There’s a scene in the pilot episode of Baskets that could serve as a litmus test of sorts to determine whether you’ll find FX’s new Zach Galifianakis vehicle hilarious, horrific or a little of both.
Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets, who’s dropped out of a French clown academy and is plying his trade at the Buckaroo Rodeo in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., stands in a single spotlight and dreamily sprinkles glitter into the air as a maudlin ballad plays over the loudspeaker. Suddenly, an enormous bull charges into frame and knocks him face-first into the dirt, finally eliciting hoots and laughter from the befuddled audience.
Much of Baskets‘ humor arrives in the same swift, unexpected and painful fashion — and probably isn’t recommended for viewers who aren’t fond of seeing hapless characters get pummeled over and over, physically and emotionally, by the cruel realities of life.
Right from the show’s opening moments, we see Chip’s dreams are really just delusions: His Parisian clowning professor refuses to acknowledge his pleas for tutoring (in the guy’s defense, Chip only speaks English) and his French girlfriend agrees to his marriage proposal for the sole purpose of scoring a green card. Yet while he can’t pay his cheap-motel rent and has to rollerblade home from work, Chip refuses to be deterred from pursuing his art (or his “part-time job,” as described by his mother, played with lovely flourishes of humanity by Louie Anderson).
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While it’s Chip’s tragicomic life that propels the action, it’s unlikely pal/unpaid assistant Martha (Martha Kelly) who emerges as the most sympathetic — and often funniest — character in the series. With her head perpetually down and even her most important declarations delivered as embarrassed afterthoughts — “Would it be easier for you if I just went missing?” she earnestly asks her boss when he confesses he might have to fire her — she’s equal parts maddening, mad and madcap. (Martha’s decision to take in a stray dog in Episode 3 goes quickly and thoroughly sideways, and includes a devastatingly funny monologue about why she could never bring the increasingly vicious animal to a shelter.)
One of Baskets‘ least enjoyable aspects is Chip’s almost pathological dismissiveness of Martha — and her equally disturbing resignation in response to his cruelty. I’m not expecting Chip to change — his middle-aged rage renders him incapable of anything beyond small and intermittent kindnesses — but if their fraught friendship can bring out some fight in Martha over the course of Season 1, it could provide some needed salve to the show’s bruising brand of comedy.
The TVLine Bottom Line: While it’s not always easy to watch — and can go for long stretches without a real laugh — Baskets elevates itself by showing it’s interested in more than just clowning around.