Without question, the standout of the Baskets ensemble has been Louie Anderson. His performance as the big-lovin', all-American, eternally disappointed Mama Baskets is always a delight. So the fact that "Cowboys" is the first episode to not feature Anderson wouldn't seem to bode well. Yet Jonathan Krisel, who's directed the entire series with a sure stylistic imprint, has chosen the perfect moment to balance the playbook.
"Cowboys" finally finds the right way to employ Martha and gives lone-star rodeo boss Eddie (the strangely lovable Ernest Adams, whom Krisel first cast in Portlandia) an overdue moment in the sun. We get a solid episode, with rhythms even more offbeat than usual, and Chip sees a couple of profoundly strange moments of growth.
We pick up right where the last episode left off, with Chip arriving at work the morning after he bailed to tell the DJ Twins how much Mama loves them. Chip's foolish actions set off a rodeo catastrophe that ended with Eddie shooting his own bull dead, so now he has to help his boss "clean up the mess" in a rather unspecific way. Is Eddie on the warpath for Chip's no-good backup clown, Dingo? (Sidenote: We get a great look at Dingo in an exquisitely shot darkness-and-vomit flashback that opens the episode.) With that gun, it certainly seems like the cowboy is up to no good. But as we've long established, Chip is incapable of diffusing tension. That's why he allows himself (and Martha, because someone has to drive) to get sucked into another man's chaos, missing multiple opportunities to snatch the gun and save the day.
Settling well into her designated role as eternally timid sidekick, Martha Kelly scores the biggest laughs of the night. Whether she's outfitting her cowboy companions with Costco sweaters or telling the cops, "I don't want to make a big deal out of [a credible threat on another person's life,]" Martha is always the most hilariously out-of-place character. Her befuddled attempts to figure out what's going on, and her anti-chemistry with Chip ("I'm not good at charades," she says when he wordlessly tries to signal that Eddie has a gun), make her companionship a surreal, consistent source of delight.
The episode plays with what it means to be a cowboy — or anyone else with a purpose in life, really. Eddie, whose delicate gaze somehow legitimizes his bizarre behavior, enjoys cultivating a mystique around himself, making cryptic proclamations like, "You've got your own part to play." And the others go along with his worldview by marching into the desert with him, battling snakes and spending the night under the stars. But even as they do so, the camera seems to be actively dismantling Eddie's myth. By showing off the profound wasteland that surrounds them, nothing remotely romantic is left to see. Just that damn (nonpoisonous) snake.
The entire episode, like much of Baskets, is shot in darker, grittier tones than any other sitcom I've ever seen. This makes the climactic reveal of Eddie's true intentions even more absurd — he just wants to bring "the best clown in Bakersfield" to his estranged Native American son's birthday party. In a fitting way, this twist seems like an even more direct overture to his cowboy myth than Hateful Eight–style frontier justice would have been. (John Wayne's heroes had their fair share of forgotten families scattered throughout the prairie.)
It's a clever reworking of the bait-and-switch misunderstanding that fuels many sitcom plots. But I was disappointed by Eddie's long interlude with prostitute Thelma (veteran character actor Meg Foster, of They Live), which seemed to serve little purpose other than to be a rambling gag about an old man having sex. As funny and/or crushing as it is to watch Thelma shower Chip with the type of fawning, motherly compliments he'll never get from his own mother ("Clowns are brave"), the scene feels like a filler. I wanted more of that finely layered anger and disappointment that Baskets drums up at its best.
Or, really, just more Martha one-liners.
And, as expected, the end of this episode brings to the forefront the conflict between Chip and Mama Baskets. At last, he learns that she was the reason his wife Penelope had to flee the country. Honestly, though, I'm getting a little bored by all of Chip's mini-revelations about his relationship with Penelope. We've known from the beginning of the pilot that these two have no business being together; why do we need to keep watching this man delude himself? Maybe Chip just needs to hit the dusty trail with Eddie, clowning through small towns along the way, and let the sun set on his past for good.
- Set it and forget it, Martha. Set it and forget it.
- It was clever to have Chip fall face-first into cake during his failed clown routine, thereby plastering frosting on his face like clown makeup. (The confidence he felt in his pre–Mr. Rodeo act appears to have vanished, so he's back to being a mediocre-to-miserable performer.)
- Eddie, to Chip and Martha after his rendezvous with the hooker: "That mattress is awful wet. You guys wanna use the sofa?" Ick ick ick.
- And Martha's genuinely clueless response is priceless: "For what?"
- Martha, pitifully attempting campfire conversation: "This would be a good time to get to know each other." It's fun picturing her as a camp counselor.
- "Well, my mom ain't too proud of me, neither." "On account of you're a hooker?" Chip, smooth as ever, even in moments of emotional distress.
- The stickers are still visible on the Kirkland Signature sweatshirts Martha gives her cowboy buddies. Think Eddie is really an extra-large?
- Dingo is still on the loose, everyone. Just putting that out there.
- Who else is excited for Mama's return next week? Cheeseburger pizzas for everyone!