The first season of Baskets was a curious thing for me. I gave it tepid approval last year at the start, yet I kept watching and enjoying it. There are parts that worked really well — most especially the casting of Martha Kelly and Louie Anderson — and parts that didn’t (creator and star Zach Galifianakis playing twins, yet neither character was ever as good as those around him). The series was, and continues to be, beautifully directed by Jonathan Krisel, who brings a cinematic quality that when combined with the Galifianakis’ physical comedy creates something unique and very charming, even when its story falters.
But Season 2 has corrected (as of the first four episodes) many of the issues that I felt held it back in Season 1. There’s still too much Dale, but Chip has softened some. While it’s not essential for a lead character in a comedy to be a good person (it’s often much funnier when they aren’t), they still need to have something that makes them likable, or interesting enough to watch. Chip didn’t have that in Season 1 — he was miserable, and he made those around him miserable with mean comments punctuated with a series of humiliations that made him pitiable, and yet, without real pathos.
The first season ended with Chip hopping on a train and leaving Bakersfield, which seemed like nothing more than a fanciful way to conclude things. But the show picks up with Chip actually living the hobo life, riding the rails, running from the police, and eventually falling in with a gang of nomads he actually connects with, who — as fate would have it — happen to be street performers. Finally Chip is able to live out his dream of performing as a “cloon” (as Penelope would call it), but his life as a homeless person is intercut with reveries of his time working for the rodeo, including a sweet interlude where he spends an evening there with Martha and her niece and nephew.
It was startling, really, to see Chip be so kind to Martha, but it was a necessary step for the show to take. Though it’s Dale who asks her out, Martha’s friendship with Chip is one of the defining factors of the show, but one that doesn’t work if he’s constantly abusive to her. Baskets is at its best when it juxtaposes scenes like Chip accidentally burning off his ponytail while reading The New Yorker from a train car, or when it takes its time in letting Anderson’s Christine natter on about something inconsequential that is, nevertheless, engrossing in its authenticity. And that’s where Baskets has improved itself so much this year — Chip is worth rooting for now, and his story is not just a series of abject degradation, but often rather poignant vignettes that better connect to those around him.
Overall, Baskets is embracing a much sweeter side in Season 2, and more seamlessly than ever is combining Krisel’s gorgeous staging and camera work with Galifianakis tumbling over, attempting to open a can without a tool to help him, and blowing his nose into a plastic bag that floats past him. Some of the throwaway jokes are still the best, like the mention that clowns can only pee outside, or when Chip rebuffs the presumption that he’s sleeping with a friend of his with “I’m old enough to be her ancestor.” Martha, who usually plays things fairly straight, gets a few great one-liners in about “snooping around” at the dump (“what else do you do at the dump?”), and there’s also a beautiful moment where Christine goes into a lake at night to do her water aerobics.
All of this adds up to a new feel for Baskets, which used to be a hit-or-miss, but still unique and unusual tale of a man who yearns for pretension but ends up in the most humbling circumstances. Chip is still searching, but in this new season his story — how it’s told and how it’s framed — is much more sincere and affecting. And yet, it has not lost its clownish charm.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Worth getting back in the rodeo ring
Baskets Season 2 premieres Thursday, January 19th on FX.