Zach Galifianakis as Chip.
Much of the writing surrounding Baskets, including my own, often pays particular attention to the show’s darkness. It’s a comedy that wrestles with major themes of disappointment and failed promise, and often seems more interested in pushing its characters to pitiful new lows than it is in making the audience laugh. Nevertheless, with the exception of standout half-hour “Easter in Bakersfield,” each episode has built its premise around typical sitcom formulas: simple misunderstandings, scheduling conflicts, babysitting. If Baskets is a drama cloaked in a sitcom’s clothing, it’s been cloaked quite well.
“Sugar Pie” changes that. This remarkable episode has a layered, dramatic richness to its storytelling that only intensifies, rather than resolves. It takes big risks and plunges deeper into its characters’ dysfunctions than this show was willing to go in the past. And it does all of this from the get-go, when we realize an opening Chip-Martha exchange isn’t meant to be taken as a usual joke. “I’m sure she just cares about you,” Martha tells Chip, after he tells her about Mama Baskets’s role in sending his wife back to France. “Martha, do me a favor,” Chip responds. “Never care about me.”
Two members of the Baskets clan have psychological breakdowns during this episode, and miraculously, neither of them are Chip. (More and more, he’s starting to look like the only adult in the room.) First up is Mama, the show’s heart and soul, whose folksy Reaganite charm has long masked profound disappointment in her natural-born sons.
As we first learned during Easter, Mama is also covering up an awful lot of disappointment in herself, specifically about her weight. In a less gifted actor’s hands, that trait would have been milked for easy fat jokes, but under Louie Anderson’s guidance, it becomes something far subtler and more heartbreaking. No one could laugh at the way Anderson plays this woman in her moment of severe vulnerability. After cooking up a tremendous, artery-clogging sugar pie for her friend group, Mama is crushed when it goes untouched (“We’re all off sugar right now,” her friend says, a desperate save after blurting, “Nobody in this family would eat it”), and experiences a severe hypoglycemic episode, rampaging through her own kitchen’s sugar supply before passing out in shock. Mama’s quiet disappointment by the snub, followed by the sheer panic of her breakdown, is all played to a tee by Anderson. Her fall is a devastating blow to a character I’ve grown attached to in more ways than I had realized.
This is the state Chip finds Mama in when he barges home on the warpath, preparing to corner her over the Penelope scandal. But with Dale trying to paternally overcompensate at his daughter’s volleyball game, Chip has to take charge of the situation. Against his brother’s wishes, he decides to call an ambulance to transport Mama to the hospital. (Dale is, to borrow a parlance I hate, the Worst.)
It’s a gutsy move, putting your show’s breakout star in a coma. But at least writer-director Jonathan Krisel doesn’t make the obvious choice of having Chip make a bedside confession/plea for forgiveness before the episode wraps up. Instead, he must corner his own deep insecurities about his maturity, including the realization that he doesn’t know his mother’s age.
But Chip can’t just turn to Dale for much longer. His twin brother’s break with reality comes toward the end of “Sugar Pie,” once we’ve realized his over-involvement in his daughter’s volleyball team stems from something other than typical helicopter parenting. “Dad, you’re gay,” Sarah snaps at him, after yet another failed attempts to interject his coaching prowess. It’s the first time to my recollection that anyone on Baskets has directly addressed Dale’s sexuality, and it’s a stinging rebuke to his pitiful high-school micromanaging, which itself stems from what we can infer are his own deeply embedded, Mama-voiceover-enabled insecurities.
When Dale snaps shortly afterward, diving after the ball himself and then expressly denying he ever entered the court, his behavior is the episode’s comic highlight. “Oh, this is one of those apps that’ll turn anything into anything,” he mutters, after viewing another mom’s video evidence of the thing that everyone in the arena saw him do. For a few moments, I even thought he had a temporary psychotic blackout and actually didn’t remember what he did, until he confessed to Chip at episode’s close. Yes, Dale has become a deeply pathetic character, which isn’t that funny on its own — but him blowing the referee’s whistle undeniably is.
All this mental instability only builds in the episode’s climax, exactly when any other sitcom would be scaling it back for a resolution. Chip finally meets the mysterious (and way too enthusiastic) process server who’s there to give him his divorce papers, a fact Martha had neglected to confirm before giving the server a lift to the hospital herself. And just when it seems like things can’t get worse for Chip, there’s the final “cliffhanger,” in which we learn he had somehow been ignorant of the fact that Papa Baskets committed suicide. “Accidentally falling off the bridge while admiring the view” is an awfully suspicious way to die in Bakersfield.
Or maybe Chip is just experiencing what Mama and Dale have already suffered through in this episode: a rare moment of clarity regarding some personal issue he’s long kept buried. Yes, I think it’s fair to say we’ve entered a new emotional low point on Baskets. Stick around, will ya? Should be … well, not fun, but you know.
- Can’t get enough of those dreary establishing shots of oil rigs.
- Mama’s hypoglycemic episode, set to an orchestral terror and ending with that wide shot of her unconscious head poking out from behind the kitchen counter, is genuinely horrifying. This is also the first time we’ve learned she’s diabetic.
- The notion that Dale is closeted has certainly been implied by Zach Galifianakis’s performance. But it’s long been embedded in the actor’s own explanation for the genesis character who served as his model for Dale. As Galifianakis explained on “Fresh Air,” the proto-Dale is an “effeminate racist” who disguises the fact that he’s often a target for ridicule by ridiculing everyone else.
- Louie Anderson might get all the acting credit on Baskets, but Malia Pyles as Dale’s daughter, Sarah, is the quiet marvel in the background. Witness, in this episode, her exasperated sadness when she asks a teammate to stop filming her father’s breakdown.
- Dale wore his “Baskets Career College”–branded polo at the volleyball game, which reminded me he still has that ridiculous job. As the other strange elements of this show have normalized, BCC has remained one of the few purely cartoonish holdovers from the pilot, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it go away.
- Martha needs to stop being so helpful to strangers. Especially if they’re “bus guys.”