Given how lazy, dense and cruel Chip Baskets, the out-of-work classically trained clown at the center of Baskets can be, it’s no wonder his life is so awful. What is surprising, though, is that it keeps getting worse. But, hey, it makes for good TV.
Zach Galifianakis stars as both Chip and his twin brother Dale, the founder and president of a for-profit community college in Bakersfield, California. At the conclusion of Season 1, both brothers were living at home with their newly diagnosed diabetic mother, Christine (Louie Anderson). Both men were estranged from their wives, Chip because he was used by a beautiful french woman who wanted only a green card, Dale, because he’d cheated on his wife with Dale’s only friend, Martha, a borderline-comatose woman who sells insurance at Costco. Having found his job at Arby’s less than satisfying, Chip visits the train trestle where his own father ended his life, but opts instead to hop a train that happens by, to live life on the rails.
Season 2 kicks off with Chip meeting a group of fellow travelers who make money as street performers, and are (mostly) happy to have a clown join their troupe. Things with the hobos end poorly, of course, as Chip subsequently finds himself in jail, the Reagan Library, clowning for Costco and a Russian circus, living in an abandoned rodeo, taking his “memaw” to a casino for dollar steaks… you know, the usual.
The show is the creation of Galifianakis, director Jonathan Krisel (best known for Portlandia), and producer Louis CK, and while the show certainly shares some of Louie’s DNA, the tone and sensibility are definitely Galifianakis’. Galifianakis is adept at broad physical comedy, as when Chip and Dale get into a fight that nearly destroys their mother’s house, but he is also a master of deadpan, and does everything with an absurdist streak, something that Krisel, too, is rather good at. Some of the show’s best laughs come from something happening just off center in the background or a scene, or as the camera lingers on the spot where a scene just finished.
Galifianakis is the lead actor, creator and producer of Baskets, but it’s Louie Anderson, who plays his mother on the show, who is the star. Anderson won a richly deserved Emmy for his portrayal of Christine Baskets in season 1, and season 2 finds Anderson taking the character even further. Part of what makes Anderson’s performance so compelling is that he plays it straight, there’s no femming it up, and there’s no irony. Whether she’s grieving or falling in love, Anderson plays Christine with an unwavering sincerity and depth that is strangely moving at times, and establishes her as the show’s emotional core. Somewhere there’s a Gender Studies PhD candidate working on a thesis focusing on Christine.
The show’s unsung hero is Martha (Martha Kelly), whose relentless monotone makes her the perfect counter to the sharp cruelties of both Chip and Dale. Kelly does more with a darting of the eyes or an uncomfortable blink than a lot of actors manage with their entire bodies. She’s the only one on the show who seems to have a stable professional life, but is so completely emotionally stunted that she gets overwhelmed by people at a yard sale asking for a discount, but the nastiest jokes made at her expense go undetected.
If you came to be a Galifianakis fan because of The Hangover, be warned that Baskets is very different, very much more in line with his work on Between Two Ferns or his stand-up work. Baskets is by turns dark, funny, thoughtful, strange, sweet, and touching, making it a far cry from your standard sitcom fare — there are laughs, but there’s also lots of feels.
Season 2 of Baskets is available on-demand on FX.