At last, we see the full powers of a sad clown. “Easter in Bakersfield” is not only the best episode of Baskets to date, but also a piercing and ingenious study of melancholy.
The episode might even work as a short film — if you had no idea who any of these characters are, it would probably still work. And crucially, it reveals the series’ potential, just as Zach Galifianakis’s grand experiment was threatening to become another Louie-lite blend of bitterness.
Back in the pilot episode, we all had a good laugh when it became clear that Chip enrolled in a French clown school without knowing a word of French. Now, episode writer Samuel D. Hunter and returning director Jonathan Krisel turn the joke inside out and dare us to laugh again: Chip is trying to learn French.
Why the sudden ambition? Because Paris was where he felt free, and because rousing himself from bed on his mother’s treadmill to sulk through Easter services makes him feel like less of a man. Chip slips on earbuds to listen to a “how to learn French” podcast, and instantly we’re transported back to the Left Bank with him, taking in a cigarette at twilight and riding his bike to the club where he will meet his wife for the first time. (This retreat into Chip’s own headspace seems to have been prompted by him spying on Penelope, as she sings karaoke at the local watering hole. I guess their pseudo-reconciliation from the last episode hasn’t lasted, or is on hold.) The lessons become an ironic commentary on Chip’s life: “Je déteste ici,” the host enunciates in that how-to-learn-a-language voice. “I hate it here.”
But instead of gallivanting through Paris, Chip is trudging to church with Mama Baskets and Grandma Baskets (who looks pretty great if you consider how old she must be). The church scenes are hysterical, with Chip using the light-switch board to commandeer the ceremony away from its suspiciously soft-spoken pastor. And through it all, we keep cutting back to France, with Chip sometimes donning his clown costume. He’s a man forever doomed to be out of his element. After all, what could be more heart-wrenching than realizing the only place that felt like home was a place that didn’t want you?
We also get more insight into Mama Baskets, and if you thought you’d never feel any empathy for Louie Anderson in a giant, pink, furry hat … think again. Anderson’s increasingly exasperated performance, which initially seemed like a silly one-note joke, reveals new depths here. The comic and former Family Feud host finds a reservoir of pain within this matriarch, who continually tries to distract herself from family problems with desserts. We might laugh at her attempts to pry Chip toward some new future — in this episode, she moves heaven and Earth so their family can sit with Martha’s at brunch, all the better for Chip and Martha to carry on their anti-courtship — but we also know Chip is far too old to still be aimlessly waiting for answers. That’s why we sympathize with his mom, too. She only wants what’s best for him, and she’s hurt when he does things like keeping his new French “wife” a secret. A mom wants to brag about her son to friends, not make excuses for him when he disrupts Easter Sunday.
A crucial layer to Chip’s character is the fact that, despite his lifelong, unshakeable dream to make people laugh, he isn’t a good enough funnyman to actually diffuse tense situations. When brunch devolves to a shouting match, he just walks away to the “casino” part of the casino. (The brunch setting is its own great joke.) Sharing a final scene by the slots, Chip and his mom have a reconciliation of sorts, which feels a bit unrealistic given the amount of awkward revelations that precede it. Thankfully, there are no easy answers in this episode. We get no last-minute reprieves from the aching sense that these people may never find the purpose they seek.
Talk about a punchline: By being forced to reckon with his hollow existence in Bakersfield, Chip may actually be closer to the French mindset than he ever was in Paris.
- “Easter in Bakersfield” isn’t a real Neil Diamond song, right? I am by no means a Diamond aficionado, but I can’t find any record of a song in his discography that matches the title or lyrics featured over the car radio in this episode. If it’s a parody of Diamond’s style, it’s a damn good one.
- There aren’t really any jokes in the scene where Mama leads Chip’s “meemaw” from her house to the car, but I love it all the same. For once, we get a snapshot of the Baskets family life that we can relate to.
- Chip isn’t the sort to jump into the backseat like a normal person, especially when there’s a perfectly good opportunity to stage a circus tumble. But here’s a conundrum: Is a poorly executed pratfall still a pratfall?
- We’ve now firmly established that Dale is the dick of the Baskets clan. That said, the moment when he keeps singing loudly in church after everyone else has stopped is nicely humbling (and a personal nightmare for many, I’m sure).
- “She’s French? French-Canadian?” “No, French France.” It’s in Europe, you know.
- The exchange at the end of the episode left me heartbroken. “Is she nice?” Chip’s mom asks about his no-longer-secret French wife. “That’s a good question,” Chip replies. “My life is in disarray right now, Mama.” That final “Mama” is what gets me, the brief letting down of his guard.