FX’s Baskets: Send in the Clown

No matter what terrible thing happens in your life, it doesn’t matter, because you’re in on the joke. – Chip Baskets

A relatively small cast, a translucent topic, and unforeseen shifts in story and focus are just some of the early takeaways from FX’s newest comedy project Baskets. Not every show could pull off the obscurity, the subtlety of it, but most shows aren’t blessed with Zach Galifianakis. It’s a name that conjures visions of physical, subversive, and improvisational comedy, not to mention a “what’s he going to do next” style of mentality. Those things exist in the Baskets universe, but they’re accompanied with a higher brand of artistic style, focusing less on flash and more on substance.

When the series was announced, the question was how much story could possibly be told about a professional clown, trained in France, before the audience moved along. But, when you watch Baskets, one of the big realizations is you’re in a world you recognize, but maybe not one you’ve lived in yourself. Bits and pieces of this place, these are the things you know, but, at its core, Baskets is about people. But, its oddity does make it an acquired taste. It won’t be for everybody.

First thing’s first, if you’re worried about a foreign setting, you’ll be happy to find out the program brings its narrative back to the United States relatively quickly. If all you knew of the show came from the various trailers and clips shown during other FX programming, you might assume you understand what Baskets is, but you’d be wrong.

Created by Louis C.K., Galifianakis, and showrunner Jonathan Krisel, this could be one of the more ambitious comedies anyone has ever attempted. In the five episodes provided to critics, Baskets moves gradually, but in a uniquely logical fashion from point to point. Though comparisons are there to Louie, the two shows are quite different. Baskets is less crass, relies on charm and defined character roles, and while Zach and Louis both take broad steps as wide-open lead actors, both appear to be on the same page as it relates to not overexposing themselves too quickly.

Zach plays Chip and Dale Baskets, twin brothers, the clown and the businessman (a term used very loosely in this case). Both are quirky, and Chip feels more standard Galifianakis, while Dale is closer to the characters we’ve seen in films like The Campaign, just as an example. Unquestionably, consumable jokes are everywhere, but Baskets enjoys its absurdity, its unpredictability, and also its misery.

Chip’s existence as a clown is largely a failure, but the choice of a clown is intriguing for a different reason. Coulrophobia is a real thing, and though at one time I found it patently ridiculous, today I see it a bit differently. Clowns, and not the ones in outer space or ones named Shakes that drink themselves into stupors, are pretty creepy. Why would anyone do it? What’s the joy in it? It’s built on hiding a face with a fake smile, created in paint, that masks genuine emotion. Usually, clowns do one of two things: serve as the butt of jokes, or tease others and create humor at their expense. It’s a world of deception, tricks, and makeup.

Renoir, or Baskets the Clown, is a guy with a loving mother (more on her in just a bit), but aimless, naïve, and at times, infuriatingly self-centered. He’s almost continuously unhappy, walks around in a haze like an animatronic mood ring. Outside of Bozo and Cookie, how many normal, well-adjusted clowns do you remember in media portrayals? Krusty isn’t exactly a hero. The aforementioned Shakes was a terrible human being. Killer Klowns in Outer Space terrified me in middle school. Homey the Clown beat kids with a loaded sock. Pennywise, well that’s pretty obvious. It’s the sinister nature of clowns that we all associate with them. I never had one at my birthdays growing up. I never asked for one. I never even considered asking for one. They do not frighten me, but I can do without clowns. No offense to our large contingent of Outkick fans that work in clowning.

Come to think of it, do we REALLY know Bozo and Cookie? What was in those Archway treats?

Baskets isn’t a mean clown. He’s not a creepy clown. He’s just psychologically lost, with virtually no idea what to do with his life or how to treat those who inhabit it. He takes a horrible rodeo clown gig for virtually no money, because it enables him to do what he loves. He lives in a cruddy motel and borrows cash from anybody necessary in order to hand it over to a woman who has no interest in him whatsoever. The roof over his head changes a few episodes into the series, though that alteration doesn’t inspire optimism for his future.

Chip lives on hopes and dreams but without any semblance of reality to those proceedings. Life happens around him, but he might as well be one of the three blind mice. The answers aren’t amorphous blobs, outside the realm of our understanding, but he’s stubborn about what he wants and who he is. He’s self-damaged and stubborn, but not a terrible person. He’s one of a kind, which makes him far more interesting.

So, where’s the comedy? Well, as with many of today’s better programs, Baskets requires and rewards patience. As you watch, you’ll have a duality of feeling, unless there’s an immediate dislike and you run screaming away to something else. First, you’ll wonder what the hell you’re actually seeing on the screen. Second, you’ll know you want to see more of it, even if you aren’t quite sure why or in any way where it’s headed. I hope you stick with it, because even though it might not be an A+ yet, it’s already entertaining, engaging, and filled with likable ideas and individuals.

