There is a knock at your door. You open it. Standing there is a large, luxuriously bearded, fervid-eyed author, holding a slim case of DVDs.
“Have you heard the good word about Baskets?” I ask, shouldering my way into your home, toward your TV.
No, I won’t actually invade your home with Season 1 of Baskets in tow, but only because it hasn’t been released on Blu-ray yet and because I probably don’t know where you live. But I can rant at you about it, a bit, and so I will.
I understand your reluctance. Zach Galifianakis is not always a slam dunk. For some, his name is perhaps an immediate turnoff. I get it. I didn’t watch it when it premiered. I kept seeing the commercials while watching The Simpsons reruns and Archer. I was intrigued, if reluctant. Finally, I gave it a chance while I had some time via On Demand (we live in an age of miracles). A note: I am not a binge-watcher. Usually two episodes of any given show is about as much as I can watch before moving on to something else.
I watched five episodes in a row, unable to stop. I finished the series the next day. Watched the entire thing again inside of a week.
Can you laugh at the following things: deadpan delivery of surreal, bordering on ridiculous dialogue; terrible people committing casual cruelties to one another (lightened occasionally by genuine humanity); inscrutably bizarre cowboys engaged in rituals that make perfect sense to them; a rodeo clown who thinks he’s in the Commedia dell’arte getting blindsided by a bull?
If no, Baskets is not for you.
I can laugh at all of those things, as well as the just-this-side-of-uncomfortably-long bits like Chip, our main character, trying and failing to find an acceptable soda choice at a drive-thru. This isn’t a show in search of the perfect joke or catchphrase; it creates humor out of the character’s expectations and identity versus their reality.
And that, right there, is why I became obsessed with the show; it’s a show for artists, for people with ambition, for people who have wanted to be something more or different and are kind of terrified that they never will be.
Take Chip Baskets, our protagonist, and his twin brother Dale (yes, Chip and Dale), both played by Galifianakis. Chip desperately wants to be a clown. Episode 1 opens with him attending class at a severe and prestigious clown college in Paris. If you aren’t laughing a little at the idea of “severe and prestigious clown college” then our senses of humor aren’t compatible. Life at this college is complicated by the fact that Chip doesn’t speak French very well, if at all. This is as much of an obstacle to attending a Parisian Clown College as you would imagine.
Chip is, quite clearly, a terrible student and a terrible clown. But he persists in his dream, persists in the belief that his clowning can be something beautiful and elegant and transformative. In Episode 4, the show gives us flashes of Chip as he would like to be, as a Commedia dell’arte fantasy walking the streets of Paris in the twilight, smoking. These brief scenes are terrifically, achingly beautiful. They last for mere seconds, before Chip is brought back to the reality of suburban sprawl. In Baskets‘ version of Bakersfield, California, Arby’s and Costco stand in for the death of identity and ambition.
Dale, by contrast, seems to have his life more in order. Married with two children, he is the dean of a technical/career college and spends his weekends chasing antique hutches. As the series goes on, we come to realize he is just as unsettled in himself as Chip, just as full of unresolved ambitions and tensions—he’s just been more willing to let them go. And after all, aren’t for-profit career colleges based on the idea of transforming, of becoming more and better than you are?
Then there’s Christine Baskets, their mom, played by Louie Anderson.
Yes. That Louie Anderson.
In case you’re worried that the show devolves into “large man in drag, isn’t that HILARIOUS” territory, it really never does. Louie plays the character completely straight, completely honest. It is astounding how all-in the entire cast is, how committed everyone is to their role.
Christine, in contrast to her twin sons (well, one pair of her twins), thinks she knows who she is. She loves Arby’s (and is loyal to the first one in town), adores Costco, goes to church in her best dress and hat on Easter, attends her book club, makes sugarpie, and loves her sons. There’s some tension to be found in her relationship with her adopted twins, Cody and Logan (Gary and Jason Clemmons) who are vastly more successful by every possible measure than Chip and Dale. They are also, pointedly, almost always as far away from Bakersfield as possible.
What Christine doesn’t realize until much later—at a heartbreaking book club meeting—is that most of the world doesn’t want sugarpie any longer. They’ve moved on. She hasn’t. Late developments in the first season are going to force Christine to reevaluate who she is and how she operates in the world.
I haven’t even gotten to Chip’s green-card wife, Penelope, played by Sabina Sciubba as the absolute avatar of elegant Parisian ennui. She is brutally honest when Chip proposes to her early in Episode 1, telling him point-blank she’ll only marry him in order to get to California. Chip hears none of it. Eventually we learn that she is just as invested in escaping her life and family, in creating some new identity for herself. We also see how they met, and I frankly defy anyone to watch that scene play out, put yourself in Chip’s shoes, and not fall madly, unreasonably in love with her. It’s impossible.
I could go on and on about this show. Send me your address and I might actually come knock on your door to rant at you about it. I need someone to talk about it with that badly because I can’t get my wife or my friends to watch it. Help me out here. If you have ever wondered if you could close the gap between who you are and who you want to be, or whether you should, or how you would try, you’ll find something to love in this show.
And if you hate clowns (I know many of you do), one gets continually wrecked by a bull.
Daniel M. Ford was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland. He holds a BA in English from Villanova University, an MA in Irish Literature from Boston College, and an MFA in Creative Writing, concentrating in Poetry, from George Mason University. As a poet, his work has appeared most recently in Soundings Review, as well as Phoebe, Floorboard Review, The Cossack, and Vending Machine Press. He teaches English at a college prep high school in North East, Maryland. Ordination is his first novel. You can find him on Twitter @soundingline and at his website danielmford.com.