Why You Should Be Watching FX's Ambitious, Absurd Baskets

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Why You Should Be Watching FX's Ambitious, Absurd <i>Baskets</i>

If you’re looking for a TV series that balances half-hour comedy and emotionally tuned drama, there’s certainly no shortage of options. From You’re The Worst and Casual to Bojack Horseman and The Ranch, there’s something out there for everybody. In fact, while it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of the way we consume media today, especially the sheer quantity of options—which arguably makes it more difficult to forge a genuine connection with a piece of art—there’s something to be said for the plethora of voices and visions that have popped up on TV in recent years.

While there’s still a lot of work to do in terms of inclusive representation, both on screen and in writer’s rooms, TV nonetheless allows a variety of perspectives to find an audience, no matter how strange or niche the subject matter may seem. In 2016, Atlanta, with its ambitious and often surreal episodes, found a spot near the top of most year-end lists (including Paste’s), and Better Things showed that we’re not yet sick of seeing parents struggle to raise their kids while also growing themselves, especially when the narrative place a woman at its center and explores the many nuances of her day-to-day life.

FX in particular proved that it was a network attuned to finding creators with unique visions, and in that mix was Baskets. Its first season didn’t draw the same attention as Atlanta, but in its own way, it was of a piece with the network’s overall vision, which is to give creative control to, you know, creators. With Louis C.K. as the common denominator—he serves as co-creator and producer on both Baskets and Better Things—Zach Galifianakis was able to bring a weird little comedy to the screen.

Much like Atlanta, Baskets is a show that often trades in the surreal, mining the absurd for laughs while also delving into slapstick and dark comedy. Baskets, based on its description alone, should be a niche show. It’s about a man named Chip, who’s a failed clown despite his prestigious training in France. Louie Anderson plays his diabetic, Costco-loving mother, and Galifianakis plays both Chip and his twin brother Dale, who runs the shoddy looking Bakersfield Community College. (Despite the low production value of the college’s ads, “BCC Me!” is a great tagline for the institution.) Chip, like so many clowns, is down on his luck throughout the first season. His marriage is failing (as green card marriages on TV are wont to do), he’s making next to nothing as a rodeo clown, and even his very supportive mother seems prouder of her adopted sons than she is of her biological ones.

All of this is to say that Baskets is indeed an absurd show, and one with a comic tone that, for some, could be alienating; it’s not easy to make a funny show about an increasingly depressed clown. And yet, Baskets’ first season found a way to make sure that Chip’s self-loathing and often self-destructive behavior wasn’t the focus of every story. Instead, Baskets found a way to create empathy for its cast of strange, self-possessed characters. Chip, for all his failings, is a passionate man who tries to see the best in everything and everyone around him. He doesn’t always succeed, but he tries, and Baskets suggests that even trying to see some good when you’re surrounded by immeasurable bad is a triumph. Add in Louie Anderson’s acclaimed and sympathetic portrayal of a woman who’s perhaps slowly killing herself and yet is filled with determination and love, and it becomes clear that Baskets isn’t interested in finding easy laughs in the struggle of the lower class.

In fact, one of the themes that Baskets sneakily and rewardingly explores is how anyone with unique ambitions defines themselves against others, and how the blind pursuit of artistic fulfillment shouldn’t exactly be romanticized. Coursing through the first season is the feeling that Chip, for all of his confidence in pursuing some form of clowning, is really in denial. He mistakes his inability to engage in introspection for an artist’s stubbornness—the refusal give up on his dream—and by the end of the first season, it’s cost him a whole lot: His mother ends up in the hospital, his potential romantic interest sleeps with his brother, and Chip is on the run, leaving his job and hopping on a train to who knows where.

Season Two picks up right where the first left off, with Chip hopping a train and escaping his life. His denial, so perfectly manicured that he barely even noticed that his wife had been open about their green card arrangement from the beginning, is no longer intact, and all that’s left to do is run. If Season One was about how denial can shape us for both better and worse, Season Two is about reckoning with the fallout when we realize that the way we define ourselves, and how we think about our accomplishments, doesn’t match up with reality. Martha, an endlessly compassionate insurance agent who takes a liking to Chip, sums it up best in the new season’s second episode: “Whenever I see people smiling that much I always think they’re about to have a nervous breakdown.” She’s not wrong. Chip smiled his way through the first season, and now he’s hopping trains with a band of traveling performers/hobos, blowing his nose into plastic bags and watching his new “friends” break into homes and do drugs during their down time. He’s hit bottom, and all that’s left to do is figure out how he got there.

With Season Two, then, Baskets aims higher than ever before: There’s an intriguing structure to the first few episodes, which highlights the series’ narrative depth and nuance. With Chip on the run, the rest of the characters are only seen in flashbacks. At first, it’s a disheartening sign, as much of Baskets’ appeal is its collection of colorful characters. That feeling fades as the season rolls on, though, as the season’s novel structure offers a fresh look at the meaning of self-examination. The flashbacks fill in the smaller details of Chip’s life, namely all the good that he missed while he was telling himself he was pursuing his dreams. Despite Chip’s bluster about not being able to get ahead or find a connection with anyone, the flashbacks reveal that to be untrue. It all comes back to Martha: She was always there. She was there when he ruined his car and couldn’t get around. She was there when he needed money. She was there when nobody else, not even his own mother, would attend the rodeo using his free tickets.

If Chip can escape the downward spiral that comes with the traveling hobos and find his way to Martha, maybe everything will be all right for him. Based on the four episodes provided to critics, Baskets’ second season is shaping up to be more ambitious than its first, and more controlled as well. The early episodes are all about Chip examining who he is and where he fits in. He initially bonds with the traveling performers, once again going into denial and romanticizing their freedom and their total lack of expectations and responsibilities. Once that luster wears off, though, all that’s left is the truth—including the fact that the troupe’s leader walked out on his wife and kid and never looked back.

Is that the kind of person Chip wants to be? Who is Chip Baskets if he’s not a famous clown? Those are questions that the series now looks to answer. Early in the season, Chip worries that the world is passing him by, using him and then discarding him before he’s had a chance to figure it all out. “I don’t think clowns are needed so much since the world’s become so clownish,” he laments. But if Season Two of Baskets proves anything, it’s that the world’s more ridiculous aspects are exactly why we need such strange, touching, absurd visions more than ever.

Season Two of Baskets premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.

Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.