How Zach Galifianakis’s ‘Baskets’ turned out to be a great oddball TV show

Senior Television Writer
03.24.16 22 Comments

FX

“Don’t be sad, okay?” Chip Baskets’ estranged wife Penelope tells him early in tonight’s Baskets season finale on FX. “You’re not that kind of clown.”

Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), spoiled daughter of a French singing star, doesn’t get the sentiment quite right – and not just because her thick accent renders the name of Chip’s chosen profession as “cloon.” Chip (Zach Galifianakis) is sometimes a sad clown, sometimes an angry clown, and only occasionally a funny clown – usually when he’s not intending to be, like when he gets attacked by one of the bulls at the Bakersfield rodeo where he attempts to practice his art. But Baskets, created by Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel, and Louis C.K., is very much a sad clown story – a weird little show vibrating at a frequency that only a small subset of viewers are likely to hear and appreciate properly. It presents the broadest of comedy concepts – slapstick, cross-dressing (Louie Anderson plays Chip’s mother Christine), evil twins (Galifianakis in a double role as Chip’s effeminate, insufferable brother Dale) – in a show that’s so understated and melancholy in tone that it’s easy to empathize with the rodeo customers baffled by Chip’s latest esoteric routine inspired by his time at a French clowning academy.

At times, Baskets goes beyond being a study in contrasts and almost plays like something the three creators dared each other to do, just to see if anyone would watch. In January, Galifianakis admitted to me that he had no idea if there would be an audience for their experiment.

Fortunately, the show’s fans include a bunch of executives at FX, who have already ordered a second season. And after being a bit baffled by the show myself in its early episodes – I stuck with it mainly for Anderson (giving a sincere, schtick-free performance as a woman who has endured a lifetime of tragedy and disappointment) and Martha Kelly (as Chip’s deadpan friend/chauffeur Martha) – I found myself being just as dazzled by it as Chip was the first time he heard Penelope singing in an underground Parisian clown nightclub, as shown in last week’s wonderfully melancholy (and occasionally very silly) flashback episode. Now tuned in to everything it’s attempting, I can appreciate not only Anderson’s award-worthy work or the endless comic utility of Kelly’s lack of affect, but what a complicated – and, on occasion, deeply sympathetic – character Chip himself has turned out to be, and the ways that the creative team can smuggle in explosive humor (like a group of Parisian clowns who team up to use their art in service of getting Chip out of a jam with the cops) when I least expect it. There are bizarrely endearing running gags, like Christine’s other twin sons being DJs who won’t stop talking about the Chemical Brothers, or Christine’s evangelizing on behalf of Costco, or the way that every one of Chip’s attempts to order fast food becomes needlessly complicated.

Every television show is a relationship on some level. Sometimes, you want to go out with the hot young thing that everybody keeps rightly gawking at. Sometimes, you want to settle into a predictable relationship that won’t upset you. Sometimes, though, you may want to spend a little time with an oddball who challenges your assumptions about what you thought you wanted out of all of this. There’s too much TV these days for anyone to keep up with it all, but the upside is that there’s now room for curiosities that will be a handful of people’s absolute favorite, even if they’re utterly baffling to the public at large.

In one of this season’s earlier episodes, Chip briefly commits himself to the idea of being a more traditional rodeo clown, with crowd-pleasing performances now scored to Gloria Estefan instead of classical music. He turns out to be shockingly good at it, but after an errand to help Christine costs him a shot at being named Mr. Rodeo, that’s the last we see of him in that mode.

This is probably for the best. Both Chip and Galifianakis can play to the mainstream if they want, and very well, but their hearts are in more obscure pursuits. FX might have hoped for a Costco-sized hit when C.K. and Galifianakis came to them about doing a show, but this little one feels pretty special.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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