Baskets, FX’s new sad-clown comedy created by Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Portlandia’s Jonathan Krisel, exists in a strange comedic universe: a bleak landscape defined by a particularly masculine blend of anger and sadness, the kind where schlumpy inaction covers up an uneasy current of dormant rage. It is not, one might say, a particularly pleasant or comfortable place to be. But then, Zach Galifianakis has never been particularly interested in comfort, and, depending on your taste, and perhaps your current mental health, pleasantness is overrated. Baskets is not a perfect show, but it is doing something that feels new, even in a TV landscape glutted with melancholic comedies: it is a show about artistic disillusionment and professional failure and the paralyzing narcissism that comes from really, really wanting something you really, really cannot seem to get.
Louie, which shares some (though certainly not all) of Baskets’s sensibility, for obvious reasons, presents a deeply flawed person, bumbling toward human connection in an absurd world. But any notions of Louie as a true sad sack are complicated by the fact that, if he hasn’t quite reached the superstar status of his real-life alter ego, he’s still a successful comedian working in New York City. This allows for an air of lightness; written into the fundamental premise of the show is the reassurance that Louie is, on some level, doing okay. Perhaps accordingly, Louie is many things — tragic, surreal, hilarious, meditative, absurd – but it isn’t angry. Baskets, on the other hand, is steeped in the unsettling indignation of a man unable to get the world to see him as he sees himself.
When we first meet the titular Chip Baskets (Galifianakis, tremendously well-used), he’s failing out of the Académie de Clown Français, where he is unable master the theory and practice of classical bouffonnerie; he is, his teacher tells him, nothing but a “Bozo.” Also problematically, he speaks no French. “Being a clown is the most important thing in the world to me,” he pleads, but being an Académie-trained clown is not in the cards. Broke and broken, Chip convinces his beloved and dramatically French girlfriend, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), to marry him and follow him back home to Bakersfield, California. While her primary feeling toward him is casual disdain, she does want a green card. For Chip, master of self delusion, it is enough.
It is not exactly a spoiler to suggest that the market for mediocre high-art French clowns in Bakersfield, as in the rest of the world, is nonexistent, and in the pilot, we establish that Chip has hit rock bottom in all possible ways: he separates from Penelope and holes up in an extended-stay motel; he trades in his true clown identity, the Pierrot-esque “Renoir,” for a four-dollar-an-hour part-time marginally commercial gig as a rodeo clown called Baskets; and – adding injury to insult – he immediately totals his French scooter. All of this could feel like the hapless bumblings of a jovial loser, except for one thing: unlike the Apatowian slacker, Chip is desperately, humorlessly, unselfconsciously striving for something painfully far away, and he knows it. “We all can’t be florists, or dishwashers – some of us have to be artists,” he says with earnest conviction. That he isn’t even obviously terrible at clowning – his rodeo performances don’t exactly smack of natural talent, but when he privately demonstrates a mime bit to a fellow rodeo clown, it seems like a respectable showing – makes his plight all the more pitiable.
One thing the show gets painfully right: the more sickening side effects of self-centered struggle. Failure has made Chip carelessly, lazily cruel, particularly to Martha (a virtuosically affectless Martha Kelly), the insurance adjuster who becomes his personal chauffeur and de facto best friend. He is unkind in the way of someone so consumed by their own issues they cannot imagine how they could possibly hurt anyone else. But, in the show’s depressive universe, he’s not even at the bottom of the misery totem pole: on Baskets, everyone is somewhere between tragically human and quietly grotesque. They are off-putting, but they are also complicated. It would be easy to dismiss the show itself as mean-spirited if it didn’t give its most pathetic ultra-underdogs moments of dignified competence.
This is particularly true of Chip’s mother, Christine (Louie Anderson, proving to be a stunningly natural choice for the role). At first sight, she seems like the show’s smug punchline: a fat lady, played by a man, who loves Costco and Reagan and infomercials and is generally an urbanite’s nightmare version of a simple suburban person. But by the fourth and fifth episodes, she hasn’t so much shed her caricature as transcended it. She is not, actually, all that simple at all: she knows how she’s seen, and she know who she is. Even Chip, who knows neither, has moments that suggest a glimmer of hope for him after all, not as a clown but as a person. It takes Baskets a few episodes to work out its emotional balance, but it gets closer and more consistent as the season progresses.
Baskets is billed as a comedy, and it has several indications that it would fall under that heading: an impeccable creative team of comedy all-stars, a supporting cast of top-notch comedians, a slapstick-ready premise that is, quite literally, about clowning. And indeed, while the show is not big on set-up/punchline jokes, it offers a steady stream of individual absurdities and gags. (Chip’s twin brother Dale (also Zach Galifianakis) runs a for-profit college at which he is both janitor and dean; Chip tries to order a thousand and one obscure sodas at a drive-thru window, none of which they have.) It is possible to watch Baskets and laugh. But underneath the jokes is an almost unbearable undercurrent of pain. “Slapstick drama,” Krisel has called the show, which feels like the best designation for it. It’s a tonal experiment, and part of the desolate fun is not quite knowing the rules.