After the success of The Hangover, Zach Galifianakis could have spent the rest of his comedy career playing a detached-from-reality man-child in big-budget comedies. If it worked once in The Hangover (not to mention two sequels), why not keep the dough rolling in by playing the weirdo sidekicks of attractive celebs (such as Robert Downey Jr. in Due Date) and comedy superstars (such as Will Ferrell in The Campaign)?
But instead of playing the same character over and over (as his former costar Ferrell seems wont to do), Galifianakis just stopped taking those roles. He kept working steadily, showing up in 2014's Birdman among other projects, but clearly picking and choosing what he wanted to do more carefully than before.
Now, he's the star of Baskets, premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday on FX, and if there's one thing to say about the show, it's that it's undeniably Galifianakis, for better or worse.
Cocreated with Louis C.K. and Portlandia's Jonathan Krisel, Baskets is about Chip Baskets, a wannabe clown whose resumé includes a stint at the Academie de Clown Français in Paris. But his lack of knowledge of the French language and money issues force him back to his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., where the only jobs available to him are as a rodeo clown or working the counter at Arby's. He chooses the former.
Chip is self-important. He performs at the rodeo in full French clown regalia - a face painted fully white, a black-and-white outfit. Whereas other clowns know their job is to distract charging bulls, Chip insists on playing the acrobat.
His life similarly reflects that of a sad clown. He's brought a French wife back home with him from Paris (for a green card) who refuses to cohabitate. His only friend is the kind insurance adjuster (the wonderfully deadpan Martha Kelly) whom he meets after totaling his scooter, and who sticks with Chip even after telling him his beloved scooter is unfixable.
That's where Baskets is funny. With its pedigree of alternative comedy stalwarts and its structure, Baskets is ostensibly a comedy. But the show also stubbornly refuses to tell a joke. Instead, like Between Two Ferns - Galifianakis' Web series - Baskets wrings uncomfortable laughs out of sheer will (although Ferns is more amenable to a punchline). It's wholly different because it's not cringe-comedy like The Office, but not exactly guffaw-worthy, either.
Galifianakis' great talent is in how he can so thoroughly commit to whomever he is playing. These characters permeate who he is, and they feel fully rounded, even if they aren't fully functional.
Chip is an angry guy wholly consumed with himself, but as ludicrous as he may be, Galifianakis makes him feel stubbornly real. Chip is a bitter, middle-age guy holding on to his dream so tightly he's suffocating himself.
That commitment also extends to Louie Anderson, who brilliantly plays Chip's mom, Christine - yes, his mom (in drag).
Anderson refuses to make Christine a caricature. He's not wearing outlandish, Hairspray-level drag and he keeps his voice at the same nasally pitch that made him a stand-up hit in the 1980s. Anderson is an odd ray of sweetness inside all of Baskets' bitterness, and it's hard not to laugh at that.