Hidden in Plain View: “Baskets”
Hidden in Plain View is a bi-weekly column where I help you find great shows buried in the clutter that is modern television. With more than 400 original scripted series on TV in 2015 alone (and more expected this year), it is simply a fact that you’re missing out on something great. Archive of previous columns here. This time: “Baskets.”
Zach Galifianakis is always the clown.
If you’ve seen his most commercially successful work – the “Hangover” trilogy, “Due Date,” “Dinner for Schmucks” – he’s usually the craziest guy in the room, carrying around his dead dad’s ashes in a coffee can or ready to whip out a knife and cut his own hand at a moment’s notice to solidify the bond of “blood brothers.”
At the very least, he’s always the least “normal” person in the room, determined to make everyone else deeply uncomfortable. (I think that’s the entire premise of “Between Two Ferns.”)
So it’s only fitting that in FX’s new show “Baskets,” Galifianakis is playing an actual clown. Still, this might be his least goofy role yet. That’s not to say “Baskets” is not a comedy, but it fits in more snugly with the ever-increasing number of sadcoms on TV than with any traditional sitcom.
“Baskets,” co-created by Galifianakis and Louis C.K., tells the story of the world’s saddest clown, Chip Baskets (who at first prefers to go by his French clown name, Renaud). He approaches his clowning career in the most serious manner possible, attending a Parisian clown school to fine-tune his craft. However, Chip (played by Galifianakis) promptly flunks out because he doesn’t actually speak French. He drags himself back to his hometown of Bakersfield. He brings a wife who only married him so she could come to America (which she makes abundantly clear). He has almost no money. He refuses to live with his mother (played by Louie Anderson in drag) and lives out of a hotel for a while. He takes up a wildly low-paying gig doing rodeo clowning. He sort of befriends an insurance agent named Martha (Martha Kelly, a longtime friend of Galifianakis making her television debut). His twin brother Dale (also played by Galifianakis) dips in and out of the action as the dean of Baskets Career College.
The show is incredibly sad, often funny, and surprisingly poignant. It’s almost like someone wrote a comedy and then filmed and performed it as if it were a drama. Galifianakis himself has described it as comedy via juxtaposition. He’s not wrong. There’s something weirdly funny about someone as sad as Chip who’s just trying to be a clown. If he were trying to survive an office job, it might just be an odd spin on something we’ve seen before. But this does not feel like that.
The style of humor on the show is full of contrast as well. “Baskets” shifts from literal pants-falling-down humor to very specific Schweppes jokes in a matter of seconds. There’s one scene in particular in the pilot where Chip spends an inordinate amount of time trying to order from a fast food drive-through that should give you a pretty good idea of whether you will find the show funny or not.
Like to FX and C.K.’s other frequently sad and introspective comedy, “Louie,” “Baskets” sometimes goes long periods of time without even attempting a joke. Sometimes, it’s just sad. But here’s the important thing: The show really makes you care about Chip Baskets. In lesser hands, he could just be another “man whose dreams didn’t come true and is sad,” but Galifianakis finds sympathy in Chip’s oddness, in Chip’s earnestness, and in his ability to wear his heart on his sleeve.
When I think about Galifianakis’ career, it’s hard not to wonder how much fascinating, weird art we’ve missed out on thanks to the underwhelming “Hangover” sequels. And it’s hard not to wonder just how much great art in general is effectively hidden away because of various kinds of typecasting and pigeonholing, whether it’s the fat, crazy, goofy guy or roles with bigger social implications like the black best friend or Indians on TV. Think of some of the great things we’ve gotten on TV thanks to breaking the mold of traditional entertainment. “Orange is the New Black.” “Master of None.” “Empire.”
Life is complicated, and there are tons of stories that just haven’t had the means to get told. Getting a more diverse group of storytellers – or even just trying to subvert traditional television entertainment – will lead to more stories we haven’t heard before. And some of them will be great! And even when they’re not, it will surely be more interesting.
As for “Baskets,” whether it winds up being good or not, the fact that it’s been even made and attempted, as wild and off-the-wall as it is, makes the show worth watching. It’s like life in that way. It might make you cry. It might make you laugh. It might not affect you at all. But it’s worth doing.
The first season of “Baskets” is airing now, Thursdays on FX. You can catch up on the entire season on FXNOW. Check it out, and let us know what you think.