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Louie Anderson Helped Make ‘Baskets’ a Selfless TV Treasure

The late comedian brought a certain kind of care to Christine Baskets that made the whole show a richer family portrait.

Louie Anderson, "Baskets"

Louie Anderson, “Baskets”

ERICA PARISE/FX

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Baskets: Hulu (The series originally aired on FX.)

The “Baskets” pilot is a marvelous thing. In 27 minutes, it manages to tell the story of a whole family, even when its main character spends a decent chunk of it half a world away, studying to be a clown in the most fervent and inefficient way possible. But even as “Baskets” shows the many ups and downs in the life of Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis), he’s far from the only one in the title family who gets a memorable introduction. Chip’s brother Dale (also Galifianakis) makes his first impression via an ad for his for-profit Baskets Career College. (“All kinds of chutneys!” is really how you get a TV character going.)

Of course, the matriarch of the family is where “Baskets” really honed in on what made the show special. After the news of Louie Anderson’s passing late last week, a number of remembrances pointed to his work as Christine Baskets, Chip and Dale’s mother. One clip that made the rounds shows a quick trip to the Bakersfield-area Costco, with Christine marveling at samples and filling her cart. The trick of that Christine performance is that nearly all of Anderson’s scene had that same effect, the idea that you were watching a slice in a person’s life that captured them in their full essence.

That’s true for the scenes of Christine discovering tiny wonders to be awed by. It’s also true for the ones that found Christine gently boasting or lamenting about the state of her children. “Baskets” wasn’t afraid to give Anderson moments that wrapped up Christine’s gentle demeanor with some scathing sentiments underneath. The performance is kind of a magic trick in that way, presented at such an even keel but flexible enough to show every side of a complicated character. There’s some lingering disappointment in Christine, who doesn’t exactly hide the ways that her son’s lives have turned out different than her hopes. Rather than overplay those ideas, Anderson’s gift was keeping balanced while letting those cracks peek through whenever they needed to.

Anderson was open about basing his performance in part on his mother, a connection that also eventually lead to him writing a 2018 book about their relationship. There’s an ease to the way he played Christine that maybe comes across best in a partnership promo video done in advance of “Baskets” Season 3. Just watching Anderson react in real time to a miniature kitchen being operated, you can see how much of that sing-song cadence and mix of awe and skepticism seems second nature. By then, he had already nabbed an Emmy for the performance, but there was something in Christine that only got richer the farther “Baskets” went on.

Watching the show’s initial season, it’s still fascinating to see a show wrestle with gentleness and simmering sadness in equal measure. Chip is a frustrated man, which can easily lead to a frustrating show. What saves “Baskets” from overwhelming cynicism is a collective selflessness. Jonathan Krisel, in directing every episode of the series and writing a number of them, helps to set up an atmosphere that taps into the weight and anxiety of everyday life. Sure, there’s some extra dusting of absurdity on top — who doesn’t love a good montage set to “Conga” by Miami Sound Machine? — but most of the series is watching a family and the people closest to them process all the curveballs that come their way. There’s loss, rejection, and judgment, balanced out by a particular kind of uneasy bond that pulls them all together.

For all of the blissful specificity of Christine and her very particular forms of pride (family recipes, American manufacturing, the romantic successes of her sons), Anderson may well have shined the most when he said nothing at all. Watching Christine absorb every emotion on the spectrum, from joy to jealousy, from contented bliss to muted confusion, made it a performance worth treasuring. It’s an energy that all of Anderson’s co-stars seemed to really connect with, even when their characters were at odds. In a standup, hosting, and acting career that yielded plenty of memorable contributions (this could easily have been a tribute to his arc on “Search Party”), Christine Baskets is a 40-episode achievement worth singling out.

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