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Zach Galifianakis' Baskets finds comedy in dashed dreams

FX's new half-hour comedy is funny and smart, if a bit directionless

Perhaps all of Baskets, FX’s new half-hour comedy, can be encapsulated in this line, spoken by Zach Galifianakis’ character Chip Baskets: "Being a clown is the most important thing in the world to me."

Galifianakis says it with a sincerity so unflinching it betrays its desire to make you laugh. He’s speaking to a professor at the clown school he attends in Paris, a professor who’s not terribly fond of him, and tells him, in French, that he’ll never realize his dream of becoming a clown. Adding insult to injury, Chip Baskets doesn’t speak French.

He'll never realize his dream of becoming a clown

Chip leaves Paris and returns to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, defeated, penniless, and with no possessions save for several comically large props. He successfully convinces his French girlfriend to marry him and move to the US, but she specifies it’s just a green card marriage, and she will leave him as soon as she meets a more attractive man. In California, Chip gets a job as a rodeo clown, but it pays just $4 an hour and he must move back in with his mother (played by Louie Anderson).

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Chip’s earlier admission that his deepest desire is to become a successful clown is less funny once it becomes clear he never will. Baskets is a comedy, but it’s about existential dissatisfaction; waking up each morning to do a job you don’t want to do, scraping together rent each month to live somewhere you don’t want to live.

Galifianakis’ influence on the show, which he created with Louis C.K. and Portlandia’s Jonathan Krisel, is obvious: the jokes are dry, self-deprecating, and sometimes uncomfortably cruel. Chip’s personality is reminiscent of other Galifianakis characters: his blunt, faux-unintentional insults feel borrowed from Between Two Ferns outtakes, while his fragile ego and desperate desire to be liked feels like a throwback to his Hangover character Alan. Chip’s brother Dale, (yes, Chip and Dale) shares qualities — notably an unplaceable Southern accent — with Zach’s recurring character Seth Galifianakis, his estranged twin brother.

Chip’s self-defeating personality might feel rote if not for his interactions with the eminently positive Martha

Chip’s self-defeating personality might feel rote if not for his interactions with the eminently positive Martha, a Costco auto insurance agent (played by comedian Martha Kelly) who meets Chip after he gets into an accident on his electric scooter. Martha’s goodness is almost pathological; she’s the kind of woman, who, upon being told she must sell an executive membership or be fired, tries to figure out a way to make the firing easier on her boss. And her kindness remains unwavering despite Chip’s coldness toward her.

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Chip’s relationship with Martha is the best part of Baskets, and, fortunately, the one that gets the most screen time. "Do you just sit around all day thinking of nice things to say to people?" Chip says to her one day in the car, and in the next breath, "I like how you took a shower curtain and turned it into a dress."

Outside of the dynamic of that relationship, Baskets is largely plotless and, at times, directionless. Chip’s clowning dreams are the hook, but "clown" could be replaced by almost any less-than-glamorous job here and the show wouldn’t lose much. It just adds a little tragic absurdity to the show’s "sad man moves back home" plot synopsis.

Still, it feels unfair to completely discount the clown premise, because it’s weird. And part of Baskets’ mission statement is its weird characters: a Juggalo named Juggs, the nectarine-loving farmer who starts dating Chip’s wife; rodeo owner Eddie, who knows he’s a terrible boss; and Dale, who runs an online college where students can take classes in "management" and "all kinds of chutneys." Baskets makes them sympathetic; even Chip’s Reagan-loving mother is allowed a backstory that’s surprisingly heart-wrenching.

The show’s least effective moments come when it tries to wring physical comedy out of Galifianakis. When he’s not slumped over moping in the passenger seat of Martha’s car, Chip is falling into a pile of garbage, tripping on his rollerblades, and getting attacked by a swarm of angry bees. The frequent image of Chip getting horned by bulls at the rodeo feels more incidental than intentional — a problem compounded by the fact that the rest of the show’s jokes feel so precise.

For Baskets, there’s prime comedy to be mined from the worst parts of being alive: loneliness, jealousy, damaged psyches and families that do more harm than good. It’s common for comedies to try and disarm serious topics through humor — You’re The Worst tackles depression, Louie smirks at single parenthood and middle age — but Baskets, for better or worse, doesn’t really have an agenda. It just wants you to laugh at a clown, and hopefully see a little of yourself in him.