TV comedy has grown increasingly diverse in an era of unmatched choice in television, a time that FX President John Landgraf has referred to as “peak TV”. From traditional multi-camera fare, commonly seen on networks like CBS in the form of shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two Broke Girls,” to the insanely twisted buddy dynamics explored by the likes of “Broad City” and “Workaholics,” television comedy is a vast landscape with shows that blur the lines between the comedic and dramatic (“Jane the Virgin” and “Shameless”) or completely dip into the absurd (“Man Seeking Woman” and “Review”).
“Baskets” is a beneficiary of this broad comedic spectrum. With its odd subject matter, off-putting protagonist and occasionally deliberate slow pacing, “Baskets” is a show that very well, might not have existed in any other time of television — presenting an alternative comedic choice for audiences.
Co-created by Louis C.K. (“Louie”), Zach Galifianakis (“The Hangover”) and Jonathan Krisel (“Portlandia”), “Baskets” follows failed clown Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) as he returns to Bakersfield, California after dropping out of a French clown academy, due to the fact that he can’t speak French. Best viewed with a raised eyebrow, Chip isn’t the most approachable figure. Portrayed with simultaneous deadpan and boiling volatility by Galifianakis, the character is funny but also incredibly pathetic. Failing in his artistic ambition, the poor guy clings to any hope of achieving his dream as he becomes a completely out-of-place rodeo clown, marries an unloving French woman (Sabina Sciubba, “Stop Here”) and struggles to pull together $40 so his new wife can get HBO. It’s a sad, pitiable existence, but Galifianakis sells it, defiantly saying, “I am a clown. I always will be a clown!”
Chip is the definition of a sad clown, yet no one (except the audience) is laughing at him. If you placed him in the famous Pagliacci joke, the doctor would still recommend Pagliacci. Chip would bring up that he is a clown as well and the doctor would say that he’s never heard of him. That is the existence of Chip, trapped in unhappy anonymity.
Directed by Krisel, the first episode, “Renoir,” effectively captures Chip’s washed out existence. Trapped in Bakersfield, Chip is cast against the flat browns and tans of the desert area as he reaches for any sort of relevancy, or even dignity for that matter. As insurance agent and possibly only friend Martha (Martha Kelly, “Ladies Night Out”) drives Chip to his motel, the clown mutters, “It’s only permanent.” With its dead end town, “Baskets” touches on the fear of failure and what might happen if we don’t accomplish what we initially set out for.
Lightening up this somewhat depressing reality is the usually absurd humor, often provided by the residents of Bakersfield. Particular standouts are Chip’s mom (Louie Anderson, “Life with Louie”) who expresses her disappointment with her son, all with a smile on her face, and Chip’s twin brother Dale (also played by Galifianakis), “dean, student, and janitor” of Baskets Career College.
With so many choices in TV today, “Baskets” presents an alternative experience for a niche audience, with an almost depressing premise that successfully doesn’t fall into misery by the graces of its mix of deadpan and ridiculous sensibilities. In fact, underneath the entire struggle is a sense of hope at the end of the episode. The appearance of a new title card signals a new beginning for Chip as he begins his journey. This clown may just get the last laugh yet.