Television Review: “Baskets” is still stubbornly playing by its own rules in the beginning of its promising second season.
“Baskets” was one of the big surprises of the 2016 year in television, and not for the reasons you might expect. This is not to say we shouldn’t have predicted a great show, considering that the show’s brain trust includes folks like Zach Galifinakis, Louis C.K. and “Portlandia” director Jonathan Krisel. It’s just that when I first saw the ads for the show before its Season One premiere, the whole concept behind it seemed a little… I suppose there’s no other word for it, easy. And the worst parts of “Baskets” season one were the ones that substituted what would become its trademark thread of bizarrely melancholic tragicomedy for low-hanging, cheap gags about Juggalos and Arby’s, which is to say nothing of Juggalos who actually work at Arby’s. Granted, Galifinakis himself is such a natural clown that he’s been proven himself overly qualified to enliven even the dreariest of enterprises (see: the “Hangover” sequels,” Jared Hess’ recent “Masterminds”). It was probably only a matter of time before someone cast him as an actual clown.
Alas, “Baskets” went deeper, darker and stranger in its often remarkable first season than I ever could have guessed. The show’s tone was unlike most other comedies on television, even “Louie,” the half-hour comedy to which “Baskets” owes much of its creative DNA. In addition to Chip Baskets, Bakersfield’s own low-IQ Pagliacci and the show’s dogged hero, Galifinakis also played Chip’s brother Dale, a judgmental, prissy suburban dad, in effect accessing a whole new side of his comic persona. Martha Kelly gave the show’s most nuanced turn as Chip’s horrifically depressed but weirdly practical sort-of love interest (also named Martha), though much critical ink has obviously been spilt praising Louie Anderson’s admittedly fearless turn as Chip’s smothering materfamilias. “Baskets” could have easily coasted on Galifinakis’ one-of-a-kind oddball screen presence and its conspicuous penchant for broad, slapstick laughs, but the show has instead morphed into one of the saddest and most unique comedies of its kind. And on the basis of the second season’s odd, moving premiere “Freaks,” “Baskets” is back in a big way.
If “Baskets” had solely concerned itself with guttersniping and absurdist gags in its first season, there wouldn’t be any reason to tune into this one. But by the looks of things, “Baskets” is growing even more assured in its tone, which is equal parts morose surreality and deadpan understatement. Think the desert ennui Monte Hellman or early Bob Rafelson by way of the gnarliest Tim and Eric anti-comedy you can think of and you’re probably within spitting distance.
We’re entering an era of television where comedies — recent examples include live-action entries like “Atlanta” and “Lady Dynamite” as well as animated gems such as “Bojack Horseman” and “Rick and Morty” — are taking bigger gambles with tone and format than many (if not all) of their hour-long dramatic counterparts. “Baskets” is a particularly unclassifiable entry in this subgenre I’ve just described it, and watching it is like watching a performer attempt a high-wire act while suspended over a pool of piranhas. There are a million ways that this material could go wrong, but somehow, “Baskets” stays its nimble course with cracked humor, unexpected compassion and a healthy dose of downbeat Americana.
When we last saw Chip Baskets, he had hit rock bottom. His surly French wife basically told him to get lost, his gig at the rodeo was going nowhere and even Martha had fallen into Dale’s predatory, lotion-slicked embrace when they consummated their sexual tryst in the back of Dale’s community college van. What’s a onetime aspiring clown to do? Hit the dusty trail, of course.
The opening stretch of “Baskets” is light on Mama Baskets, Dale and Martha — we glimpse each of them early on, if only briefly — as it depicts Chip’s dire existence as a train-hopping hobo straight out of a John Lee Hooker tune. Chip’s new hobo life elicits some enormous laughs in the early goings, like when Chip tries to open a can of soup sans can opener by throwing it at a stop sign or smashing it against a railway track. Later, while attempting to hide himself in a freight car, he lights a cigarette and burns his own ponytail off. This is the world “Baskets” plays in and if what I’ve just described sounds like your idea of sublime comedy, then perhaps this is the show for you.
