TV: Baskets (Season 1)

Pandemic watch parties have been a social sanity mechanism lately, and one of them recently led me into a laborious relationship with Baskets, an esoteric FX comedy that somehow lasted four seasons. It isn’t without assets and a certain unique…something, but this one will only be lasting one season for me.

A vehicle co-created by Zach Galifianakis, this one is about…an aspiring clown? The story begins as Chip Baskets (Galifianakis), a peculiar, abrasive, humorless man, attends a prestigious clown college in Paris. His only aim in life is to become a professional clown, but unfortunately his cluelessness and inability to speak French ruin his chances at earning a degree. This forces him to return to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, bringing his “wife” Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), an acquaintance who exploited his infatuation with her to attain a green card. Chip’s only job opportunity ends up being a dangerous, poverty-level gig as a rodeo clown, which helps him cling to his dreams by his fingernails while wrestling with emotional baggage from his family, including his even more abrasive twin brother Dale (also Galifianakis) and his patronizing, Republican mother Christine (Louie Anderson). Chip does make one new friend: a sweet, preternaturally subdued Costco claims adjuster named Martha (Martha Kelly), whom he constantly takes advantage of when he isn’t berating her. But Chip’s aspirations are repeatedly dashed upon the rocks, constantly butting up against the roadblocks of his unpleasant personality.

I’m not going to say Baskets isn’t without a certain perverse mystique, and there’s something to be said for being one of the weirdest things on TV. But Baskets is generally an unpleasant slog, an antihero story that looks like it’s either going to turn into a tired redemption arc or a blackly comic toxicity commentary. It delivers neither, and in fact delivers almost no character change at all for its surly protagonist, leaving me to speculate that the whole project is just a showcase for Galifianakis to stage his bleak, unpleasant, off-the-wall performance art. Fortunately, while waiting around to see if the show’s bizarreness would pay off, there is some pleasure to be had in the performances. Anderson’s bravura turn as Chip’s mom looks at first like a low-hanging man-in-drag gag initially, but Anderson sells it by playing it straight. And Kelly is a riot as the chronically anesthetized Martha, whose epic deadpan is consistently hilarious. Even so, none of these principal characters are very likable, and while I can hang my hat on asshole characters with the best of them, in Baskets’ case only two characters—Chip’s crusty rodeo boss Eddie (Ernest Adams) and Insane Clown Posse colleague Jode (Adam Zastrow)—are sympathetic, and they’re pretty minor. Ten episodes after a quirky, intriguing start, Baskets sputters to a first-season finale that seems like it wants you to feel sorry for the terrible person at its core; frankly, I was just glad to see him ride away from me.

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