Critic's Notebook: The End of 'Baskets' and the Struggle of Loving Niche TV

BASKETS - Common Room Wake Episode 6 -Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskets- Publicity-H 2019
Erica Parise/FX

Fans of Friends or Game of Thrones don't have to look far to find compatriots. That's the simple, tempered pleasure of embracing something popular.

I prefer the pleasure of finding that other person who loves the thing you thought you loved alone. It's the sensation that Emily Dickinson captures so well in that poem so short everybody has it memorized: "I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too? Then there's a pair of us — don't tell! They'd banish us, you know."

But it's my job to tell, banishment be damned. Let's all be nobody together.

Netflix's shift in ethos from "That service that doesn't even know how to cancel anything" to "That service that orders strange shows and then cancels them after three or even two seasons" has marked a key crisis of faith in the world of Peak TV. The best case scenario of narrowcasting replacing broadcasting has been that services demonstrated themselves capable of attempting the oddest imaginable programming and then building a portfolio around shows that were 270 people's favorites.

In axing things like Everything Sucks!The OA and even One Day at a Time, Netflix has proven a lack of interest, or evinced a lack of business advantage in becoming a safari of oddities — a place to squint and find the unique frog blending into the foliage, the shadow in the trees that's actually a camouflaged sloth. Netflix isn't alone. The proliferation of streaming services is being driven by brand recognition, and while there may be room for a few obscurities, it can feel like TV is, overall, moving back to being a lions-or-bust safari.

That's why it's maybe a critic's most important job to point out the absurdly niche curios given temporary berth on TV, that they might continue, whether it's something like the cosmically bizarre Lodge 49 on AMC or, on behalf of my partner-in-criticism Tim Goodman, Epix's Perpetual Grace Ltd (RIP, Patriot).

It's one thing to recline at the end of the day and go, "Well, at least Criminal Minds aired over 320 episodes. Way to go, America!" and another to say, "As spiritual and poetic as it was, at least Rectify got 30 episodes." I know which one made more money for the people involved, but I also know which one makes me feel better about the state of the medium I cover. I also know the spirit of camaraderie I instantly feel whenever anybody else mentions loving Rectify and the feeling of flee-the-room-immediately whenever somebody leads a conversation by announcing their affection for Criminal Minds. Sorry, Criminal Minds fans. There are plenty of you.

[Trivia: Did you know that the collective noun for a group of Criminal Minds fans is a "torture"?]

Thursday night marks the end of one of my favorite TV acquired tastes, FX's Baskets. There's the part of me that feels like Baskets is ending far too soon, but it's just a small vein of bitterness. The more enthusiastic part of me is astounded that a show this weird managed to last four seasons, that it got 40 episodes, that it won an Emmy for Louie Anderson. A show I thought nobody would watch at all ended up being a show that… well… very few people watched! But not nobody. You can go out in the world and find fans of Baskets, and that's a small and not meaningless miracle.

Co-created by star Zach Galifianakis, series director Jonathan Krisel and Louis C.K., whose involvement we don't discuss anymore, Baskets was always a show that existed outside of its current moment, a fact that the series fittingly didn't show signs of recognizing until this season. How do you do a show about a sympathetic, failed clown (Galifianakis' Chip Baskets) in a world in which fearing clowns is a cliche as oversaturated as detesting the word "moist" or hating cilantro? At least the latter is a legitimate genetic condition.

There's no room for a baleful Bozo when our most sane clown may be the dancing one killing children in Derry and our most insane clowns have formed a posse. One of this season's most poignant episodes saw Chip realizing the indifference expressed by kids to his clowning — or "clooning," as the show so often preferred, when spoken in a thick French accent — guise turned to joy when he did the same things dressed as a superhero. But aren't we all just clowns in an age of superheroes? No? Just me?

Baskets was always hard to explain or quantify. Having Galifianakis playing two roles, as both melancholic Chip and his self-obsessed twin brother Dale, wasn't a hard sell on its own. Galifianakis was still in his brief movie-star window, an ill-fitting and ill-utilized designation that never matched with the actor's tendency toward Andy Kaufman-esque anti-humor.

There's no way an audience that thought of Galifianakis primarily from The Hangover was possibly ready to tolerate how sad and confused Chip Baskets was, arriving in Bakersfield, California, with a wife who didn't love him and moving back in with a mother (Anderson) still concealing secrets surrounding his father's death. There was no way to explain how willfully and aggressively annoying Dale Baskets was, operating a scam of an online college and biding time in a loveless marriage on the brink of collapse. The tension between the brothers was so great that the second season contained an extended fight sequence that destroyed their mother's house, but also helped Galifianakis to his lone Emmy nomination for the show. If you came to a show about an aspiring clown hoping for easy humor, you were frequently disappointed.

But you wouldn't always have been disappointed. For all of its pervasive sadness and dysfunction, a mood of washed-out absurdity that was more Lynchian than light, Baskets was an extremely funny show. In bursts. Whether it was Martha Kelly's astonishing deadpan as a cast-wearing Costco employee and Chip's only real friend, or Garry and Jason Clemmons as Chip and Dale's globetrotting DJ twin brothers, or the Arby's-working Juggalo Jody who represented both the show's most positive depiction of clowning and perhaps TV's best piece of product integration, Baskets was full of characters who could be counted on to deliver punchlines.

The show was masterful at making laughs come from the darkest of situations, be it a wake held in a condominium's crowded common room or, well, Arby's. Baskets found humor in places as disparate as opera night at a rodeo, the Ronald Reagan Library and Denver, but even when building a plotline at a ridiculous RV park, it never resorted to facile or condescending mockery, all nestled in an amazingly empathetic treatment of Bakersfield.

That empathy was everything to the show and was best represented in Anderson's performance. I've said and written this a thousand times, but it remains true: Casting Anderson as Galifianakis' mother was a choice that stunk of stunt-casting, except the show never for even a second treated it as a joke. Christine was occasionally the butt of jokes, but only in the same way as every other character in the show, getting laughs out of her naiveté and lack of irony, rather than her being played by a famous '80s comic in drag. As it progressed, the hopes and aspirations of the show shifted focus from Chip to Christine, from a one-man show to a series about a family struggling to come together and the matriarch struggling to keep it together.

Anderson may have been submitted as "supporting" actor for awards purposes, but Christine had the show's central personal growth arc, as she found her gumption and her independence after the death of her mother. And Christine had the show's most effective love story, as Christine and Denver-based Carpet King Ken (Alex Morris) were treated to a hopeful, compassionate and complicated second-chance romance that was in all ways more carefully and convincingly rendered than whatever pretty CW couplings the kids are rooting for. The series' closing episodes — especially the one-two of "Grandma's Day" and "Mrs. Baskets Goes to Sacramento" — have reaffirmed Anderson's nuance and commitment and should line him up for one last Emmy nomination next year. This performance was an all-timer.

The second half of the season has been so strong that the finale feels perhaps too consciously resolution-driven in comparison. This may not have been announced as a final season until a few weeks ago, but you can tell that Krisel, who emerged as the show's dominant voice and deserves more credit than one essay could provide, knew that a conclusion was on the horizon. The finale is the show at its most satisfying, if not its best. And perhaps that's ideal in the frustrating world of niche TV, where fandom is simultaneously at its most passionate and the most likely to suffer ratings-based truncation and disappointment.

So if you watch Lodge 49 or Perpetual Grace Ltd or even something seemingly niche-but-mainstream like The Good Place or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, don't assume nobody else is watching or that nobody else would like the precious treasure you like. TV is all about communal experiences, especially when that means making a community of nobodies.