Chip’s odyssey across the California/Oregon border takes a menacing turn when he encounters a gang of wandering homeless vagrants, living on the fringes near rivers and underpasses and making ends meet by performing dime-store magic routines for hordes of tourists. Also, they’re all named after characters from the “Matrix” movies, because that’s the kind of show this is. At first, it seems that Chip has finally found what he’s been searching for since the beginning of season one: not just a family that will love and accept him, but a family of performers, of artists. When Chip’s attention-grabbing pratfalls draw a wedge between him and the group’s only female member, Trinity (Mary Wiseman, wonderful), he is met with an ominous portent: “you have no idea who these people are”.
And no, he certainly does not. When we first see Chip gallivanting through the coastal wilderness with his new family, Krisel films it like something out of an Arthurian fairy tale. It’s lush and romantic, a far cry from the show’s usual grubby portrait of America’s under-scrubbed armpits. There is a sense of true acceptance with these freaks that Chip has probably never felt before, and watching Chip in his new life, you almost sense that this whole foray is too good to be true. Alas, it is: what begins as bucolic splendor and burrito bowls by the river breakfast quickly morphs into something much darker when Chip and his new family break into a family’s empty suburban home one night to escape the rain. At first, the freaks simply strip their clothes and start helping themselves to food and wine. Then the needles, heroin and prescription medication are busted out and Chip realizes exactly what kind of “family” he’s been accepted into.
The episode leaves some doors open, with Chip being apprehended by the police in the show’s final frame, and Mama Baskets venturing outside of her sheltered suburban existence to search for her missing son. And yet, even as someone who is accustomed to the bitter tone of this show, I have to say these last five minutes of “Freaks” were some of the darkest “Baskets” has ever dared to air. While the opening moments of the episode feel lyrical, almost romantic — like one of Andrea Arnold’s low-road tone poems, a less hyper-kinetic version of last year’s startling “American Honey” — the climactic stretch unapologetically verges into grotesque Harmony Korine-style territory. The image of poor Chip, surrounded by the lithe, comatose bodies of junked-out strangers in a house he doesn’t recognize is a truly haunting one, and one that will no doubt resonate with anyone who has had friends fall victim to the needle. The fact that “Baskets” manages both queasy laughs and genuine pathos within the span of the same aforementioned scene is just one of the things that makes it indispensable television viewing.
Galifinakis is often cast as an immature, temperamental manchildren and while his skill at creating these characters is undeniable, I don’t find that critics or audiences often talk about how strangely sweet the actor can be in the right part. There’s a demented innocence to his characters, including Chip, that may only marginally excuse their more deplorable behavior, but nevertheless provides context for the pain and hurt beneath all the facial hair and alarming non sequiturs.
Some movies and shows don’t know what to do with Galifinakis: his screen presence is too strange, too singular, to be distilled into a one-size-fits-all comedic type, and many directors miss the mark widely by asking him to sleepwalk through stale sitcom routines that were getting old when Pauly Shore was everyone’s “Son-in-Law” in the early 90’s. “Baskets” works better than many of Galifinakis’ feature efforts because he appears to be in complete creative control and is writing the role for himself. Whereas the first season of “Baskets” took about three or four episodes to find its footing, this new season is as confident in its execution as the show has ever been. That it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea seems like an obvious point to make, but it’s hard to deny that “Baskets” is a strong and pungent brew that’s unlike anything else in the current T.V. comedy landscape.
“Freaks” is a funnier-than-usual episode of “Baskets” that also carries the lingering sting of futility: the futility of wandering this bleak earth in search of a family and discovering that your new kin are, in fact, a band of thieving drug addicts. Where will this rambling, sour, beautiful show go in its remaining episodes? It would certainly be a shame if “Baskets” were sucked back into the machinations of its first season, recycling various humiliating scenarios, having Mama Baskets drone on about Costco deals and her two nephews who are also DJs, and seeing Chip continually reach for what Don Quixote called “the impossible dream”. But “Baskets,” true to its freakish nature, has no interest in taking the main streets to get to its final destination. What this show is attempting to do isn’t easy and like the best clowns, “Baskets” manages this magic act without breaking a sweat.
Grade: “Freaks,” A-.