The week Baskets aired its premiere episode, introducing the story of an American clown who returns from Paris to his hometown of Bakersfield, I was setting off on my own extended trip to Paris. Tonight’s episode, which flashes back to reveal how Chip fell in love with the magical city, airs the same week I flew back to America. So I am coming at this show, and “Picnic” in particular, with more of an unavoidable personal connection than most.
I’m not saying this to brag, like Chip, about some phony cultural enlightenment I hold over my American peers simply because I spent time in Paris (which is in France, which is in Europe). But my experience did give me a newfound appreciation for what Baskets — and this episode’s writer, Rebecca Drysdale — gets absolutely right about Chip’s character, his place in the world, and the mythic siren song of fulfillment that Paris can hold for creatively minded Americans. Even — maybe especially — if they don’t speak the language.
In the canon of contemporary Greater Journey/Lost Generation narratives about Americans in the City of Light, “Picnic” deftly sidesteps the entitled smugness of something like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Instead, we’re treated to a tempered and contemplative story that’s more in line with Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. The feel is at once both warmly nostalgic, as Chip retreats from the dark reality of his mother’s diabetic coma into the last moments that made him happy, as well as cautionary. Even at his emotional high point, we see he struggles to truly fit in with his surroundings. We struggle a bit, too, since much of the episode’s dialogue is in unsubtitled French — a bold move even for a basic-cable comedy, but one that allows us to get a partial sense of Chip’s alienation. (And it sets up a great joke toward episode’s end: Chip’s companions are speaking English, but due to their accents he thinks they’re still speaking French.)
The first act is largely dialogue-free, anyway, and lovely. Frustrated by his class — and having accidentally committed turtle-slaughter while trying to complete an assignment — Chip instead attempts to be a street clown. But before he can so much as toss a handkerchief, he’s stymied by the local police for not having the proper permits. He’s rescued by a fellow gang of street performers, who take him on an intoxicating journey through the streets and bars of Paris. It’s the misfits and weirdos, finally at home with each other.
Chip catches a glimpse of Penelope, his wife-to-be, singing at a club, then tracks her down to begin an unlikely courtship. Why does their relationship work when he seems to constantly radiate the air of a pretentious American buffoon? It helps that, for the first time in the series, we sense some honest similarities between Penelope and Chip: Both of them feel adrift and alone, desperate to rebel against their upbringings without a clear idea of how to actually do it. Penelope wants to escape the shadow of her father, a renowned musician played with a great air of European dismissiveness by Ronald Guttman, without actually exerting the effort to distinguish herself professionally. Dating the idiot who just shattered dad’s champagne pyramid and pretended the act was some sort of Dadaist performance art just happens to be the most convenient way to get on his nerves.
But there’s something deeper here, too. Penelope feels some affection for the guy, mixed with a bit of pity and a genuine desire not to see him hurt himself on her account. Chip, as always, is in a susceptible position. The myth of Paris as a utopian mecca, a home for creative redemption, is a powerful one, and it will always have a strong pull for those emotionally vulnerable people who’d like to be the next Hemingway or Baldwin or whomever (ahem). Indeed, it has such a hold on Chip that he’s blinded himself to the reality of his situation: The part of Paris he desperately wants to bring back doesn’t even find him attractive.
We’ve seen the repercussions of Chip’s love affair with this myth throughout the series, as his preoccupation with pleasing Penelope effectively neutered any professional or personal ambitions. But it’s Paris, not Penelope, that truly has Chip’s heart, and Mama Baskets’s instincts were in the right place when she drove her surprise daughter-in-law out of the country. In the long run, it may be the only way to save her son’s soul. If only he could realize it.
This is all very sad and nuanced stuff, so let’s end with a bit of comic genius: Chip attempts to recreate that magical Paris feeling by ordering a giant party sub and pretending it’s a baguette. Setting up his picnic amidst Bakersfield’s strip-mall backdrop, chowing down on that outrageous sandwich (with the yellow sauce) and having it immediately fall apart in front of him is a wonderful burst of physical comedy, and a much-needed moment of levity to escape the stuffy hospital room. The last two episodes, along with “Picnic,” have reached the ideal balance of pathos with deliriously goofy stuff like this. As we head into next week’s season finale, my hopes are riding high for a strong narrative finish that validates the bold artistic choices made by co-creators Zach Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel these past few go-arounds.
Or maybe that’s just the myth talking.
- If you’re ranking episodes, “Picnic” is the best to date. Even more than “Easter in Bakersfield,” it stands on its own as an impeccably constructed short film. And without Louie Anderson’s Mama around to help, this feat is even more impressive.
- The relationship between Penelope and her father feels like a slightly twisted take on Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
- We see very little of the regular cast in this episode, aside from Chip and Penelope. But early on in the hospital, Martha gets a hilarious moment as she asks the attendant whether she might be diabetic. How many times per day does she urinate? “Like, 12-and-a-half.”
- Of course the guy who rescues Chip by talking to the cops is a mime.
- “Opa!” “Oprah!”
- The cliffhanger once again involves Mama’s health, though I honestly don’t think the episode even needed one.
- Look, I’m not saying Midnight in Paris is all bad. But I’m still a teensy bit annoyed that of all the Woody Allen films, that sloppy trifle was the one to find such massive crossover success. Bah.