Outside of Zach, let’s talk about Louie Anderson. His is a name that hasn’t been around for a while, but it’s one you might want to get used to again. You’ll see articles very soon – if you haven’t already – speaking to Louie as a future Emmy winner, or at least a nominee. As a matter of fact, let me be one of the first to jump in and proclaim his brilliance. He plays Chip and Dale’s mother, Christine, and the performance goes from very good, to great, to jaw-droppingly sublime. It’s amazing to witness. Louie doesn’t make a pretty woman, but the work is believable, nuanced, and deep. In short, it’s a knockout.

Christine isn’t a drunk or a foul-mouthed sad sack or an abusive woman, even if she’s a bit much to take. She loves her children almost as much as she enjoys her dessert. She helps them, both when they ask and when they don’t. She behaves like a protective mother, and Louie never hams it up. He’s very understated, which is why it works. If it was “Louie Anderson playing a woman,” it would fail, but instead, it’s Louie Anderson acting, as the gender is completely irrelevant.

By the time I reached the end of the fifth episode, it was actually possible to forget Louie was a man at all. Christine (and her Easter Sunday headwear) took over the screen, which is about as big a compliment as can be paid to an actor attempting to lose his own variance from a fictional construct. It’s not an easy job, but Louie makes it look like a basic addition problem. He is stunningly good.

Another name that might be unfamiliar to you is Martha Kelly, a stand-up comic from Texas, who plays, well she plays Martha, a Costco insurance employee who befriends Chip in the first episode and then just sticks around, even as he treats her poorly half the time. She too, doesn’t take up the entire screen, as her character speaks in even tones, never screaming, and never seeming to be either happy or sad. She also doesn’t know the difference between a dog and…other animals, to preserve a plot point from a later episode.

Martha is so much fun to watch, because she refuses to let the highs and lows get to her. She’s the type that would rather “go missing” than force her supervisor to fire her, because she knows it would hurt him to have to do it. She’s not an idiot, but at times she comes across dim, but in general, she’s just unmolded putty. She goes with the flow, but clearly would like to keep Chip in her life, even if she has to help him in his futile attempts with Penelope, the wife who wanted a green card.

I haven’t talked much about Galifianakis himself, but that shouldn’t be taken as a slight. His performance is expected, just as we knew what Louis C.K. was capable of within the first 15-minutes of the Louie pilot. Baskets succeeds because everything else is so good, because it isn’t just a Zach-driven vehicle where without him, there’s no show. It’s definitely enhanced by his special brand of comedy (and drama), but there’s more than one tent pole here. Martha grounds the wires. Christine is a key component of the foundation. Dale and his family serve as insight into the family.

When I finished all five episodes, I knew I enjoyed myself, but still felt like something might be missing. I didn’t, however, believe that the missing item wasn’t there, but that it simply hadn’t been fully revealed. Just as a clown is ineffective if the paint sweats off or the man or woman underneath the makeup reveals an internal darkness, Baskets is a show that starts with the clown face, and is slowly peeling layers away to display something new. The best way I can describe my thoughts is the program is the reverse of a clown. It’s about getting past the facade and discovering, then exploring the underlying truth.

Galifianakis provides some physical stuff, taking a few spills, and he often travels on roller blades, when Martha isn’t giving him a ride. He throws some things, teaches a Juggalo how to become an actual member of society, and he’s afraid to work at Arby’s, even though his mom wants nothing more than the ability to make her own curly fries. If all of this randomness sounds like nonsense, you’d be surprised at how well it all fits into the proceedings. Even the phrase “mad clown love,” has its place.

The surreal is everywhere, but the emotion lives on solid ground. It’s absurd, right before it’s painfully honest. Perhaps more interestingly, even though moments of anger exist, Baskets isn’t a 30-minute weekly argument; a conceit many comedies fall into rather quickly. The conflict does have resolution, and most of the people don’t always hate one another. Chip and Dale aren’t great friends, though they both share the knowledge that hot dogs and rice are a bad mix, requiring two bathrooms to adequately control.

The potential is huge here, as there is much to like. You’ll laugh at Baskets. You’ll marvel at Louie. You’ll sympathize and smile at Martha. You’ll be impressed with Zach. You’ll be happy the show exists. You’ll sympathize with these characters and these people. You’ll think some of it to be a little low brow, but the vast majority worthy of your attention. You’ll get a sense that the rather small cast enjoys working with one another, and you’ll grasp what lies behind the clown face. A man, who has few friends and a different kind of family…

But, it’s one you don’t mind hanging out with and getting to know better. It’s worth the trip to Bakersfield. Set your DVR, and then shut off your expectations.

I’m @GuyNamedJason. I’m not only the dean; I’m also a student. I AM A CLOON!

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.