Baskets’s Second Season Sends In The Clowns

The hilarious, often heartbreaking show continues its superb run

If there’s one thing to be learned from the second season of Zach Galifianakis’s Baskets (FX), it’s to be jealous of plastic bags. There’s little those airy sheets of miracle material can’t do — protect heads from rain and feet from dirt, serve as makeshift pantries and suitcases, even clear away snot, like a chimera of a Kleenex and a mother. Their proliferation in the desert, like eternal flowers resistant to nature’s ravages, herald a haven: No one will bother you here. Plastic bags never lose the potential that leaches from us as we grow older and harden into people we never intended to become. A plastic bag is forever.

A small clutch of them are the most reliable friends that ex–rodeo clown Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) can count on when he runs away from home. After the Season 1 finale, when Chip hopped on a train out of his oppressively ordinary hometown of Bakersfield, California, last night's Season 2 premiere finds Chip joining a roving troupe of street performers — the closest he’s ever come to people like himself. Disaffected, semi-skilled, tactless, and desperate for a sense of purpose, the homeless twenty- and thirtysomethings cherish the liberation of the open road. But Chip quickly discovers that he can’t change who he is: a wannabe entertainer tormented by his utter lack of talent, charisma, and popularity. Wipe off the mime makeup and his existential prison reveals itself as the most relatable of all: What Chip thinks he’s meant to do on Earth bears no resemblance to what he’s actually good at.

Baskets’s fantastic first year focused on the invisible jails in which Chip was stuck: his artlessness, his indigence, his failed escape from Bakersfield — the capital of mediocrity, where the three branches of government might as well be Costco, Arby’s, and Applebee’s. His weak but not insignificant resistance culminated in withstanding fatal despair — and the show’s achievement lay in its qualified empathy for Chip while it remained a whimsically and pointedly hilarious comedy. In Season 2, Chip’s life is no less a brig, except he’s forcefully made aware of its fragility, too. The superb first four episodes follow the traipsing jester as he tries on what looks from the outside like unencumbered freedom. But, of course, there’s no such thing. He’s a person, not a plastic bag.

There’s a satisfying-enough subplot about the romance between Chip’s only friend Martha (Martha Kelly) and his oleaginous brother Dale (Galifianakis). But the wounded heart of Baskets continues to be the mother-son relationship between Christine (Louie Anderson) and Chip, whose flailing antics and general haplessness leave her sighing, “With you, Chip, I’m not sure how to be a good mother.” Anderson won an Emmy for playing Christine last year, and he steals every scene he’s in with Christine’s gap-toothed cringes and passive-aggressive barbs as a woman so afraid of change she’d rather risk a diabetic coma than see a doctor about her failing health. In keeping with its dusty suburban setting, Baskets is full of the kind of people whom pop culture rarely bothers to humanize: the elderly, the obese, the destitute. It’s simultaneously wondrous and heartbreaking to watch a character like Christine — so wracked by chronic disappointment she’d do anything to avoid facing it again — try something new like water aerobics, her maternal duty and her instinct for survival carrying her arms into a dance in the ocean. Even the industrial ugliness of the backdrop softens as she continues in a sway for life.

There’s a little less of the Chaplinesque physical comedy that makes Baskets such a unique delight — and Galifianakis such an improbably graceful presence. But the deadpan wit and cultural specificity that make the series feel so refreshingly alive despite its explorations of stasis are in full force — never more so than in the fourth episode, “Ronald Reagan Library,” which finds Chip, Christine, and an unexpected potential suitor on a field trip to a monument for The Gipper. There’s something adorable about Christine’s hero worship, even accounting for her smothering banality and infuriating myopia. And finally, she meets someone who can see her for all she can be.