Zach Galifianakis' Brilliant 'Baskets' Nukes the Golden Age of TV
Television is better than ever. The path from Dragnet and The Dick Van Dyke Show to Breaking Bad and Transparent was winding, even excruciatingly so at times. We’ll forgive and forget Small Wonder, but hey, we made it. Sophisticates who once leveled their berets and turned up their noses at sitcoms now relish in the contemplative, serio-drama of Louie. Serialized, character-driven stories replaced case-of-the-week nonsense. With Oscar-winning actors in tow, even wacky soap operas like Empire are prestige. The boob tube is now the glean screen. (OK, I'm still working on that one.)
But maybe TV's a little too smart? For anyone who's been lectured to on the cinematic camerawork of Halt and Catch Fire, been binge-shamed because they only made it to Mozart in the Jungle episode seven ("it gets better!"), comes FX's Baskets, a viciously goofball comedy where The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis cannonballs into TV's changing tides. His character, Chip Baskets, is a struggling clown with no sense of how the real world functions. Baskets presents itself like a snarling hybrid of Between Two Ferns, Jacques Tati's Playtime, and The Wonder Years. It's 100% bizarre and knowingly unlikable.
That's a compliment. Here are a few ways Baskets will piss you off, and, for those missing jackassery during these oh-so-serious days, inspire you:
Baskets flips the bird to artWe’re introduced to Chip -- excuse me, "Renoir the Clown" -- during class at a renowned French clown school. His professors are the masters of pratfalling, the gurus of juggling. Unfortunately, Renoir is an American chump. He quickly fails out and lands in the only place that will take him: a rodeo in his hometown. The fish-back-in-the-water story gives Baskets friction. Chip, an idiot, is stuck with Nouveau Réalisme dreams, even as he buffoons his way through real life. Basically, the show’s one big FU to every graduate program tying Dostoyevsky to Real Housewives of New Jersey. Sometimes lowbrow can be lowbrow.
The show finds joy in suburban malaiseChip’s hometown is every hometown -- dusty, routine, and fading. The scenery is drab. The people are boring. Everything is Kirkland-branded. At least, that’s how Chip sees it. Like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (or a handful of European films that’ll make me sound like Renoir the Clown) Baskets fills the space around Galifianakis with non-professionals who speak in flat, typical voices. There’s no acting. Following Baskets everywhere is Martha, a demure insurance claim adjuster willing to lend a helping hand and put up with his emotionally violent shit. She’s played by stand-up comedian Martha Kelly, who you wouldn’t recognize from anything and isn’t a traditionally snappy comedy costar. She’s also the greatest argument for chill suburban life since the Winslows. Folks in Bakersfield, CA like art, too.
The greatest casting choice? Louie AndersonThe comedian you know from Life with Louie and Family Feud plays Galifianakis’ mother on Baskets. As far as I -- and I’m assuming most people -- knew, the comedian’s career was relegated to stand-up gigs in nowheresvilles across America. That he could be starring in an FX show, home of star-studded hits like Fargo, speaks to a message of under-appreciation. Who knew Andreson talking about juice flavors could be so mesmerizing? Whether it’s a nod to John Waters’ Hairspray or just surrealist disruption, it’s a beautiful performance.
I swear it's funnyBaskets sounds bleak. And it is. But there are jokes -- odd, odder, and the oddest jokes. Galifianakis rattles off dimwitted observations and screams about asinine topics (a rambling bit where Chip requests Schweppes seltzer from a drive-thru speaker is there for every Hangover fan). Chip’s position as a rodeo clown opens the door for frequent bull mauling. The actor plays his own brother, Dale, a rootin’ tootin’ extension of his Funny or Die character "Seth Galifianakis." And the show’s direction is a joke in itself; how many listless, dusk-list moments have we seen in independent films and one-hour dramas. Baskets is parody without pointing to anything in particular.
Oh, Kato Kaelin shows upThe reality show-friendly house guest will make headlines again once The People Vs. O.J. premieres in February, but he beats the series to the Kaelinaissance by cameoing in the Baskets premiere. Yes, that’s him singing a pitchy version of the Star-Spangled Banner. No, he doesn’t get a close-up. So why is he in the show? The question, like everything in Baskets, will haunt you until your dying breath.
Baskets does not care about your feelingsBeyond the pilot, Baskets only stands to get weirder. The show isn’t Louie 2.0, despite counting Louis CK as a producer. Chip’s journey is real, his behavior is insane, and Galifianakis looks to be having a ball messing with the viewership. I’ll be there for every sad clown tear.
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He also loves Schweppes. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.