After the creative high notes of the previous two episodes, the first season of Baskets finished with a letdown. Without the turmoil of Mama’s health scare or a mournful jaunt through Paris, the show wraps things up by giving us “Family Portrait,” a boilerplate version of the Wacky Baskets Clan.
I knew that the cliffhanger from “Picnic,” which appeared to depict Mama flatlining in a diabetic coma, was a bait-and-switch: Not even a show this consistently dark would kill off its most beloved character so quickly. Instead, Louie Anderson’s exhausted matriarch stumbles home from the hospital, forced to adjust to life as a diabetic. (She’s not a fan of her surprise welcome-home party, either: “You could have warned me,” she snaps at Chip.) The sequence that follows, as the entire family tries to figure out how to use insulin, is a great bit of escalating comedy, punctuated by Mama’s horror at being stabbed in the finger.
Now that Mama needs live-in care, Chip’s earlier line of defense about not getting a nine-to-five job — to preserve his air of artistic integrity — has finally broken down. To afford the assistance of a nurse who got his certificate at Baskets Career College (frankly, Dale should know not to trust an alum of his own school), Chip finally gets that promising Arby’s gig that Mama’s been pushing him toward since the pilot. But even this long-belated effort to take responsibility is undercut; everyone’s favorite Skyped-in companions, the DJ twins, will pay for Mama’s care at the hands of the world’s most bro-tastic geriatric nurse, eliminating the very reason Chip demeaned himself to work at Arby’s.
A beaming Mama, who senses she’s on the verge of two things she always wanted — being looked after by her favorite sons, while also pushing her least responsible son toward independence — nevertheless tells Chip to keep the job: “You look happier.”
Dale’s got his own problems, as he progresses very quickly from “sleeping in the car” to “being kicked out of his own house.” This is presumably tied to his volleyball breakdown, but knowing Dale, it’s just as likely a consequence of several years’ worth of odd, domineering behavior. His solution for his own self-esteem is to have sex with Martha in the back of his van — not really a form of therapy that anyone, including Martha herself, would have prescribed. In his head, Dale is likely doing this to stave off his daughter’s accusation that he’s closeted, though it’s strange that “Family Portrait” doesn’t even mention that detail in passing. Aren’t we meant to think of it as important?
Anyway, the Martha/Dale relationship is a fairly gross development, not just because Dale is super-icky and Martha is so monotone you can’t really tell if she’s into him (plus the cast on her arm can’t be too comfortable while doing the nasty), but because of the distinct probability that he’s using her to cover up his own sexuality and/or undermine his brother. I don’t believe his proclamation that he’s in love with Martha, but then again, I never believe anything shouted at top volume at an Arby’s. Of greater significance is what this will do to Chip’s psyche. After he’s spent an entire season dumping mercilessly on his only friend, is this the thanks he gets from her?
Combine all of this with Penelope’s firm ending of their relationship and the rodeo shutting down (due to a Humane Society complaint, in case you felt bad about the way Eddie has treated his steers), and Chip is left with … well, not much at all. Might he jump from that bridge and join his father in the Great Circus Beyond? C’mon people, remember: The show is dark, but not that dark.
Instead, a much more exciting development takes place. Subconsciously following the cowboy advice of his boss, Chip hops onboard a freight train departing Bakersfield, joining the other hobos as he sets off toward hopes of a better life. (A better life in which he’s still wearing his Arby’s uniform.) There’s much to admire in the way director Jonathan Krisel shoots this final sequence: Between the long rolling takes, the way Zach Galifianakis interacts directly with the train, and the extended image of it choo-chooing into the vast California landscape, Krisel stretches his finale into a moment out of time.
Chip’s struggle is no longer the idiosyncratic journey of a mumbling, narcissistic clown. It’s now a broader search for meaning, a search for purpose after all forms of comfort have been leeched out of Chip’s life. The compelling power of those final shots is what keeps me optimistic for the already confirmed second season. Fight on, brave clown. Fight on for glory.
- Martha Kelly has never been funnier than when she’s being propositioned by Dale. Without betraying any emotion, her performance makes clear Martha is consistently creeped out by the guy, yet is willing to go along with this terrible coupling. It’s a great distillation of the work she’s been doing all season to provoke discomfort in the audience.
- I really, really hope no one out there was/is “shipping” Martha and Dale. “Dartha” isn’t a couple name; it sounds more like Darth Vader’s sister. “Male” doesn’t work, either. For obvious reasons.
- Mama’s bucket list: Look through a telescope, visit Pixar, and “have some shark-fin soup before all the sharks are gone.”
- “That’s her diabetes alarm going off.” Dale has quite the folksy way of looking at the world.
- Is “Jody” a reincarnation of “Juggs” from the second episode? He has Juggs’s hair and they both love working at Arby’s.
- “I had to get a job to pay a gentleman to help my mom take a dump.”
- Hearing Dale utter the words “our little sex romp in the van” is just so, so unpleasant.
- But it does lead to my favorite line of the entire series: “I found a dead sea turtle in my curly fries.”
- Great detail: Mama holds a picture of the DJ twins for the family portrait. And when Chip’s a no-show, a surprisingly resourceful Dale just asks the photographer to Photoshop himself into the picture twice.
- That’s a wrap for now, folks. Thanks for reading. And to those of you who thought I’ve been too harsh on the show, I’ll leave you with this: You are not worthy of Mama’s sugar pie.