The New Adventures Of Old Christine Baskets

Through its fantastic leading lady, ‘Baskets’ reminds us of the stories we miss out on when we put the same kind of women on TV

Christine Baskets was most certainly one of the white women who voted for Donald Trump last year. She’s a strong believer in protectors, like her hero Ronald Reagan — in spite of, or maybe because of, never having one of her own until this year. She filled that absence herself, trying to fend for her sons until her occasionally suffocating presence finally drove the last one away. Played by Louie Anderson, who won a richly deserved Emmy for the role last year, Christine is an extraordinary character — as distinct and layered as blue rose — on an already remarkable show.

Feud has lately been sucking up all the air in the ongoing conversation about older women in media. But that show’s stars and characters still look like all the other aging females we’ve been seeing in Hollywood’s recent embrace of middle-aged and elderly protagonists: white, straight, wealthy, lovely, thin, free of disability, and looking decades younger than they actually are. From the start, Baskets (FX) has pursued a normcore aesthetic of drab ordinariness that works equally well as satire and verisimilitude. Thus, Christine — despite being played by a man — looks much closer to a retirement-age woman you might know or have sat next to at Applebee’s than any of Helen Mirren’s characters. (Anderson, who completely disappears into the role, claims that he “used my mom at the base of [his performance] and added mean people I’ve met through my life.”) A sighing mountain in cheetah print — Anderson towers over lead Zach Galifianakis — Christine is unhealthily heavy, materially comfortable as long as she has no big unexpected expenses, and addicted to Costco. She’s also — as Feud’s main characters are not — fascinatingly complicated.

In Baskets’s fantastic first season, Christine was a nest laced with thorns: someone that Zalifianakis’s failed clown, Chip, could return home to — but obviously also ran away from. Her suburban tastes, passive-aggressive barbs, and insistence on brute practicality — traits instilled by her sun-parched hometown of Bakersfield, California — clucked away at Chip until he ran off to Paris and smothered him when he came back. Season 2, which concluded last night, got even better, in large part by giving us a sense of Christine outside of her relationship with Chip. In so doing, Baskets reminded us of all the stories and perspectives we miss out on when people like her are so seldom humanized.

No other woman on TV that I can think of looks like Christine. And very few have enjoyed as unusual a journey as the late-in-life self-discovery that she allowed herself after finally deciding to be something more than a mother. She met a new romantic partner, the kindly Ken (Alex Morris), with whom she shared a deliriously sweet kiss and, quite possibly, her first night with a man since her husband killed himself 25 years ago. She buried her mother, inherited a dog and a small fortune, and finally kicked her bully of a brother (and the ghost of her “mean drunk” dad) to the curb. She started taking responsibility for her diabetes, which included wading in moonlight alone on a softly lit beach, beckoning peace and hope and fortitude with her water aerobics moves. She wondered whether the fact that her thirtysomething sons are still so lost means she was a bad mother. And, in the finale, she bought a rodeo for Chip, but really for her family, so that she and her sons could start a new chapter in their lives.

Christine lost the edge of meanness that chiefly defined her last year, but she’s still got that slightly out-of-touch bumbling that apparently runs in the Baskets bloodline. She laughs in Ken’s face when he announces he’s a Democrat, never considering that, as a black man, he may have greater reason than she does to distrust Republicans. She’s instantly offended by the dogs in a traveling Russian circus: “Communist poodles? How’d they get into the country?” She brays at strangers and still treats Chip’s friend Martha (Martha Kelly) more like a servant than an acquaintance. Her blind spots are many and huge and endearingly annoying.

Yet it’s impossible not to root for Christine, especially when we’re never quite sure if we should be cheering on Chip’s alternately quixotic and degrading ambitions. Her moments of joy are enthralling because we know how long she’s been living for others — and how much she’s chafed at the sacrifice. Anderson’s face lights up in those scenes, and that gap-toothed smile suggests an innocence too pure for this world. There’s no more initially terrifying, eventually heartwarming scene than the one in the ninth episode in which Christine stands up for herself when her brother, Jim (Peter Jason), tries to seize the house their mom had left her. Their father gave Christine a toaster as a wedding present, and Jim a small business as his. She learned that she didn’t “deserve” more a long time ago — a lesson that kept her small and giving until Ken and her mother convinced her at last that she’s always been worthy of more. It’s awful to realize how many parts of Christine have been hacked away by cruelty and carelessness, how many years she’s lost mourning and recovering. But now, at least, she can do something about it.