Sometimes the best you can do in life is not succumb to despair. Lovelorn rodeo clown Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) accomplishes that, but little more, in the fantastic but fatiguingly doleful FX dramedy Baskets, which wrapped up its 10-episode debut season last night.
After flunking out of an elite clowning académie in Paris (where his education was hobbled by his incomprehension of French), fortysomething Chip returns home to the desert suburb of Bakersfield, California, best known as a pit stop between L.A. and Vegas. His life becomes an unremitting humiliation. His French wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) won’t see or live with him, though she moved to Chip’s hometown as a green-card opportunity. Chip’s forced to move back in with his disapproving mom, Christine (Louie Anderson). And the closest gig he can find to his calling as a professional entertainer is running away from an angry bull trying to gore or clobber or trample him while people point and laugh. And that’s just in the first two episodes. As the season progresses, Chip’s burdens become more existential, as he discovers the true nature of his father’s early death, then finds himself betrayed by his sole friend Martha (Martha Kelly) and his showboating twin brother Dale (also Galifianakis).
Sun-bleached melancholy runs through Baskets’s veins, but the show is also packed with masterful sight gags, satirical jabs, physical humor, and character-based jokes. Creators Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Portlandia writer/director Jonathan Krisel have brought to achingly recognizable life a California cousin to C.K.’s Louie by marrying a compassionate study of alienation with Galifianakis’s wry, goofy, and sharply observational comedic sensibility. It’s the kind of show that’s firing on so many cylinders it’s hard to know what to praise first, even though it’s so damn woeful that I hesitate in recommending it.
Stick with Baskets, though, and its embarrassment of riches will soon reveal itself. Chip himself is one of the series’s major achievements. Cursed with an artist’s soul without the talent, the morose clown knows that he still hasn’t figured out where he belongs -- an epiphany that strikes him while he’s screaming at a coyote, a great example of the show’s deadpan absurdism. But Chip isn’t an easily sympathetic everyman, either; he’s impatient, pretentious, impractical to the point of delusion, and petty to Martha and his mom. As Chip flails around, trying to stop or at least slow his tumbles downward, it’s heartening to watch him try to cultivate empathy and be less of a self-absorbed sad sack -- the one form of agency he can exercise without giving up his sense of self. After a series of post–The Hangover supporting roles with diminishing returns, Galifianakis has created a vehicle for himself that makes full use of his physical grace and gift for boorishness.
Also terrific is Anderson as Christine, whose habitual passive-aggression suggests a deep well of maternal disappointment. (The male comedy legend modeled Mama Baskets after his own mother.) Christine contributes enormously to Baskets’s sense of place, where the pillars of the town are Costco and Arby’s. (Penelope’s rejection of Christine’s offer to buy her a Kirkland sweatshirt counts as a major strike against the Frenchwoman.)
The show uses Christine to gently lampoon small-town narrow-mindedness and chain-store tastes (the Reagan-infatuated Christine’s real-life counterpart would definitely be a Trump supporter). Despite having named her twin sons Chip and Dale, she’s not a rube, though, as she proves to her daughter-in-law rather aggressively when they finally meet midway through the season. One of two exceptions to Bakersfield’s quiet anti-charisma, Christine’s always boasting about her latest bargain find, carrying herself with the heartbreaking hyper-confidence of someone who's aware she doesn’t have her shit together and can’t bear for anyone else to know it.
Chip and Christine’s mutually taxing relationship makes up the season’s emotional bedrock, as they try to do right by each other without feeling too put upon. Christine accepts that Chip is just bad at life -- he’s shown doing demonstrably worse than a Juggalo acquaintance more than once -- while Chip comes to recognize that there may be an upside to his mother’s idea for having Easter brunch at a casino. When their rekindled relationship is jeopardized by a health crisis later in the season, Chip is shaken enough by it -- and its aftereffects -- to seriously reevaluate his priorities for the first time. Meanwhile, his cartoonishly lopsided relationship with Penelope gains human dimensions in the tour-de-force, Paris-set penultimate episode.
Before those more dramatic turns of events, though, Baskets wallows in the exasperating drabness of the ordinary. Chip's frequently touching new friendship with Martha, for example, brings syrupy-slow conversations about, say, whether to have breakfast at IHOP or Denny’s. Though they retain their humanity, it’s clear why Chip hates his fellow Bakersfieldians -- and why they have no interest in understanding him. In a town full of cars, Chip heads home on rollerblades, his hips swaying in the nighttime breeze, his mind on a city where he found love but love never bothered to find him.