Critic's Notebook: 'Baskets' Finale Caps an Odd, Off-Putting and Special First Season

FX's sad clown comedy deserves praise for Zach Galifianakis, Louie Anderson and Jonathan Krisel.
Zach Galifianakis of 'Baskets'  Byron Cohen/FX

[Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first season of Baskets (not that plot points are what make Baskets unique).]

When Baskets premiered on FX in January, I told anybody who would listen that Zach Galifianakis' comedy about a miserable clown trying to make his way in Bakersfield, Calif., was going to be hailed as a classic, but perhaps only by an audience big enough to fit in a midsized suburban movie theater. 

I think my guess at the Baskets-loving audience changed a bit by the day, but it probably didn't get any higher than maybe 270 brave souls with the right temperament to embrace this tale of a melancholic mummer, a pitiable Punchinello.

And I wasn't even one of them, though I sensed I might be inching in that direction over the five episodes FX originally sent to critics. The first couple of episodes weren't enough time to fathom Chip Baskets' (Galifianakis) mental state, to understand how he approached his clowning aspirations, how he justified his myopic adoration for green card-craving wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), his seemingly cold disdain for Costco employee and insurance agent Martha (Martha Kelly), his relationship with twin and hideous community college magnate Dale, or to grasp the nature (or nurture) of his dependence on sugar-loving mother Christine (Louie Anderson).

But I started to get there. Watching Chip handle the ostensible coyote in Martha's apartment (and watching Martha attempt to keep a coyote in her apartment as a dog) added some clarity to that oddball pairing. The family's observance of Easter in "Easter in Bakersfield" introduced Christine's mother and, in the context of a visit to a buffet, clarified that character so completely that she could never be treated as a caricature or a grotesque. And a day with Dale's daughters went a long way toward establishing both Chip's potential for kindness and cementing Dale's awfulness. 

I liked the show after those five episodes, but didn't love it, and Tim Goodman's review didn't even go that far, praising Anderson and Kelly, but rejecting the rest of the rest.

After seeing the five episodes that followed, including Thursday's (March 24) season finale, "Family Portrait," I've settled into the belief that Baskets is special, a heat-seeking missile directed only at one specific sensibility, but surely a sensibility I possess.

The episodes in the second half of the season have been impressively consistent and varied, each one pushing the characters to slightly more absurd places, while simultaneously grounding them and explaining them. "DJ Twins," with the introduction of Chemical Brothers-adjacent Cody and Logan (Garry and Jason Clemmons), was a look at Christine and her need for affection and both Chip and Dale's place in the Baskets food chain, but even though the episode briefly tiptoed into electronica-fueled sentiment, it never pandered.

The following week delivered what may stand as the show's defining episode, a snake-bitten (literally and figuratively) road trip that blended an archetypal Western's journey for revenge with Lynchian touches of surrealism that David Lynch himself will be hard-pressed to equal in his return to Twin Peaks. "Sugar Pie" showed how the series' morose world view could embrace and laugh at tragedy and had Dale's volleyball meltdown. And last week's "Picnic," with its Godardian flashback to Paris, featuring a mime riot, a crushed turtle and a Serge Gainsbourg manqué, offered perhaps the perfect insight into Chip's idea of happiness and how Penelope relates.

Thursday's finale did little to return Chip and his world to happiness. 

Instead, it had: 

*** The return of Jody the Juggalo as perhaps the kindest character in the Baskets universe and an even better poster boy for Arby's than that stupid oven mitt. And if you liked Dale's volleyball meltdown, Chip's Arby's breakdown, featuring melted cheese and ill-sliced meats, was even better. And who can blame Chip, because...

*** We got to hear what Martha sounds like making sex noises because, as Dale put it, she got his loins craving for her loins.

*** There was more clown existentialism than you can shake a diabetes pricker at, including Penelope's "Don't be sad. You're not that kind of clune" and Eddie's exchange with Chip, "You'll be a clown whether this place is here or not"/"Yeah, that's part of the problem." 

The first season of Baskets was about Chip trying to find a place in both the world and the world of clowning, but also coming to terms with his failed marriage and beginning to face his dad's suicide — and none of those things are things that sound funny, but they so often were. 

The more Galifianakis was able to differentiate between Chip and Dale, the better his dual performance became, adding different colors when the twins impersonated each other and culminating in Dale's attempt to fill in for Chip in the cheery-forlorn-eerie family portrait. At times, the mission of Baskets seemed to be "Give Zach Galifianakis strange bits of business to do and then turn him loose," but he did so much with the little things, be it posture or the lighting of a cigarette. Pairing both of Galifianakis' performances with Kelly's unblinking minimalism never failed to underline the tiniest details in each.

I'm slowly building up the list of potentially overlooked performances I'm going to have to crusade for come Emmy season, a list that features Bokeem Woodbine from Fargo, Rhea Seehorn from Better Call Saul and Connor Jessup from American Crime, but Louie Anderson may be at the top of that list. No matter how many times the Baskets crew tells the story of the brainwave to cast Anderson as Galifianakis' mother, nobody could have expected a performance this flat-out inspired, this devoid of any unsettling hint of "stunt." The show could laugh at Christine without Anderson ever sacrificing her dignity or playing her for camp. The supporting actor in a comedy Emmy field needs to have room for Anderson or it should prepare to feel my wrath.

Finally, in praising the show that Baskets evolved into, one need nod to Jonathan Krisel, the co-creator who received the least initial credit, the price you pay for not being Galifianakis or Louis C.K. 

Krisel directed all 10 episodes, and if anybody deserves credit for nailing the precarious tone, the spare visual template and the potentially discordant performances, it's him. In its own way, the first season of Baskets contained all of the weirdness and experimentation of a season of Louie (the C.K. show, not a show about Mr. Anderson) and at its best, it rose to that level of execution as well.

I underestimated the dedicated audience that Baskets would attract, but according to early Nielsen returns, it was only a slight underestimation. At least the audience (and the clout of the two guys who created the show with Krisel) was enough to earn a renewal. But now there's the audience that can discover and binge the show in totality. And I say again: This sucker won't be for everybody and you'll probably know very quickly if you're willing to tolerate it. But if you're curious after an episode or two, Baskets only gets better and the first season has been one of the best things on TV this spring.

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