So Why Don’t You?

Louis C.K. has his fingers in a lot of pies these days.  The great auteur figure of 21st-century comedy maintains, in addition to a robust touring schedule as a stand-up comedian, a production company that shepherds his own television projects.  These include straight-up documentaries, stand-up specials by himself and some of his colleagues, his own ground-breaking sitcom Louie, and the striking theatrical semi-drama Horace and Pete.  He’s developed skills in writing, editing, filmmaking, production, and the business of television, and has become a sort of one-man industry, making his mark in a genre of television not normally associated with anything like artistic depth.

So it’s really not a surprise to learn that he’s one of the driving forces behind Baskets, a passingly strange comedy that recently appeared on FX (also home to Louie and C.K.’s preferred home outside of his successful platform of self-released material).  He serves as the show’s co-creator, executive producer, and co-writer for many episodes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s at least in part a product of his sensibilities.  C.K.’s aesthetic is hard to pin down — there are vast tonal ranges between his standup, his film products, and his TV shows, and you’d have to know a lot about him to square the fact that he wrote both Louie and Horace and Pete.  But it’s definitely got his fingerprints on it, and especially in the earliest episodes of the first season, you get his blend of awkward despair and comedic resentment. The other creative forces behind Baskets are Zach Galafianakis, who came up with the concept and stars in the lead role, and Tim & Eric veteran Jonathan Krisel, who directs and acts as showrunner.

Each man brings his own particular sensibility to the show, and it’s even pretty easy to suss out their individual voices in the chorus:  Galafianakis brings his penchant for absurd situations and his self-perception as a delusional, slightly aggressive egotist to the lead role of Chip Baskets (a pun name it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out).  Krisel is responsible for the visual aesthetic, saturated in the unwitting camp of rinky-dink middle America, and C.K. constructs the off-kilter combination of black humor and emotional weight.  All the elements for a great comedy are right there on screen, but they don’t always work; Galafianakis’ stony irony can get in the way of the more dramatic elements, and Krisel’s surrealist approach makes for a very odd background to C.K.’s dark but essentially humanist palate.

When the show clicks, though, it clicks like crazy.  Deftly combining scripted shoots with a tight improvisational approach, it gives the characters just enough room to breathe that they deliver tremendously on the laughs.  Both seasons yaw dizzily between tones, starting out with over-the-top lunacy and concluding with heavy dramatic lifting; both seasons rely very heavily on our ability to identify with a main character far harder to identify with than Louis C.K. at his most alienating.  But while the laughs aren’t always there (and there are uncomfortably long patches that seem a bit directionless), when they do come, they come in huge gasping gusts, leaving the viewer wondering where such brilliance came from.

The show’s plot doesn’t really matter all that much, as might be expected.  Chip Baskets is the product of a broken home, with a depressed mother and a father who was a suicide, but those are angles that don’t really get explored until we’re introduced to him as a towering icon of self-delusion:  a surly fail-son with an unjustified chip on his shoulder as big as his first name and a relentless dedication to the calling that he is consumed by, but has no particular talent for — clowning.  After washing out of a prestigious French clowning academy (where he went by the name “Renoir”) because he couldn’t be bothered to learn the language, he slinks home to live with his mother in Bakersfield, California.  He’s accompanied by his spoiled wife, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba of the Brazilian Girls), who married him for a green card, and antagonized by his twin brother Dale, a prissy perfectionist who runs a trade school and has just enough success to be able to lord it over his sibling.  One of the other problems Baskets had early on is that it didn’t really figure out what to do with the character of Martha, Chip’s insurance agent and quasi-friend, until late in the first season, but it’s hard to hold this against the show since Martha Kelly’s deadpan performance is such a delight from beginning to end.

Of course, the real revelation of the show, as detailed in pretty much every article ever written about Baskets, is Louie Anderson as Christine, Chip’s mother.  Dressed in blowsy southwestern retiree drag, Anderson — a comedian who’s been kicking around since the early ’80s but who’s never been given this juicy a role to take on — plays Christine to absolute perfection.  Burdened with the weight of some dark family secrets, she’s learned to hide a sharp edge behind a mask of banal pleasantry; when the script gives her a chance to twist the knife, Anderson throws all his force behind the twist.  But Christine is also a woman for whom the mask has become part of her identity, and Anderson gets some of the show’s hugest laughs by letting Christine chatter non-stop about little consumer frissons, comparing the quality of the various Arby’s in town or taking almost transcendent pleasure in different varieties of fruit-flavored waters.

Baskets has just been renewed for a third season, and considering the paces through which it sent its key players up to now, there’s some reason to fear that there’s nowhere to go but down.  Still, it’s a show with so much talent behind it that every time you think it’s finally expended all its goodwill, it busts out with a giant comic moment that justifies all the exertion.  It may not be the best thing its three creators have ever done individually, but it’s probably the best thing we could expect them to do together.

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