Take in a few minutes of FX’s new series Baskets, which premieres 10pm Thursday, and you may wonder what exactly you’re watching. Is it a drama? A comedy? Or, is it a “dramedy,” that somewhat dreaded term often used to describe shows that are supposed to make us laugh but, either by design or by intention, do not?
A co-creation of Louis C.K., Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia) and its star, Zach Galifianakis, Baskets is unique among this midseason’s new half-hours. Not only it is a vehicle for Galifianakis, who plays down-and-out clown Chip Baskets, but it’s also the latest example of C.K. and Krisel’s idiosyncratic approach to television.
When we meet Chip, he’s attending clown school in Paris but failing miserably, probably because he can’t speak French, he’s clumsy, and he lacks any air of sophistication. (Yes, even in l’université des clowns, the French find a way to discriminate against sloppy Americans.) Broke but determined, Chip announces to his French girlfriend Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) that he’s moving home to Bakersfield and proposes marriage so she’ll join him. She’s up front about the fact that she’s using him; he accepts that and takes her anyway. Soon Chip and Penelope depart the vibrant City of Lights for the drab, strip mall-afflicted landscape of Chip’s California hometown, where Chip reconnects with his mother Christine (Louie Anderson), gets a job as a rodeo clown, and gains a loyal new friend when an insurance adjuster named Martha (Martha Kelly) won’t leave him alone.
In spite of its bizarre premise, Baskets has the ingredients of a conventional comedy. But C.K., Galifianakis and Krisel refuse to be beholden to single-cam or multi-cam TV tropes. “To me, I’m making indulgent art cinema that hopefully is accessible,” Krisel recently told critics at an FX press event in Pasadena. To this statement C.K. replied, “Oh, s—t.”
So what is this project, really? We spoke to Krisel, Anderson, Kelly, and Galifianakis after the press conference to get a better sense of what Baskets aspires to be. Here are five things that make Baskets a one-of-a-kind half-hour worth sticking with.
You read that correctly. Krisel coined the term to capture the show’s off-kilter wryness, which can be off-putting to witness at first.
“The story is built on a drama engine,” Krisel explains. “But yet we have a lot of slapstick in it. Zach is such a great performer, in that he’s great at slapstick, and he’s great at drama. I just thought you’d want to see a showcase of the best of what Zach is.”
What this means is that the biggest, broadest jokes are behind the action and nearly off-camera. Granted, plenty of physical humor spills into frame, but “there’s a lot of restraint to the show,” Krisel explains.
Their goal is to mimic reality as closely as possible. “When you see everybody in television, in comedy, a lot of them are just fast-talking jokers and have these very well-written jokes and quips,” says Galifianakis. “I don’t see that in real life.”
Galifianakis describes Baskets as “a surreal show that tries to play on real emotions. It’s a comedy, but it has some serious undertones to it… When the mask is off and the makeup is off, that kind of stuff is very interesting to me. The real stuff.”
Tethering Chip to Earth, other than being broke and in love with a woman who cares nothing for him, is his relationship with Christine. Krisel designed her to be “a really relatable mom,” and she truly is.
Indeed, Anderson plays her so straight that you might not even realize that you’re watching a man in a wig and an assortment of formless dresses.
Anderson says it wasn’t very hard to create Christine. “I’ve got five sisters and a great mom, with a personality I can emulate,” he explains. “So what I tried to do in the whole thing was be authentic and not bring any of me, the male side of myself, into it.”
Krisel adds, “In a lot of the scenes, Louie would say, ‘I’m just going to try it how my mom would do it.’ And the result would be breathtaking — so nuanced and so beautiful. You’d see his mom. It was so real. Every time he would do that, I would just be blown away. I think the whole role was an homage to his mother.”
Chip also has to deal with his identical twin brother Dale (also played by Galifianakis), an arrogant, successful entrepreneur with no patience for Chip’s artistic aspirations.
Galifianakis explains that Dale serves as a chatty, unlikable contrast to his clown. “Chip doesn’t talk a lot. I wanted the protagonist to be quiet. The other character, Dale, allows that balance to work.”
Both Anderson and Kelly are playing fictional roles without employing an abundance of theatrics. In Kelly’s case, that may come off equally charming and strange, particularly to viewers unfamiliar with her bone-dry comedic style. The Los Angeles-based comic has been friends with Galifianakis for years, but this is her first major scripted role for television.
“Martha — or the voice of Ambien, as I like to call her — is really very funny,” Galifianakis says. “She’s straight and deadpan in her delivery with not a lot of, like, circus moves. I like comedy that comes from a brain and doesn’t have to sell itself too much in the delivery, and that’s what Martha is.”
Kelly’s persona onscreen is only a shade or two different from how she is in real life. And that dynamic fueled equally by loyalty and testiness between the fictional Martha and Chip? That comes from a real place.
“When I first met Zach… I remember that I did have a crush on him, like a lot of guy comics I had crushes on,” she says. “But I didn’t think it was that big of a crush because we became friends quickly, and then it wasn’t that. And then I found, in the journal, I did have kind of a big crush on him.
“It still feels like I love him so much,” she adds. “It’s intense. It’s not romantic, but it is intense. And that part of the character, I think, reflects how I feel about him.”
The feeling is mutual. “I’ve been trying to get Martha to do stuff on TV with me for years,” Galifianakis said, “and finally she said yes. Because I think she was living with her parents.”
A lot of shows treat their settings as unspoken characters. Bakersfield, California, is not quite that, although it does serve an important purpose.
“The whole show is about your fantasy, that dream or goal that you’re trying to get, and then reality,” Krisel explained. “So you’ve got Paris as this place that Chip loves, but it’s Bakersfield. He’s got this French wife that he pines after but who doesn’t really love him, but he’s got Martha.
“It’s always the juxtaposition of the thing inside you that you’re hoping and dreaming for, and then the reality,” Krisel continues. “Paris versus Bakersfield epitomizes that. It’s the quintessential nothing city.”
Should Costco ever need a spokesperson, the company might consider calling in its biggest fan, Christine Baskets. Costco’s house brand Kirkland is prominently featured throughout Christine’s home, and she rarely misses an opportunity to rave about the big box store. That’s as intentional as Krisel’s selection of Bakersfield as Chip’s hometown.
Kirkland, he told critics, is “the most bland brand. You never care about it. They would never do advertising. …And we went to Kirkland and Costco and we said, ‘Can we just put your products in?’”
Surprisingly, Costco and Kirkland didn’t put up much of a fuss. Following their shock at the request, Krisel said, the company’s reply was somewhere along the lines of, “’Yeah, whatever you want to do.’”
Oddly the prominence of the brand perfectly aligns with the show’s tone. “It’s the authenticity,” Krisel explained. “It’s annoying to see fake Coke in a shoot. It just takes you out of it.”
Regardless of all the effort and intent that went into creating the show’s specific atmosphere, Galifianakis accepts that not everyone is going to get Baskets at first.
“The tone of a show like this is kind of new,” he adds, “and it’ll be interesting to see if people find it compelling or if they have any patience for it at all.”
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based TV critic and an executive member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision
Baskets premieres on Thursday, January 21 at 10pm on FX; read reviews here.