“Baskets” combines the dry, deadpan tone of a certain strain of boundary-pushing TV comedy with the more familiar contours of many sad-clown tales. Though the influence of auteur-driven fare like “Louie,” “Girls” and “Togetherness” is easy to spot, it’s not surprising to learn that Chip Baskets, the rodeo clown played by Zach Galifianakis, isn’t very nice, and few viewers will be shocked to find out that he has trouble relating to the women in his life. That last fact is somewhat ironic, given that the formidable mother of the irritable Baskets and his oddly endearing female friend are by far the best things about this otherwise strained show.
Galifianakis plays two Baskets brothers (the squabbling twins Chip and Dale) with the acuity and flawless timing one has come to expect from the versatile actor. The brothers grew up in Bakersfield — which is shot as a desolate, almost colorless wasteland — and Dale has a notable Southern accent, while Chip doesn’t, but that’s a minor oddity the show never explains. The focus of the story is squarely on Chip, who has returned home after an unsuccessful attempt to train as a clown in Paris.
But enough about Chip and Dale. The most notable accomplishment of “Baskets” is that it brings Louie Anderson back to television in a role seemingly made for the actor-comic. Anderson plays the twins’ mother, Christine, and he’s exceptional in the role, effortlessly able to imbue Christine with an both iron will and a distinctive brand of loopy compassion. Over the course of the first five episodes, it’s difficult to deny the growing conviction that a version of “Baskets” focused on Christine and Martha (Martha Kelly), the clown’s hapless friend, would be a lot more enjoyable than the show as currently constituted.
Baskets himself is a piece of work, though not, in the end, a particularly novel or invigorating one. It’s easy to see the analogies to an actor’s life in the saga of a clown who wants to turn his pain into entertainment, and who sacrifices everything for his art, but the show is often too detached and disillusioned to make any of those insights land with emotional force. That said, it’s almost worth watching “Baskets” just to see Anderson play one of the most instantly amusing and sympathetic characters on TV. No time is spent on explaining why a man is playing a female character, nor does any time need to be wasted on that trifling concern, because he is so clearly right for this role.
Just the way the actor flatly bleats, “Chip!” every time she wants her son’s attention is funny, as is her obsession with the deals at Costco, which could hardly find a better spokesperson than the bargain-obsessed Christine. This is a show that works best in its small moments and asides; a scene of Christine showing a family photo album to Martha is wonderfully digressive and full of deadpan wit, as are the low-budget commercials Dale makes for his network of training colleges. (Aspiring chefs can learn to prepare anything, including “all kinds of chutney,” according to the droningly upbeat Dale.)
Lots of the scenes in “Baskets” are set in Martha’s boxy, bland car and at a Formica table in a local gas station, where Chip and Martha hang out (apparently there aren’t a lot of other options in Bakersfield, aside from two Arby’s locations). Much of the dialogue in those scenes revolve around Baskets’ petty annoyances and Martha’s patient and almost toneless replies. By underplaying her role so deftly, Kelly, like Anderson, manages to steal almost every scene out from under the show’s star. Speaking of offbeat comedies with memorable characters, Martha recalls the inimitable Tina Belcher of “Bob’s Burgers,” whose strange blend of quiet confidence and guileless curiosity makes her almost always the most unpredictable person in any scene.
Martha attaches herself to Baskets like a barnacle, though he certainly doesn’t treat her well, and Christine’s theory — that Martha wants to date Chip — doesn’t pan out in the first five episodes. However he grudgingly appreciates Martha’s willingness to ferry him around town to his gigs at the local rodeo and to visit Penelope, his dismissive green-card wife, whom he met in Paris. Penelope is almost as selfish and cruel as Baskets himself, and the only part of her storyline that works is, not surprisingly, the trip she takes to Costco with Christine. Much more tiresome is a storyline in which Chip competes with a hot young stud that his wife has taken up with. The outcome of that competition, and Chip’s aggressive insecurity, are as predictable as can be.
Chip is the latest in a very long line of transgressive men on TV who are dismissive to those around them — due to difficult family history and secret pain, of course — and whose struggles are almost completely generated by self-sabotage and contempt-laced self-absorption. Given how many characters on TV have fit that profile in the past decade or two, in prestigious dramas and edgy comedies, it’s hard to generate any interest in those kinds of unsatisfied men, unless the stories they’re part of are executed with unique insights and exceptional vision.
But very little of this sad clown’s life feels fresh or urgently original. That said, if Christine and Martha went on a road trip in order to get away from the sour man in white greasepaint, a wise viewer would follow them.