12:40pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: All Hail Louie Anderson and Season 2 of 'Baskets'
[This article contains spoilers for the entirety of the second season of Baskets, but seeing as how it's not a show about "twists," you'll probably be OK.]
My favorite scene of the second season of Baskets didn't involve outré clowning, dueling Zachs Galifianaki or even any of the big emotional moments that have put this weird FX comedy in position to end the year on my top 10 list.
It was Christine Baskets (Louie Anderson), having taken an impetuous trip from Bakersfield to Denver, sitting down for dinner at a hotel restaurant. She's practically bursting with glee as the waitress brings her meal over.
She rubs her hands expectantly, addresses the exotic local delicacy and gushes, "My first Denver omelette! Well, when in Rome!"
Before she can dig in, the waitress replies, "You know, I think it was actually invented in New York City."
In a second, Christine's giddiness is gone. All the joy of discovery has left her eyes.
For Christine, in that moment, the omelette is surely over. Denver is possibly over. And that probably means that Christine's chances of finding second love, with Carpet King Ken (Alex Morris), is over as well.
She ponders eating a roll, but just asks for the check instead.
The ability to swing from silliness to surrealism to abject and unexpected sadness is one of the things Baskets has discovered it knows how to do best, and nobody knows how to do it better than Anderson.
In its first year, Baskets laid the groundwork to prove that having '80s standup icon Anderson playing the mother to the main characters played by Galifianakis was not a stunt. Honestly, it never felt like one, and in episodes like "Easter in Bakersfield," Anderson made Christine into a character of subtle complexity, exactly the sort of quiet, spotlight-shy work you wouldn't expect from a former game show host who put himself and his autobiography at the center of much of his material. Anderson's investment was always in honoring Christine as a person, not in getting attention for oddball casting.
He won an Emmy. And he deserved to win that trophy, proving that occasionally Emmy voters are able to ignore a show's low profile and lower ratings to recognize greatness when it's there.
In the second season, which ended on Thursday night, Anderson was even better. Actually, he was much better. Actually, one could make a rather easy argument that Anderson could submit himself for award consideration as lead actor, rather than supporting, and it would be accurate.
Christine wasn't even in the season's first two episodes, but of the eight that followed, one could point to at least four of them as pure showcases for Anderson, episodes that should easily win him a second straight Emmy. The big arc of the second season of Baskets didn't belong to either of Galifianakis' twins, but to Christine.
"Ronald Reagan Library," the start of Christine's romantic arc with Ken, was a beautifully contained tale of budding second chance love and overcoming political difference, as well as the highs and lows of our 40th president.
"Denver," featuring that Denver omelette scene — such an afterthought that Martha's culinary disappointment is pushed nearly to the back of the frame, with other happier diners surrounding her — was a touching depiction of a woman of routine and repetition finding hope in an unlikely man and the stain-resistant power of modern carpet fibers.
"Funeral," with the last rites for the rambunctious Meemaw, was a matter-of-fact, histrionics-free treatment of grief and family reconciliation, and it was followed by the even better "Yard Sale." That episode culminated in several scenes of Christine empowerment that had me cheering.
Then the season closed with "Circus," a finale that let Christine and her sons embrace a new destiny.
On Twitter last night I joked that Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Christine Baskets have been the spring's three best roles for women-of-a-certain-age, and upon reflection, I may not have been joking. Whether Anderson ever played her as such, Christine was introduced last year as a woman you might laugh at if you saw her walking the aisles at Costco, generally lost in a dream or a delusion. This season reshaped that character, taking her through struggles with her children, mourning and romance and bringing her through the other side a better woman.
Don't get me wrong, Anderson is still a comedian and Christine is still hilarious. It's Anderson's timing that makes the Denver omelette scene so great. Each step of her reaction plays out across Anderson's face — elation, realization, bargaining, resignation. I can rewatch and each step makes me smile at the precision of the thing.
A line like, "Communist poodles? How'd they get in the country?" may not require the same precision, but the delivery gets the laugh, one of many laughs Anderson gets in the finale.
The season finale ended up being a surprisingly political episode, as a Russian circus comes into Bakersfield and allowed Galifianakis' Chip to accurately declare, "I'm second-lead clown in a Russian circus."
Don't be surprised if Congressional investigation into surveillance finds some low-level Trump campaign official saying the same thing.
The season finale didn't ignore the timeliness of Russian incursion into sacred American space. After everything goes amusingly wrong in Chip's debut, he's dressed down by his boss and told, "You're fired, or whatever your new president says."
Christine's idol Ronald Reagan never would have stood for such a thing.
The second season of Baskets didn't belong only to Anderson.
The first two episodes, with Chip enjoying the hobo life until horrifying tragedy intercedes, were marvelously strange in the vein of first-season highlight "Cowboy."
"Fight," built around a brawl between both of Galifianakis' characters, was a triumph of editing and stunt-double trickery.
"Marthager" had some of the best scenes for Martha Kelly's low-affect insurance agent, "Funeral" triumphantly brought back the DJ twins, and the return of workplace comedy at Arby's in the season-capping episodes was a reminder of how weirdly and well Baskets does product placement.
It was too good a season to go by entirely without my writing a single word about it. So here are those words. If you're not watching Baskets already, you really should. What Anderson is doing here is special, as is the show around him.