There’s always been an undercurrent of sadness in the dim manchild characters that Zach Galifianakis typically plays (Alan in the Hangover trilogy, Ethan in Due Date, etc.). But with his new FX series, Baskets, the comic actor pulls that aspect to the fore. Though Galifianakis’ talent for broad physical comedy and mining humor from uncomfortable social exchanges is well represented, the show (which was co-created by Galifianakis and comedy auteur Louis C.K.) has grander narrative designs. Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets is a literal sad clown with admirable and probably misguided artistic and romantic aspirations who’s simply trying to find out where he belongs in this world.
Chip’s existential angst is relatable, but his journey is not. In the pilot episode (one of five made available to critics), we find Chip struggling as he attempts to navigate clown school in Paris, France. Ultimately unsuccessful, Chip decides to pack it in and return home to Bakersfield, California, with Penelope (Brazilian Girls lead singer Sabina Sciubba), the woman he believes to be his Parisian girlfriend. Unfortunately for Chip, Penelope only accepts his hasty marriage proposal in an effort to secure a green card, telling Chip that she’s not interested in an actual physical relationship.
At home in Bakersfield, six months later, we find Chip living in a separate extended-stay motel than the one where his wife lives, though she occasionally shakes him down to pay for her cable. Chip is still chasing his clown dream, but the tradeoff involves bulls chasing him at a rodeo for $4 an hour. What’s worse, no one respects him or his art enough to call him by his chosen clown name, Renoir, and nobody really treats him as anything but a burden, save for Martha (comedian Martha Kelly), a Costco employee who meets Chip by chance, and soon adds him to her stable of strays.
Chip’s family offers him (mostly financial) support. Twin brother, Dale (also played by Galifianakis), serves as a seemingly stable contrast to Chip’s outwardly dire situation and he’s never hesitant to make that clear.
Chip and Dale’s (I just got that) mother, Christine, is surprisingly played by Louie Anderson, the former Family Feud host and stand-up comic who’s rarely been given the chance to show his skills as an actor. Baskets makes it clear that’s a shame: Anderson skillfully plays a meddlesome mother who’s both fiercely protective of her free-spirited son and vocally disdainful about his life choices.
If there’s a high point in the series among the screened episodes, it’s the fourth outing, “Easter in Bakersfield,” which brings Chip and Christine’s relationship to a head amidst the typical thrust of forced family togetherness that the holidays can bring. The two actors play off each other nicely: While Chip’s flashbacks to Paris speak to a romanticized moment that he’s chasing (another relatable pursuit) and give us more insight into his often ridiculous character, Anderson steals the episode as his character is confronted by her own flaws. In that moment, we better understand Christine and Chip’s bond. Both rely on diversions that allow them to avoid confronting what their lives have become.
It would have been easy for Baskets to mimic Galifianakis’ earlier works by allowing Chip (and Christine and Martha and maybe Dale) to roll through life protected by a forcefield of obliviousness. There’s more ambition here, though, and big cracks that reveal that Chip is starting to realize his life isn’t going how he wants it to be. Chip’s struggles with that realization — which build through the show’s first five episodes — and the occasional bouts of hopefulness that deter him from that more revelatory path with regard to his career, his living situation, and his love life, are what gives this show its purpose. Slowly, but surely, it feels like we’re working towards an epiphany, but there’s just as much chance that Chip is heading for a crash.
Baskets premieres on FX Thursday, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. ET.