Baskets feels like a comedy that’s easy to pigeonhole. Try to resist that urge. Yes, it stars Zach Galifianakis, master of the vacant annoyed stare on Between Two Ferns, as yet another irascible jerk. Yes, it bears a lot of the hallmarks of its FX sister show Louie, from its co-creator (Louis C.K.) to its refusal to shoot for easy or even occasional laughs. But while Baskets is an acidic, sometimes depressing watch, it’s much better than that sounds—an incisive, absurd, darkly heartfelt show set not on the stage but in America’s dreary urban sprawl.
Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) is a self-important prig, an aspiring clown who sees himself as an artiste, and who never misses an opportunity to tell people he was educated at clown college in Paris, although his education was stymied by the fact that he can’t speak French. He returns, broke, to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, with a beautiful French wife (who married him for the green card and otherwise ignores him), and moves into a motel, where his only career prospects come via the local rodeo. Chip is a pretentious jerk, sour to everyone around him, but Galifianakis mines tragic moments of grace from his bitter existence.
The great, sad joke of Baskets is Chip’s devotion to the classical art of clowning, a tradition neither respected nor understood by his tutting mother (Louie Anderson), his superficial wife (Sabina Sciubba), or his sarcastic twin brother (also played by Galifianakis). Chip executes melancholy set-pieces in the arena while wearing white face-paint and an oversized suit straight out of commedia dell’arte, then gets mowed down by a charging bull to cheers from the crowd. His pretentious arrogance can be tough to watch, but there’s an absurd passion to his quest to become a great clown, lending him the sympathy Baskets needs to work.