Zach Galifianakis Gets an Unfiltered Platform, For Better or Worse, in FX’s ‘Baskets’

Perhaps the most appealing thing about Baskets, Zach Galifianakis’ eagerly anticipated new comedy-ish for FX, is that it’s not particularly interested in being appealing, at least to anything besides its creators’ sensibilities. This is both exactly what one hopes for and exactly what one dreads from a project like Baskets, in which a cult comedy hero finally gets a chance to show off his sensibility unadulterated, rather than filtered through yet another appearance as the token weirdo in Hangover 4: Whoa, Bro! On the one hand, the freedom to tailor to one’s niche rather than a mass audience is one of the greatest benefits of Peak TV (a term coined, after all, by FX network chief John Landgraf). On the other hand, sometimes that niche ends up so small it leaves out even those who see themselves squarely within a project’s target audience.

Which brings us to Baskets’ almost preposterously great comedic pedigree. First and foremost is co-creator and pilot co-author Louis CK, who made Baskets possible on multiple fronts: in the abstract sense, by demonstrating the creative success and commercial viability of a low-budget, auteur-driven cable comedy, and in the immediate sense, by bringing Baskets into the world as part of his overall development deal with FX. And then there’s Jonathan Krisel, co-creator and director of (at least) the first five episodes, an alum of everything from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to SNL to Kroll Show. And then there’s the writers’ room, which includes former staffers from Key & Peele (Rebecca Drysdale) and Portlandia (Graham Wagner), plus a MacArthur-winning playwright for good measure (Samuel D. Hunter). When someone with $625,000 of guaranteed income decides to use some of his five years of creative freedom to staff a television show, that television show comes with high expectations.

Baskets, however, is mostly Galifianakis’ show, and something for which he’s long overdue: a platform somewhere between gargantuan studio comedies (from The Hangover to Koch brothers farce The Campaign) and the massively popular, yet still short-form, web series Between Two Ferns. And the Galifianakis of Baskets is certainly closer to the charming oddball Netflix users know from Comedians of Comedy and Live at the Purple Onion than Alan  “Wolfpack” Garner: he stars as title character Chip Baskets, a failed French clown forced by financial difficulties and a complete inability to speak French to move from Paris back home to sunny Bakersfield.

This strange amalgam of low-key absurdism and oppressive Middle American blandness turns out to be Baskets’ aesthetic MO. Nowhere is this more evident, or better executed, than in the character of Chip’s mother, played by veteran comic and obvious male Louie Anderson. On another show, Anderson would be playing the part big and loud, for Edna Turnblad-style camp; here, he plays Christine completely straight, from her affinity for casino brunches to her passion for Costco.

Baskets excels at the mildly uncanny, a mode that’s ideally suited to the dusty, sun-bleached sprawl of central California. In addition to Christine, Chip’s immediate family is rounded out by his twin brother Dale,  who runs a for-profit career college in a strip mall. The commercials for said college, a running gag on the show, put Krisel’s Tim and Eric experience to good use, pushing low-budget commercial tropes to their silliest, almost sinister extreme. (“I’m not just the dean, I’m also the janitor!”) A younger, adopted set of twins live their lives offscreen as successful, high-flying DJs.

But too often, Baskets veers towards either the preposterous or the mundane. Once in Bakersfield, Chip gets a job as a rodeo clown, and his attempts to perform a full-on mime act while getting periodically knocked over by raging bulls are rendered via an odd mixture of old-school slapstick and a dreamlike, near-Lynchian visual style. A series of Paris flashbacks, triggered by the sight of Chip’s hilariously callous green-card bride Penelope (musician Sabina Sciubba) singing “Waterfalls,” feels similarly off. The result is high-minded and ambitious, but also unmoored.

More frequently, though, Baskets becomes yet another story of an overgrown man-child and the sad, strange people who put up with him. Convinced that clowning is his higher calling and dismissive of those who politely suggest otherwise, Chip fits easily into the peevish, socially dysfunctional character type that’s a Galifianakis staple. (Effete, passive aggressive, and inexplicably Southern, Dale falls into another.) Martha Kelly, meanwhile, does the best she can as the mild-mannered insurance claims adjuster Chip turns into his sidekick and punching bag; delivering her lines in an unfazed monotone, she sounds like a Daria Morgendorffer who’s given up on her dreams. But the character’s despondency bleeds into the show, resulting in a no-laugh comedy that’s bleak for bleakness’ sake.

Baskets ultimately feels like the logical extension of two related trends in televison: the hyper-specific, auteur-driven comedy, often excellent (Louie, Documentary Now) but not necessarily so (Maron) and what critic Emily Nussbaum has deemed the “sad-sour-loser-guy indie-dramedy.” At their best, the former is unabashedly weird, while the latter subtly undermines its hero in a way that’s far more effective than having someone pee on said hero in the opening scene. At their worst, both shows simply put distance between themselves and their potential viewers, who prove unwilling to watch the protagonist humiliate himself week after week with little consequence.

I count myself as one of those viewers, because Baskets’ greatest weakness isn’t its disjointed tone — it’s a sense of aimlessness. There’s no momentum to Chip’s misadventures in Bakersfield, and no endpoint. We’re simply expected to sit there and watch him flail, a premise that might work if we were meant to feel any sympathy for him. As it stands, it’s hard to imagine anyone willing to put up with Chip besides his own creators. Baskets is a noble effort, but it’s so specific it ends up being self-contained.

Baskets premieres this Thursday at 10 pm on FX.