Courtesy of The New York Times

February 4, 2016

Baskets: The Unseen Side of Clowns

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Zach Galifianakis’ latest project involves him clowning around — literally. He teams up with creators Louis C. K. (writer and star of Louie) and Jonathan Krisel (director of Portlandia) for a delightfully unorthodox comedy about pursuing your dream no matter what anyone else tries to tell you. Baskets is as odd as you would assume and then some, but its peculiarity feeds and then starves your need to know what happens next. The trailer for the show invites the curious in for a peek at the darker side of being a clown: it’s smart and refreshing.

The FX show revolves around Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) and his failed endeavors to assimilate into real life while pursuing his seemingly bizarre ambition of becoming a professional clown. The television show’s strange nature has a selective audience, as its humor will either completely appeal to its viewers or turn them off. Nonetheless, between its premise and Galifianakis’ charismatic presence, Baskets leaves viewers satisfied.

The first episode opens with Baskets taking courses at a prestigious clown college in France — Le Academie de Clown Francais. Baskets quickly realizes that, lacking fluency in French, he will experience great difficulty when performing, both in and out of the classroom.

Beside himself, he moves to rural Bakersfield, California with his girlfriend Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) to find another way to fulfill his destiny as a clown. After using Baskets as a reason to leave France, Penelope distances herself once they arrive in California. Baskets is thus on his own to find work and start making a living. He takes a job as a rodeo clown, losing his clown name Renoir and reluctantly facing reality.

After his sobering return from overseas, Baskets faces a number of challenges. He must now deal with his overeager mom, Christine (Louie Anderson), and compete with his twin brother Dale (also Galifianakis) to be the more successful and win Christine’s approval.

Along the road to his desired success, Baskets meets Martha (Martha Kelly), an insurance claims worker who delivers her lines with a deadpan tone that will knock you dead every damn time. She is a victim of circumstance and befriends Baskets pitifully, though she ultimately proves herself to be a loyal companion.

Baskets’ situation is borderline hopeless, and his personality is not easy to love right off the bat. The fact that Christine was willing to fund Baskets’ flight all the way to France to attend clown college makes, in retrospect, no sense due to the language barrier. The exposition we must endure to get to the point where we find humor in Baskets’ situation is too lengthy in contrast to Galifianakis’ past projects. The idea of a clown not being able to fill their role in society as an entertainer is unfortunate. Baskets’ humor is neither animated nor emotional, but it is smart.

The dialogue is witty and fast-paced, and not a line is wasted. The show’s little scenes are jam-packed with hilarity as well. In the pilot, one brilliant scene shows Baskets and Martha struggling to order flavored soda. With each line, you can almost count down to when he blows his fuse.

Only Galifianakis could take on the role so delicately, and he fascinates audiences with his portrayal of Baskets’ dead-end life. He understands the gravity of the situation and works with bold determination to put his life back together. He shines in the show. Like the other characters, he is typecast as an awkward and strange soul. Baskets walks to the beat of his own drum and has an angsty flair to everything he does. His frustration is evident throughout the show so far, and we cannot help but to slightly sympathize with him. The tension of the show is simple, but distinct from any of Galifianakis’ previous roles: Baskets desires to fit in with the rest of society as a clown, but cannot. The demand for clowns is low, but the demand for dreamers is always high. Galifianakis is very committed to the role and does all of his own clown stunts.

Martha is standoffish as well, and her low-key admiration for Baskets is equally sweet and comical. Christine is also everything you would hope for in a loving mom, from her Costco membership to her shamelessly sharing photos of her children throughout the year. Anderson is hilarious in this role, and he gives Christine a perfect quirky air.

The pilot season of Baskets is only six episodes, but I expect recurring hilarity throughout the successive four. The show’s premiere on Jan. 21 broke records for FX as 1.75 million viewers tuned in, the most-watched basic cable comedy premiere since 2014. The deadpan jokes and stellar cast make this show a must-see.

Marina Watts is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].