Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) is in France, attempting to learn the craft of clowning, despite not knowing the language. This opening sequence from Baskets, which lays the groundwork for Chip’s adventures in suburban Texas, suggests a provocative concept about the nature of comedy: How exactly is one to take it seriously when seriousness kills humor? Chip’s attempts at learning the craft of clowning yields no results, but rather uncovers a distinctly American fool, one who can be funny from failing to be “funny.”
There’s a hint in these early, fleeting moments of something that Charlie Chaplin might have sunk his teeth into, a scenario that feels inherently tied to high-end physical gags for a top-tier buffoon. But as soon as our hero arrives stateside, Baskets quickly devolves into a dreadful, if strange and intermittently fascinating, comedy of bleakness, as Galifianakis’s disappointed fool takes a job as a rodeo clown for dirt pay. The actor, who created the series and produces alongside Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel, presents a world that’s made only of awkward exchanges and hardships, and where selling out or taking a go-nowhere day job are the only options in attaining some level of contentment.
Not only does Baskets depict no real joy in life for an artist, it tends to fetishize the purveying cliché of commercialism and hopelessness ruling over the South and Midwest. The story saddles Chip with a European wife, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), who doesn’t love him and bleeds him for what little money he has; she seemingly exists only to underline how lonely and pathetic Chip is. The same could be said of Chip’s mother (Louie Anderson, in drag), who praises Chip’s mildly successful twin, Dale (Galifianakis), and the ample savings at Costco. Only Martha (Martha Kelly), Chip’s dutiful insurance agent, exudes something like genuine kindness toward Chip, and, in turn, she’s treated rather horribly by Chip and depicted as a terminal pushover.
Baskets settles for being a dingy theater of humiliation, like the very worst scenes in Todd Solondz’s films, without the visual flare or bold, challenging characters. The series is all sunbaked dreariness, filled with hard-asses, the shallowly confident, and the weak-willed, with few exceptions. Its ultimate goal seems to be little more than to depict the struggles of a rude, vaguely talented artist, and to find entertainment in his ego-driven failures.
Even if the show’s premise suggests an interest in, and knowledge of, the tremendous struggle of a burgeoning performer, Baskets evinces no sign of empathy for those who toil at the unglamorous work of building up an act or any other sort of expressive art. And if the impulse for the show’s narrative is to shoot straight about the rarity of monetary success and fame as an artist, let alone a performer as self-obsessed, delusional, and ignorant as Chip, that feeling finally comes off as nothing more nuanced or experiential than Liz Lemon’s famous assertion that everything’s the worst.