While Steve and Nancy Carell do the ol’ shallow slapstick thing over at TBS, Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. are giving their take on physical comedy on FX. Their new series Baskets has got the screwball, but just as much despair bleeding through it. It’s a small, wondrous show that hits as many as it misses, but because of the (slightly depressing) depths it explores, it is worthwhile.
It’s not a match made in heaven; FX and original comedy programming. Last year’s off-beat series The Comedians saw the return of Billy Crystal, but even though his timing hadn’t lost any of its, well, timing, viewers didn’t exactly appear in droves. Did they grow tired of the documentary style? Shows about the backlots of Hollywood? Poignancy? Josh Gad? All of the above? I’d say poignancy wasn’t the problem. Louie is a modest hit, and albeit more of a sketch show, that series absolutely soaks, if not to say smothers in poignancy. Well, there’s enough of that in Baskets, too. Ambition times naivety times bad luck; I’m certain that’s not the recipe for success. It’s a starting point for comedy, if you keep it grounded. Otherwise it’s just sadistic, dragging your main character through the mud. Baskets walks on thin ice. It continuously is one scene away from rubbing your nose in it a little too much, but the pilot keeps it together nicely. Nicely and barely.
La Symbolique Du Bouffon
There’s no one who can play ‘down on his luck’ better than Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, The Campaign, Due Date, Bored to Death). I mean, you can put on a beard and try to act like him, while you discover you’re The Last Man on Earth, but it’s just not the real thing. He plays Chip Baskets, an ambitious guy, but just not smart and/or lucky enough to make that ambition a reality. He wants to be a clown. A real, theatrical one. The kind that doesn’t just make you laugh, but also cry and even astonish. Unfortunately, his naivety sends him all the way to France, to follow an expensive course in ‘la symbolique du bouffon’ – without speaking one word of French. To make matters worse, he falls in love.
After his trip or should I say catastrophe to Europe, he’s back in Bakersfield, California. With his new wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba). He proposed, she said yes, but made it clear right away: she doesn’t love him. She is going to leave him for somebody else, and she wants a Green Card. O, and 40 bucks for HBO, let’s not forget that, because getting that amount of money together plays a big role in the pilot. Chip does find a job. As a rodeo clown. Further removed from the clown business seems impossible. He’s not making any money, not really, so in order to keep his wife happy, he visits his mother (Louie Anderson) and brother, asking to borrow some money. His twin brother is a perfect sack of shit; and who can play ‘sack of shit’ better than Galifianakis.
There’s a love interest in the story, too – real love. Not so much ‘interest’, though, from Chip’s side. Martha Brooks (Martha Kelly), from the insurance agency, volunteers to drive him anywhere he wants to go, since his French scooter broke down. She’s dropping all kinds of hints, but Chip’s just too busy trying to survive and making his rodeo gig work. All he does is get hit by the bull, and he couldn’t be unhappier about it. He’s going to quit; he has to. So as a last resort, he puts on a show, dressed up beautifully as a true clown, with the right music, a spotlight on him as if he were standing on a big stage in Paris. This scene is awesome and totally saves the pilot. I was on the fence up to this point, but by seriously committing to Chip’s quest, and showing he actually got what it takes, Galifianakis, Louis C.K. and creator Jonathan Krisel won me over. The way Chip performs in front of the rodeo audience, gives the show heart and soul. In the middle of his performance, he gets hit by the bull, of course, to remind us it’s still a comedy, but all’s forgiven. If they continue to take Chip (and therefor the audience) seriously, by putting in cynicism free scenes in there, this could just be the small, wondrous show I was expecting to see.