Clowning Around

Zach Galifianakis’s ‘Baskets’: Is This the Weirdest Show… Ever?

Zach Galifianakis as a sad clown? Hilarious. And devastating. And brilliant, and boring. Is ‘Baskets’ TV’s smartest show? Or is it just plain dumb? (Seriously… we want to know.)

01.22.16 3:30 AM ET

Baskets, which stars Zach Galifianakis as a struggling aspiring clown, might be the weirdest new TV show to broadcast in the last year—a year, we might add, that was marked by 409 scripted shows airing on multiple platforms, earning the designation #PeakTV for the cacophony of options.

Yes, Baskets, featuring Galifianakis—himself a gifted sad clown in more mainstream entertainment offerings, be it The Hangover series or HBO’s own unique, now defunct comedy Bored to Death—is weird. It is absurd. And bleak. Unusual. Off-putting. Sometimes boring, and mostly quite unfunny.

It also might one of the smartest shows airing this year.

There is a singular ambition and commitment to conceit in Baskets, which Galifianakis created alongside Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel, who directs and co-writes Portlandia.

It’s the kind of ambition and commitment that lifts any weird, absurd, bleak, unusual, off-putting, sometimes boring, and mostly quite unfunny Saturday Night Live sketch to critical hosannas, reviewers exalting at the focus of its creative genius and its aggressive embrace of atypical vision.

It’s the kind of ambition and commitment that is required of a series to announce itself in the glut of #PeakTV programming. To be heard above all that noise you need to make an atonal squeak. It might make some people cringe, but at least they’re noticing—and maybe they’ll appreciate the eccentricity, too.

In a TV world dominated and perhaps even oppressed by “Bazinga!,” we have more appreciation for the “huh?”

And “huh?” is exactly what you say—and say quite often—while watching Baskets.

Baskets, the Zach Galifianakis show about the sad clown.

Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) is attending the Académie de Clown Française when we meet him. Well not so much attending as he is flunking out, a victim of a language barrier.

His French clown teacher demonstrates slipping on a banana peel. “Are you OK?!” Baskets asks, startled. “Oh, it was a bit.” He miffs every other lesson, unable to understand a word of French. It’s all quite heartbreaking to witness.

Does it sound serious? That’s because it is. From minute one, Baskets and the Académie de Clown Française is portrayed with all the dramatic grit of a schooldays arc in A Beautiful Mind, and leaves you wondering what would have happened if Stephen Hawking suffered a language barrier in The Theory of Everything.

“Being a clown is the most important thing in the world to me,” Baskets says. This isn’t ha-ha-ha a bozo goes to clown school and let the hijinks ensue! It is an artist aspiring to his art. It’s the impossible dream, and it’s devastating when it’s crushed.

This is a comedy starring Zach Galifianakis about a clown and it is devastating.

Soon after realizing that he has no future in clown school—the fate of a man with stars (and red noses) in his eyes but no French skills to speak of—he meets with his vapid, heartless girlfriend Penelope for dinner.

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Not only is Chip Baskets sad, you soon realize. He is pathetic. “I’ll have the number 57,” he tells the waiter. “That is the price,” the waiter says back. “In that case I’ll have the number 4.” “The carrot?”

Yes, that is a recycled joke from probably a dozen sitcoms. But it also illuminates the strange thing that’s going in Baskets.

Here is a line and scene so sitcom-y that it was actually used, in almost exactly the same way, in multiple comedies before it. But there’s something so melancholy about it, a hilarity so grounded in real-life ennui, that it would be inconceivable for a sitcom laugh track to follow it. Same for a pandering sympathetic, “Aww.” There’s almost no feeling at all.

Baskets is so naturalistic it’s almost whimsical. Except it’s so definitely lacks any whimsy that all of its naturalism can actually be stale.

The action and narrative kicks up when Chip informs Penelope that he has run out of money and has to return home to Bakersfield, California. He proposes to her. She agrees, even though she doesn’t love him or find him attractive. She tells him point blank that she will marry him for a green card and then leave him when she finds someone more attractive.

This is the respect that’s being shown to the hero of our television show.

Once in Bakersfield, Chip applies for a job as a clown. We soon learn the job is to be a rodeo clown. Yet another defeat.

Despite having a God-given perfect clown name, Baskets informs the hillbilly manager of the rodeo that he wants to go by Renoir, in homage to his French training. Not so fast, he’s told. “You’re Baskets, Baskets the Clown… Go out there and head-butt me some bulls.”

Zach Galifianakis, painted as if by Pierot, attempting to perform classic clowning while bulls try chasing him out of the arena is an epic ballet of physical comedy, a point at which Baskets truly announces itself as a show with no qualms about what it is and what it is setting to achieve in the comedy world.

We only wish we knew what that was.

There are moments of writing and performance in the first episode of Baskets that are bonafide brilliance.

Comedian Martha Kelly plays Martha, a sad clown of her own right—a low-level insurance representative—who nonsensically becomes attached and perhaps even obsessed with Chip, a person of no perceivable merits, when assisting him after his scooter crashes.

There’s interesting contrast between Martha’s maniacally low self-esteem and Chip’s inexcusably high one. Through all of their scenes together—beginning with a fantastically written banter at a drive-thru window centered around discontinued soda flavors—Kelly’s delivery is so comically dry she’ll leave you parched. And, like a proper thirst, also craving more.

It’s as much of a breakout role as they come, and as much unusual absurdity as anything in Baskets.

Then there’s Louie Anderson, the 62-year-old stand-up comedian best known for the cartoon series Life With Louie and for hosting the third revival of Family Feud, who does fascinating work in his role as Chip’s mother. Yes, mother.

Fascinating is about the only way you can describe the performance, which Anderson pulls off with so much dignity that there’s not even a sniff of it being a crass comedy stunt—but which also deprives of it the laughs, cheap or otherwise, that would typically justify the idea of casting a formerly famous male comedian to play an elderly suburban mother in a housedress.

Rounding out the main cast is Galifianakis again, playing Chip’s twin, Dale. (Of all the names in the world, why Chip and Dale, like the Disney characters? The series is a constant shrug: “Who knows?”) Where Chip operates at a low, deflated hum, Dale buzzes with sass. He’s head of a shoddy vocational school, Baskets Career College.

The Baskets Career College motto: “BCC Me!” There are truly brilliant bits of writing here, sort of crescendoing in the WTF genius of this throwaway moment that precedes one of Chip’s stints in the ring as a rodeo clown: “Now to sing the National Anthem, from the O.J. trial: Kato Kaelin!”

We wish we could endorse the brilliance of future episodes, which veer too much toward a cool kid’s send-up of suburban American life, an onslaught of jokes mocking Arby’s and Costco—and the millions of people who frequent them and enjoy them.

But there are abundant bright spots to be found among a series of bleak musings, a mix of pathos and slapstick that—in true clown fashion—is juggled. It’s a cool trick when it’s pulled off. Many times, the show drops the ball.

This is a show I hated. And that I loved. That I thought was stupid, and that I admired. That was so extremely not funny. And therefore might actually be one of the greatest comedies of the year.

Especially surveying the talent involved, and the amount of respect they’ve earned by adhering to artistic integrity in producing left-of-center television that, because of their creative confidence, are among the best examples of the genre, you’re almost fooled into thinking that this is some form of high art. Perhaps it is. Perhaps, too, it’s just kind of dumb and boring.

All of this is to say: What in the living hell is this show? Or, more importantly, what are we supposed to think about it?