There are several moments of clarity scattered throughout the first ten episodes of the FX original series Baskets that are as resounding with personal insight as they are subversively antagonistic towards viewer understanding and entertainment. As the classically-trained clown Chip Baskets, stand-up comedian-turned-actor-turned-show-runner Zach Galifanakis plays his latest comic creation with all of the snide deception that has become a staple of his on-screen persona. Audiences now are familiar with Galifanakis from the movie theater, from television, or through the always uproarious anti-talk show Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifanakis, distributed exclusive by the popular web-based production company Funny or Die. Following the trail blazed by his creative collaborator Louis C.K., Galifanakis often appears disinterested in entertaining anyone save for himself, and the means by which he finds self-congratulation is often riddled with off-putting one-liners that only become uproarious if one is willing to indulge the comic’s understated satire.
On this new show, Galifanakis seemingly turns the entire comedy industry on its head in the service of what is an ostensibly satirical tragedy about the trials and tribulations of being a clown in the twenty-first century, both at home and abroad. Chip is an excruciatingly conceited, Parisian-trained entertainer whose sad state of existence in Bakersfield, California is littered with shortcomings, delusions of grandeur, and self-defeat. Like the greatest comedies of the Coen Brothers, and even more closely akin to C.K.’s popular FX original series Louie, Baskets is often so exhaustingly cringe-inducing and nihilistic in its thematic trajectory that the destination of each episode proves hard to suffer at first. Though, there is an underlying well of empathy and compassion to be found by those who find themselves sympathetic to Galifanakis’ misanthropic Bozo.
Much of the first season of Baskets has to do with Chip’s grand disillusionment with the vocation of being a clown. Having left his French clown college in disgrace and subsequently taking an almost non-paying job as a local rodeo attraction, Chip finds himself living at his childhood home under the watchful eye of his overbearing mother, played to great surreal amusement by Louie Anderson. Chip’s days are spent with local sad-sack insurance agent Martha Brooks, who is frequently mistaken for the clown’s wife much to his chagrin, while his own green card marriage to a great beauty from his tenure abroad is crumbling around him despite his own erroneous convictions that suggest otherwise. The people that pass in and out of Chip’s life throughout the program are homogenous only in their unrelenting hyperbolic character traits that always prove far too ridiculous to be entirely without merit. The mad cap world that Galifanakis has created for himself to play in is simultaneously mocking of our own and just like it.
Which is all to say that Baskets might just be the greatest new series of the current television quarter season, as it features a certain melancholy that is so often relegated entirely to the local art house movie theater. It’s hard to defend decisions as wildly irreverent as shooting Anderson in drag or having Galifanakis play both Chip and his vaguely effeminate brother Dale on paper. But, watching the entire debacle unfold on screen everything makes a certain sense despite the surrounding absurdity. In the way that the show makes sense according to an implicit dream logic, Galifanakis has achieved something in Baskets like David Lynch’s larger filmography. Granted, some viewers will be left perplexed by the program’s unapologetic self-indulgence, but in following an idea as outlandish and bizarre to its extremely logical conclusion, Galifanakis has made something that proves all but impossible to forget, even for those who don’t end up liking any of it.
Produced by C.K.’s ever-growing independent film studio Pig Newton, Inc., Baskets is yet another masterstroke from the creator of Louie that sees another stand-up act of the alternative comedy scene truly coming into his own after spending years honing his own voice and theatric presence. Galifanakis turned heads as Alan Garner in direct Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, but it has always been on his own where the comedian has truly found a groove that actually drives his big screen appearances. Phillips’ trilogy of aforementioned frat pack comedies are glibly entertaining, but Baskets performs much the same way but in a far more honest and engaged way. The evident passion for the show’s world and its characters exudes in each and every shot of the first season. Galifanakis has never been this compelling in what proves to be a dramatic role despite the surrounding sketch comedy archetypes.
Baskets is the most surprising new comedy on TV because of how unsettling it is in its ability to confront its viewers with the underlying horrors of being alive. The show explores familiar territory in a manner that is thoroughly remarkable and specific to Galifanakis as a performer, and yet it reveals far more about his psyche than the fairly private Hollywood star has perhaps seen fit to share with the general movie going public that so recently embraced him as a favored funny man. As Chip, Galifanakis trades in his formerly rotund and buffoonish exterior for a leaner physical profile that is loaded with all of the manic energy that has become associated with the actor as the One Man Wolf Pack in The Hangover films, only as a literal clown said presence becomes laced with uncertainty and despair.
Towards the end of the first series, Chip’s identical twin brother Dale tells him that their father didn’t fall off of a bridge to his death, but jumped by his own volition in an act of undisguised suicide. Baskets is likewise afflicted with a self-destructive depression that sometimes disguises itself or deludes the viewer into thinking that everything can be made into a joke. But Galifanakis never gives his characters enough room to ever entirely outrun their demons, which is why the show is so immediately compelling and intuitively honest despite all of the overriding despair in comic relief.
Featured Image: FX