When it comes to television, idiosyncratic family dynamics are nothing new. But more closely exploring the ins and outs of a sometimes strained, sometimes sad, and always-strange family unit is something of a new twist for the Zach Galifianakis-led comedy Baskets. Co-created and directed by Jonathan Krisel and produced by Louis C.K., the series began life as an odd examination of Chip Baskets, a sad clown yearning to be a real clown, an artist aching to be heard by an audience that simply wasn’t there. Over the course of the first season, though, the strange little comedy demonstrated that, at its core wasn’t just a single sad clown, but a group of them — an unwitting troupe, if you will. That troupe includes Emmy-winner Louie Anderson as Chip’s mother, Christine, comedian Martha Kelly as the emotional doormat Martha, and Galifianakis (again) as Chip’s twin brother Dale, who speaks with an inexplicable Southern twang.
In season 2, the series sees these characters step up from their supporting roles to become the lead in their own separate storylines. The switch allows Baskets a chance to step outside the narrative boundaries presented by the pursuits of a single character, opening up the series to more interconnected threads that, as it turns out, better explore the emotional schism between the members of the Baskets family. But before you go worrying the show has lost its sense of humor, this shift in focus isn’t as dramatic an alteration as it sounds. The series continues to be a funny slice of heartache, only now the charming melancholy of it all is doled out more proportionately amongst the entire cast.
Chip is still ostensibly the lead, as the season premiere ‘Freaks’, begins with him adjusting to life as a self-proclaimed “hobo”, riding the rails in search of some sense of purpose, following a stint at Arby’s and the discovery that Martha and Dale had an ill-advised rendezvous in his minivan. That serves as a terrific catalyst for the premiere, pushing Chip out of his relative comfort zone and onto the road. Meanwhile, Dale continues to unsuccessfully woo Martha, who seems to be the only one concerned with Chip’s wellbeing.
As with season 1, there’s a certain sadness to the various goings-on, but the series still finds time for delightful moments of comedy, like watching Galifianakis run for a train while trying not to spill a cup of hot coffee, or an extended montage in which futile attempts to open a can of SpaghettiOs offers a compelling counterargument to Chip’s claim that clowns aren’t needed as much, “because the world’s become so clownish.” It reads as an emotionally authentic moment from a character as oblivious as Chip, especially when it comes to the dim professional prospects of middle-aged clown in Bakersfield, California. As Krisel demonstrates in the premiere, though, Baskets lives in and derives most of its humor from that uncomfortable place between blissful ignorance and the crushing realization of the universe’s indifference to the hopes and dreams of any one person. Chip’s continuing misadventures in clowning offers proof to that, as he finds brief fulfillment as a street performer after befriending an itinerant group whose names are lifted directly from The Matrix.
It’s another moment that, like Dale’s accent or Martha’s arm being in a cast, goes unmentioned, and somehow becomes funnier the longer it remains unaddressed. Baskets gets considerable mileage out of such unspoken details, but it manages to be more fulfilling the closer it sticks to home. While there’s a wacky imbalance in the Dale/Martha non-romance, the season 2 premiere finds its emotional core in the mother-son relationship between Chip and Christine.
Anderson brings depth to a role that, considering he’s doing it in drag, could have been seen as a simple gimmick. But instead, season 2 finds a new avenue for Christine to travel that, while closely related to her being a mother, also manages to branch off and becomes something personal and independent of her role as the Baskets family matriarch. This season, Christine’s struggles with her weight and the health issues that come along with that are placed front and center to her storyline, and Krisel, Galifianakis, and Anderson find something compelling in the pile-up of emotions that results from having so many characters made vulnerable at the same time.
If anything, the alterations made to Baskets in season 2 signify a show that’s decidedly more confident and committed to the kinds of stories it wants to tell. And as evidenced by the first few episodes sent out to critics, the series has found a touching emotional through-line to this new season that doesn’t skimp on the bizarre hilarity of the Baskets family. As with most shows, there’s a temptation to get bigger and broader with the second season. Baskets is definitely following suit, but not at the expense of what made it so funny and enjoyable in the first place.
Baskets continues next Tuesday with ‘Reverie’ @10pm on FX.