'Baskets': TV Review
New FX comedy goes for 'Louie'-styled gold but forgets to mine the funny parts in big swing attempt.
Baskets, the new FX series starring Zach Galifianakis, was co-created by the actor as well as Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel — kind of a super trio of comedy.
But the show inadvertently proves just how difficult it is to make a piece of gold like Louie, the influential, peerless FX series that at its core mixes comedy and pathos like nothing else on television as it mines Louis C.K.’s life for laughs.
Baskets, with Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a struggling, frustrated man whose life goal is to be a clown, gets a number of things right — particularly the brilliant performance of Louie Anderson as his mother — but is ultimately blind to the central elements that make a show like Louie work.
It’s a little frustrating but not entirely surprising. Krisel (who has done exceptional work with IFC's Portlandia and FX’s vastly underrated Man Seeking Woman), Galifianakis (The Hangover, Between Two Ferns, Bored to Death), and C.K. (who recently said that nobody makes him laugh like Galifianakis) wanted something starkly original from Baskets, which is why it can be as beautiful as an indie movie at times but also why it can be so relentlessly uninterested in being consistently funny.
From the start, the concept was probably too one-dimensional to pull off. Chip Baskets is from Bakersfield, Calif., and he wants to go to clown college in Paris, but ends up washing out immediately because he can’t speak French (a great joke possibly too magnetic to resist from the trio when they were dreaming up the premise). It’s also not clear, in Paris or anywhere else, that Chip has any talent at being a clown or even being funny on purpose. He’s mostly an angry sad-sack — points driven home when Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), a French woman who doesn’t like anything about him, agrees to marry him for the green card then promptly dumps him on arrival.
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Everything falls apart in Bakersfield, as expected, and Chip has to become a rodeo clown. And he has to move back in with his mother, Christine (Anderson), while also suffering the barbs of his more successful twin brother Dale (also Galifianakis). On the plus side, he does meet also-hapless but surprisingly positive Martha (Martha Kelly, whose expertise at deadpan is used to exceptional effect here), an insurance adjuster. Unfortunately, Chip mostly takes his childish anger out on both Christine and Martha, driving home the toughest sell on Baskets — that there is absolutely nothing likable about Chip.
In Louie, it’s pretty clear that, despite numerous flaws, Louie is a good guy. You root for him. His kids balance him. The grief he takes from friend/love interest Pamela (Pamela Adlon) creates sympathy. When life beats down Louie, the audience wants him to get up for another day. In Baskets, Chip is so willfully unlikable you eventually want one of the bulls at the rodeo to drive him into the turf one last, painful time.
Obviously the three co-creators weren’t entirely going for that. In series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or the British Office or Extras, Larry David and Ricky Gervais can be grating and off-putting, but the results of their behavior are often hilarious. While there are some funny moments in Baskets, it’s as dry as the Bakersfield landscape if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud jokes or situations.
There is a long history in comedy (and especially among comedians) of finding humor in utter, abject disaster — whether that’s “walking the room” at a comedy club or finding the funny in the relentlessly bleak elements of life. Somewhere in Baskets the search for how to tap into one of those currents and also create a thriving, grounded world went sideways (though creating both Christine Baskets and Martha was brilliantly conceived and executed).
After a handful of episodes that were periodically funny and stridently downbeat (which seemed to be the goal), Baskets got stuck in that low gear. Is the whole series supposed to be about Chip wanting to be a clown and not achieving it? His circumstances don’t seem unfortunate. He’s not suffering because the world can’t see he’s a tortured artist from Bakersfield — he’s miserable because he’s apparently not very talented. At anything. Toss in the harsh, unlikable strain and there’s no real reason to spend half an hour with Chip, much less go on his journey to nowhere.