no prior acting credits, proved to be an inspired casting choice, as she plays the odd, anti-social character with a genuine kindness that prevents her from becoming the third-rate Aubrey Plaza knockoff she might have been in the hands of some actresses.
There’s also Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), the French love interest who makes it known she isn’t attracted to Chip, but accepts his marriage proposal so she can come to America. Though I wouldn’t say Penelope ever becomes likable, we get enough backstory – much of it coming in the season’s excellent penultimate episode “Picnic” – that the audience is at least able to view her as more than the heartless opportunist she appears to be in early episodes.
But perhaps the best performance comes from an unexpected source. In a bizarre and risky move, the role of Chip and Dale’s mom, Christine, is played by a drag-wearing Louie Anderson. But what started out as a funny, silly bit of stunt casting ultimately comes to highlight what makes this show special.
Season one of Baskets was constantly subverting audience expectations, and that was
never more evident than in Anderson’s performance. While there are certainly laughs to be had at the expense of Christine, a morbidly obese hoarder and lover of all things Arby’s and Costco, there’s a depth and genuine sadness to her, which Anderson brings to life so brilliantly, not only do you forget you’re watching a man in drag, you can’t even imagine anyone else playing the role.
It’s in the strange family dynamic where Baskets is at its best. I can’t remember ever seeing a dysfunctional mother/son relationship portrayed more realistically than the one between Chip and Christine. Many of their scenes together – the best being the pitch-perfect slot machine sequence at the end of the sublime “Easter In Bakersfield” episode – bring some lifelong hardships into focus and provide real dimensions to what easily could have been one-note characters.
While I’ve certainly made it known I think the show is great, I’m not sure I’ve conveyed a belief that it’s consistently funny. Well, it is, very much so. Many scenes, like Chip going to a fast food drive thru and trying to order numerous drinks that aren’t on the menu (“Do you have anything that has any kind of Baja Blast in it?”), are perfectly tailored to Galifianakis’ goofball charm.
But while the laughs are there, the greatness of the series comes from its willingness to show these struggling people at the height of despair.
This isn’t just another story about an aimless man-child loser, as Chip’s hardships don’t stem from a lack of ambition. He has very specific goals, he simply doesn’t have the resources or talent to accomplish them. As someone who once aspired to be a real writer, but had to settle for churning out drivel on a bullshit, niche review site, suffice it to say I found his plight relatable.
To some, this apparently makes for depressing viewing, as that is the biggest criticism I’ve seen lobbied at the series. And while Baskets does have an omnipresent aura of gloom, a truly great show, regardless of the mood it creates, is never depressing.
That an unwatchable piece of horseshit like 2 Broke Girls can get renewed for a sixth(!) season while this struggles to get picked up for a second…now that is fucking depressing.
While I’m sure some found this analysis long-winded, I frankly could have written 5,000 words and still barely scratched the surface of why Baskets is so damn enjoyable.
It’s a near-perfect blend of silly comedy and real-life pathos (a “slapstick drama” as co-creator Krisel called it) and though some clearly found it off-putting, I loved almost every weird second of it’s rookie season and cannot recommend it highly enough.
- Everything listed above
- The only misstep so far came via an unexpected sexual tryst in the season finale. While I’m willing to see how it plays out before writing it off completely, the moment seemed more like a contrived piece of conflict creation than two characters acting on a genuine sex vibe.
Final Score: 9.5/10