It’s almost impossible to write a review of FX’s Baskets, which will appeal to everyone, because Baskets is largely a show that appeals to no one. Or, more accurately, it’s a show made for people who like a very narrow brand of absurdist tension comedy. If you’re in that tiny chasm of comedy (like me), congratulations, this is the show for you.
If not, chances are this isn’t going to be your bag. Or it might be your bag on a per episode basis. It’s tough to say.
Baskets is a show about ‘Chip Baskets’, a rodeo clown, created by Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel. You likely know the first two. Krisel is something of a comedy wunderkind, who has worked as a writer on shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show great Job!, SNL, and co-created Kroll Show with Nick Kroll. He’s legit. The way it played out is that Louis C.K. has his own production deal with FX, based on the success of his widely lauded Louie. He reportedly sat down with Galifianakis and they started spitballing ideas for a new show. Zach said he had an idea for a show about a rodeo clown. Louis wondered aloud if he might be a classically trained clown (there is such a thing, still) and it took off from there.
That’s really what this show is about. The warthog who fancies himself a pretty, French butterfly. It’s really about watching the miserable, torturous process of the warthog discovering he’s a warthog at a crushingly slow pace. That’s it. If you like moments swollen with embarrassment and awkwardness, you’ll like Baskets. If you like watching lost dreamers suffer in a Costco universe they can’t comprehend, you’ll like Baskets. If you like watching a certain unspoken level of human stratification where one superior class emotionally defecates on another and they, in turn, do that to an even lower subspecies, you’ll like Baskets. If you want to spend twenty-two minutes of your week in the sprawling sunbaked quasi-urban hell of Bakersfield, then Baskets can take you there. Over and over again.
But honestly, it’s not for everyone. And that’s OK.
The world of comedy has exploded in so many directions over the last thirty years. It’s an amazing time to be alive for anyone who loves to laugh.
Once upon a time you had your network sitcom with canned, horrible laughter and that was pretty much it. You still have a lot of that schlock on the networks, but there’s good network comedy as well, like Brooklyn 99 and Blackish and The Grinder. Off the network grid, you also have highbrow political comedy like In the Loop and Veep and to a more black comedy degree The Brink. You have dramedies. You have super-targeted web series like The Guild and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. You have topical, loosely scripted comedies like The League and Portlandia. You have tension comedies like the British and American The Office, where moments of pregnant silence are often the joke. You have the sketch comedy of SNL. You have more introspective comedies like Louie. You have amazing pop-cultural referential animated comedy like The Simpsons and Family Guy. You have the truly brilliant social commentary comedy of South Park. You have glib period comedies like Drunk History and Another Period. You have the smarmy, tongue-in-cheek yuks of late night comedy shows as well as the whole hyper-informed Last Week Tonight cum Daily Show set. You have the inspired imbecile porn of Always Sunny and Workaholics. And you have all the insane, pop-cultural phenomena of Robot Chicken and Archer and Bob’s Burgers and Futurama and anything from Tim and Eric and anything on Adult Swim.
And that’s just what’s on television! (And I wrote all of that off the top of my head. I’m sure I left out a bunch).
Comedy has fractured and broken into a million beautiful, very different pieces.
If this particular piece, Baskets, appeals to you, you’re probably a fan of Zach Galifianakis. But this show has also rolled out some amazing performances from Louie Anderson as Chip’s mom and Martha Kelly as his (TBD) friend, Martha. I can’t praise these two enough. They seriously make the show.
While Galifianakis does all of the heavy lifting, it’s these supporting characters who give the show its personality. Louie Anderson has forced me to pause the show, I was laughing so hard. Martha Kelly is so wonderful you want to eat her with a spoon.
But if you told me that you tried this show and literally didn’t even crack a smile, I’d completely understand that. The comedy scope of it is that narrow. For me, I settle in with a sigh and I feel like I’m watching true comedy brilliance. Masters like Galifianakis and Louis C.K. are at the absolute pinnacle of their game. I recognize that some of that isn’t laugh out loud funny, per se, and that much of it is kind of an inside baseball comedy joke for other comedians and comedy buffs, but it works for me on almost every level.
Start with the fact that Chip Baskets is obsessed with French culture, even after he’s been overtly despised and mocked in that world and unceremoniously booted from his French clown school. His aloof French clown professor yells that he’s Ronald MacDonald, with disgust rolling off every syllable. Add the fact that Chip brings his self-serving, aloof French wife back to California with him, even after she insists she doesn’t love him and will just stay with him until she finds someone better looking. She has her own place, that Chip struggles to pay for, where he’s not welcome. Finish with the fact that his working clown name is ‘Renoir’ (which he pronounces Ren-WAH, of course) and he drives a Vespa and the whole thing is shot like a French art film! Oh god. It’s so magical.
Because if you had said to Chip Baskets, “how can we tell the story of your life?” He would absolutely think it should be captured like a French art film. That’s how up his own ass he is as a character. That’s why it has the pacing it does and slow, ponderous shots of a failed clown in greasepaint with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, rollerblading on a four-lane Bakersfield street at night, backlit with car headlights as flamenco guitar plays over it. My god. I love it so much I want to make babies with it. I may like the choices more than I actually like the show, to be honest, but it’s still a certain brand of comedy that’s tough to sell and under-appreciated. Like this exchange in a Fry’s Electronics style store when Chip Baskets goes to buy a TV for his wife to show up her boyfriend, a gorgeous, ripped, unburdened farmhand.
They’re helped by this bumbling, foreign-born rep (played perfectly by Vahe Bejan) who just kind of falls all over his own words.
Sales Rep: This new 4K TV makes Hi-Def TV look like…uh…uh…
Chip: Like it has shit for brains?
Sales Rep: Exactly!
That’s the kind of comedy this is. Willfully inelegant. It highlights the broken and disenfranchised through comedy the way Fellini would through drama. It knows the world is full of beauty, even at its lowest common denominator. I love that shit. I love Louie Anderson saying that (she) “missed the Reagans” and “if Ron and Nancy were still in” we’d be living on Mars by now. I love all the talk about Arby’s and Costco and I love everyday people trying to navigate a brutal and unforgiving and fast-paced world that has intentionally left them behind. Yes, they’re absurd and yes they make decisions no sane person would ever make. I love all of it. It made me laugh so hard my sides hurt.
But you may never even crack a smile. And that’s OK. Because the world of comedy is huge and exciting and if this piece isn’t for you, you can just change the channel and find one that is.
EDIT: I just watched episode four and the last three minutes of it was probably the best TV I’ve seen in a year. Holy cow. As good as I’ve said Louie Anderson was up to this point, he blew it out of the water. Wow.
Baskets is on FX, Thursday nights at 10 pm. You can watch the first three episodes on demand, using the FXNow app or on Hulu. Episode 4 airs tonight.