FX’s Baskets may be the best-kept secret on television; the show just wrapped its first season but seems to have flown under most of the small-screen-watching world’s radar. True, it may have put off viewers with its largely pathetic protagonist, bleak setting (a dusty Bakersfield, California), and slow, sad sense of humor. But what at first seems like a weird (and possibly failed) comedic experiment is actually a delicately crafted combination of the expected and unexpected — and one of the smartest comedies in recent TV memory.
It’s no wonder Baskets is both bumbling and brilliant — it’s written by the dark comedy trifecta of Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan Krisel. Krisel comes to Baskets from Portlandia, which he directs and also cowrites with Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, and similarities between the shows certainly exist. But where Portlandia is in your face, Baskets is just a little off; where Portlandia embraces its own quirky nature, Baskets takes itself much more seriously.
The series stars Galifianakis as Chip, a clown who flunked out of a prestigious Paris clown school and is back in his hometown of Bakersfield, living with his mother and working as a rodeo clown. Chip’s inner circle also includes Penelope, his French wife for whom he is pining, and his twin brother, Dale (likewise played by Galifianakis, though the two characters are so different in personality, style, and voice that it takes an episode or two to believe it’s the same actor). After he gets in a scooter accident, Chip starts spending time with his Costco insurance adjuster, Martha (played by stand-up comedian Martha Kelly), the show’s deadpan underdog. For one-liners and dry humor, the audience can rely on Martha, who, with her monotone voice and the ever-drooping corners of her mouth, delivers most of the laughs. While Galifianakis’s Baskets brothers create the absurd scaffolding for the show, it’s Martha who is unexpectedly the true comedian.
Another originality of series/casting is that Chip and Dale’s mother is a played by a man, not in the context of the script — Christine Baskets is a friendly, Costco-loving mom who cares deeply for her sons and her image — but in casting. She is played brilliantly by the comedian Louie Anderson, who makes for an ever brightly dressed, roughly 300-pound Baskets matriarch.
Baskets the rodeo clown is not funny. He does not deliver the sharp one-liners that one might expect from a well-loved comedian playing a leading role, nor does he employ slapstick maneuvers like slipping on an imaginary banana peel. Instead, Chip’s “art” involves complex costumes, artistic props, and elegant music. Then, inevitably, a bull comes rushing at him. The underlying meditation on the artistry of comedy and the discord between intentions and what the audience perceives is the central tension in Baskets, and also evokes Louis C.K.’s tragically comedic life in his show Louie. As Chip, Galifianakis turns out a somber and relatively sane force in a world of strange and comical characters.
Though the episodes occasionally veer too much toward fart jokes (literally) or the sad-clown trope, Baskets is mostly a fine balance of witty and weird that demands to be taken seriously(ish). And what sets it apart in a sea of television shows is that it contains both laugh-out-loud moments and honest expressions of human suffering. For fans of sadness, absurdity, and silence, Baskets just may be a revelation.