There's no money to be made in comedy. We see that in the second episode of Baskets, where sad-clown funnyman Chip faces eviction from the motel he's been staying in if he can't dig up some extra cash. Working for sub-sub-minimum wage at the Bakersfield rodeo just doesn't cut it these days. If Chip can't come up with a solution, he may have to resort to unsavory options, like moving in with his mother or (shudder) Martha.
Are the show's makers drawing a thematic line here? There seems to be a parallel between Chip's financial troubles and the real-life efforts to make Baskets a commercially viable endeavor. Maybe that's writer Rebecca Drysdale's way of apologizing for the rampant product placement in "Trainee," only the series' second episode. We got hints in the pilot that both Costco and Arby's would factor into story lines (the logo on Martha's car, Chip's references to Arby's employment as the pinnacle of career choices), but "Trainee" has an entire B-plot centered around Martha's efforts to sell Costco executive memberships, as well as multiple conversations in which characters extol the virtues of Arby's curly fries. Watching Louie Anderson riff in drag about the savings wonderland of wholesale shopping is one of those ideas that's a lot funnier in theory than it is in practice.
These days, it's hard to tell if the mention of a brand is a sign of an actual "partnership," but Baskets cracks no jokes at corporate expense, while finding ways to work in both Kirkland-specific products and the names of several Arby's dipping sauces. I'm sick of playing the paid-or-not-paid guessing game whenever a product is mentioned on TV, and I certainly didn't expect I would have to do so on a show by Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K., of all people. They tend to give off the impression that they'd normally despise stuff like this.
When we're not being subjected to bulk-sized branding, "Trainee" at least gives us ample opportunity to admire Martha Kelly's performance as uncomfortably meek insurance agent/Costco salesperson Martha. The character's self-deprecation runs deep — she bemoans that losing her job would "be really, really hard on my boss" — and Kelly's wonderfully deadpan monotone carries a slippery edge. We're never quite sure how much of her life she has under control at any given moment. She seems like she's trying to worm underneath her lines as she's saying them — and since no one on the show seems to know how to act around Martha, maybe that plea for invisibility is justified.
Elsewhere, Chip's money woes don't stop him from taking another clown under his tutelage, though he might have hesitated if he had any clue what Insane Clown Posse is. Perhaps it was inevitable we'd see a Juggalo in a show about clowns, though I didn't expect it to happen so soon. "Juggs" (Adam William Zastrow), a 32-year-old man with that scraggly, braided ICP ’do and the dismal employment prospects to match, refuses to wipe off his scary clown mask because "this ain't no makeup." But he has promise in the field of publicly humiliating himself, and can't wait for Chip to turn him into "a fancy-ass French clown." Before long, we're getting "goof smell" lessons, with Chip as the ponytailed, unforgiving acting coach, and Juggs the unsuspecting protégé.
Meanwhile, we're seeing more evidence that the show's look is its chief strength. Director Jonathan Krisel shoots Baskets several shades darker than we're used to seeing in single-camera sitcoms, making heavy use of shadow on his star's rounded face, particularly in the backstage rodeo scenes. But, of course, there's also a lot of gross stuff happening in "Trainee." The episode opens with a POV shot of the bull who decked Chip at the conclusion of the pilot, and we eventually see Chip sleeping on a haystack in the barn, chickens wandering around the dirty backstage of the rodeo. Later, a suddenly homeless Chip sprays snot over what appears to be his own giant mirror.
This all serves to emphasize the decrepitude of Bakersfield, which, need I remind you, is the place where the world ends.
The visual style seems to fit a fundamental pessimism brewing within Baskets, a sense that this show's hero has chosen an unsustainable calling and may never know an unqualified success in his life — though, in today's age of the dark, edgy TV comedy, Galifianakis and Co. will need to do more to demonstrate how their worldview stands apart from Arrested Development, BoJack Horseman, Louie, et al. The punchline to Chip's story line is that, instead of convincing Juggs to find his calling in clowning, he motivates the pathetic guy to get a (dream?) job at Arby's. It's sour and depressing, yet the bitterness is somehow too familiar, much like the taste of Arby's horsey sauce. Feel free to use that line in your Ving Rhames ads, guys.
- "You just wait 'til your manager has a degree in management." Won't that be lovely.
- Galifianakis lands a priceless reaction shot when Juggs tells him his age: "Jesus Christ. I thought you were, like, 13."
- I had a good laugh at Dale's management tutorial: Don't look someone in the eye when you're firing them, because "you might see them cry."
- And another laugh when the wide shot reveals the boss watching the video while in a meeting with Martha. The Baskets Career College instructional videos would be a brilliant Greek chorus for this series.
- "Shut up, Martha." The Martha/Meg parallel unfortunately continues. Begone! Isn't it enough that the character suffers from rock-bottom self-esteem?
- Chip continues to remind people that Paris is in France, which is in Europe. Gotta impress the rodeo crowd, I guess.
- Even Martha's nervous breakdowns are low-key. That is, until Mama Baskets breaks down the bathroom door out of sheer panic. Mama has a talent for escalating situations, it seems.