FX’s new half-hour series Baskets opens with Zach Galifinakis’ would-be clown Chip Baskets attending a French clowning school. Though he’s earnest, he doesn’t speak a word of French. Thus, he soon returns to his home in Bakersfield, California, to face life as a rodeo clown while still at least hoping to retain some semblance of his French ambitions, taking the name “Renoir.” The rodeo boss disagrees, arguing that “Baskets” is potentially the best clown name there ever was. So as Chip dreams of grandiose performances, shaking glitter from a bucket as he pantomimes to music from a gramophone in front of a confused and silent audience, he’s speared by a bull and goes face-down in the dirt. And the crowd finally cheers for Baskets the clown.
Though the thread of clowning runs throughout the series (the first five episodes of which I’ve screened), the show’s real weight and interest comes from its supporting cast. In a glorious turn that is reminiscent of old-school British comedies, Louie Anderson appears as Chip’s mother. Anderson, in (bizarrely convincing) drag, somehow perfectly embodies the very certain kind of controlling, Costco-obsessed mater, who is one of the show’s most dynamic and interesting members. Comedian Martha Kelly also gives a breakout performance as the seemingly emotionless character who shares her name, who is unflaggingly polite and positive to everyone, despite always speaking in a drone.
After Chip takes a spill on his Vespa, Martha meets him as his insurance adjuster, and ends up giving him rides around town to run his errands. His visits his estranged French wife who is only using him for a Green Card, and tries to borrow money from his twin brother Dale (also played by Galifinakis — yes, Chip and Dale), who runs a local community college where he is “the dean, a student, and even the janitor!” Most of the episodes then follow Martha schlepping Chip around as he’s increasingly rude to her, and Chip trying to make the best of his clowning, even though he’s being pressured on all sides to work at Arby’s instead. Galifinakis is a great comic actor, but Chip’s motivations and actions aren’t clear, and he isn’t particularly likable. It’s similar to the mistake Will Forte made in The Last Man on Earth. Forte’s sin on Season 1 of that show was much greater, but interest in Chip fades when he interacts with other characters, each of whom are much more engagingly constructed than he is.
The writing of Baskets is taught, clever, and full of exceptionally good references within each episode, and yet, the show wanders fairly early and doesn’t find an overarching voice. There are moments where it can feel like a typically cringe-worthy Todd Solondz movie, or brilliantly embraces the small-town nuances and quirks of a film like Napoleon Dynamite (the directing, by Portlandia’s Jonathan Krisel, is exceptional). The show doesn’t back away from moments of physical comedy, either, or in mining the simple humor of the French-accented word clown as “cloon,” but it also doesn’t go far enough in truly defining itself, or expressing a clear direction.
Baskets is not as vignette-driven as Louie, nor is it as episodically encapsulated as Man Seeking Woman. It’s funny, weird, caustic, and occasionally affecting (mostly thanks to Kelly), and parts of it are very good. But there’s also something fleeting about it that doesn’t make it standout as essential viewing. And in such a crowded TV landscape, that’s a problem.
And yet, Baskets’ pilot, co-written by Galifinakis and Louis C.K. (who also serves as an executive producer), is one of the funniest and most affecting opening episodes I’ve ever seen. It feels like a standalone episode of Louie, or (as it expands its world in Bakersfield) like what could be an absolutely brilliant film. But it is, alas, a series, and as it continues, it loses its way. There’s still plenty of time for its to pick itself back up, though. Unless, like Chip, it stays stuck as something it was perhaps never meant to be
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Baskets premieres Thursday, January 21st on FX.