In this so-called Golden Age of television fueled by binge-watching and blogging from all corners of
the internet, it is important to consider how our TV reverence influences our judgment of comedy. Hit shows like “Louie” and “Portlandia,” highly acclaimed by fans and critics alike, are regarded for their humor, but more often for their status as high-quality television. What makes them so beloved is not their punch lines, but their uniqueness, found in artful cinematography. So it makes perfect sense that “Baskets,” the new FX comedy starring Zach Galifianakis should debut now and reap the benefits.
Created and produced by none other than Jonathan Krisel (“Portlandia”), Louis C.K. (“Louie”) and Galifianakis himself, “Baskets” is exactly what you expect it to be, in an unexpected way. Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, an aspiring professional clown who fails out of clown college in Paris because he cannot speak a word of French. After moving back home to Bakersfield, California (a slightly less cultured city), Chip struggles to find work worthy of his artistic pretentions and settles on a job as a rodeo clown. After crashing his main method of transportation, a baby blue scooter, Chip meets Martha (Martha Kelly) a kind insurance agent. Martha later gives Chip a ride to his mother’s house, where Mom Baskets (Louie Anderson) clearly expresses disappointment in Chip’s untraditional career path.
The first two episodes of “Baskets” are disappointment after disappointment for Chip. Even though audiences are used to mocking Galifianakis’ failures, this time it is different. As host of Funny or Die’s “Between Two Ferns,” Galifianakis’ best moments were those that exposed his insecurities. When attempts to intimidate interviewees backfired and he became defensive, he was at his best. “The Hangover,” his big break, was carried to icon status by his irrational, impulsive character. In “Baskets,” however, the audience has to adjust to a different kind of mocking humor. Even though Galifianakis is his usual defensive, insecure self, his constant failures are met with more pity than laughs.
When Chip fails out of clown college only to return to his home of Bakersfield, you feel a little disgust for such an ugly, strip-mall filled place. His hometown is unattractive like a scene from the “Workaholics” office — boring, industrial and overall unaccommodating for an aspiring artist. Even then, Chip struggles to find success from what he considers art and others consider foolishness. Chip’s life as a sad clown is presented with the “Portlandia”-esque realism that has Krisel written all over it. There is the constant mentioning of Arby’s and Costco, and the casting of people who do not look like they belong on TV, meaning they look like real people. In showing audiences these imperfect people in an imperfect place, “Baskets” aligns itself with the realistic sadness of “Portlandia” and “Louie.”
The success of “Baskets” rests on both if audiences are ready for another sad sitcom and if they are ready to see Galifianakis in such a role. Regardless, it is self-assured after two episodes and signifies the rise of more prestigious, alternative comedy. Chip may not be able to get laughs in Bakersfield, but let’s hope that viewers will like watching him fail.