“Baskets” tells the story of Chip Baskets, a Bakersfield, CA resident who moved to Paris to become a real, true, “authentic” clown. He loves clowning. It’s his passion and, he hopes, his lifelong professional pursuit. The only issue is…he’s not great at it. He didn’t finish school and was forced to return to the hometown he hates, restricted by his overbearing family — a mother who’s very sweet, but just doesn’t understand her son, and a twin brother who is the “successful” one — and a wife who is only using him for access to the United States and what little money he has. So now he’s stuck trying to find artistic satisfaction as a rodeo clown while living up to the preconceived standards of the community around him.
On first impression, “Baskets” sounds like a delightful, original and inspired idea. Its setting and central characters are certainly unlike anything else on TV, and that’s always a great place to start when competition for viewers has never been higher. But after spending time with the series, the limitations of what initially feels freeing become vivid. You’re often left wondering where the show will go next, but not because it feels as though anything can happen. Instead, it’s like you’re caught in a cycular pattern of failure playing out with varying degrees of weirdness.
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That’s not to say there aren’t surprises. The first five episodes of “Baskets” are packed with on-brand Galifianakis humor: hostile, timid and uniquely observant. Chip is the kind of character Galifianakis has built a career of off, making him a welcome main attraction for episodic television. Anyone who enjoyed “Between Two Ferns,” “Due Date” or “Bored To Death” should find plenty to chuckle at as Baskets careens around the screen with inexplicable purpose, often catching the audience off guard with desires very apparent to him, if wholly unpredictable to anyone else.
Yet it’s only as the show gets past these early allures that we get to peek behind the curtain; beyond Chip’s odd expectations to see where he got them. To do this, “Baskets” employs two of its best characters — who, when combined with Galifianakis, make it impossible not to have hope for the series’ future. Most pertinent in understanding Chip’s delicate psyche is his mother, played by Louie Anderson — yes, that Louie Anderson, the male comedian who, it turns out, can give a moving performance as a religious, gossipy, older woman. When co-creators Galifianakis and Louis C.K. discussed how they came to cast Anderson in the role, it basically came down to the voice that Galifianakis heard in his head when thinking of what Chip’s mother would sound like. C.K. identified it as Anderson’s and pushed his collaborator to discuss the role with him.
It’s this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes “Louie” stand out, and it’s a choice that really does help “Baskets” feel fresh. Anderson isn’t used as a gimmick, and neither is his character. She’s written beautifully; specific to her situation but familiar as a mother. Moreover, she helps illustrate just what motivates Chip and, just as often, but keeps him down.
The fly in the ointment — and I say that with the utmost love and admiration — is Martha, played by newcomer Martha Kelly. Roped into Chip’s life by fate and her own sheer will, Martha becomes Chip’s “friend” while acting more like his assistant. Their connection is a thin one, and it’s unclear whether or not there’s a romantic bond. They just seem to share a dynamic that works for the show, if not necessarily a believable one in reality.
But Martha Kelly makes you want to forget that issue because Martha the character is just the best. Early on, viewers may feel sorry for Martha or even angered by the terse nature of she and Chip’s odd relationship. As mentioned, it’s a connection that needs to be explained — and how it goes about doing so will be key in whether or not the FX comedy can fully come together by season’s end — but “Baskets” does a fine job illustrating that it aims to do just that, step by step, in small increments. And Martha is there to win you over while the show takes its time connecting the non-couple.