Zach Galifianakis specializes in a comedy of discomfort, with a deadpan expression followed, at unpredictable moments, by explosions of absurdity or volcanic temper. It’s a strategy that makes him a surprising performer, as long as you’re not looking for a steady stream of punchlines and laughs from a man who is as frequently a performance-artist as he is a comedian.
All of which is to say that Baskets, the new half-hour premiering on FX on Thursday, ain’t very funny. Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, a sad-sack who studied to be a classically-trained clown in France, but who returns home to Bakersfield, California, only to find the only job available for him is as a rodeo clown. The French woman he adores, marries, and brings to America (she’s played by Sabina Sciubba of the Brazilian Girls) is merely using him for a green card — she leaves him as soon as they hit U.S. soil.
Indigent, sore from being gored by bulls, and depressed, Chip moves in with his mother. She is played with Baskets’ one true flash of inspiration by Louie Anderson. Anderson inhabits Christine Baskets with a wonderful, tart delicacy. As the show-biz saying goes, he plays the character, not the clothes, and he’s truly funny wringing laughs from mirthless lines on the pure strength of his delivery.
But back to Chip — and Dale: Galifianakis takes on the dual role of an obnoxious twin brother. Chip is most often paired with Martha, a perpetually worried-looking insurance adjuster played with impeccably quiet intensity by stand-up comic Martha Kelly.
The biggest problem with Baskets, which Galifianakis co-created with Louis C.K. (another practitioner of grimace-humor) and writer-director-producer Jonathan Krisell, is that Chip loses our sympathy quickly by being so unnecessarily rude, even cruel, to Martha (who’s only trying to help him) and to most of the Bakersfield citizens he encounters. When Chip says to Martha, in the fourth episode, “Your whole life’s a goof,” he does it with such sneering dismissiveness that it carries a hurtful sting. Enough of a sting to inflict pain in a viewer as well.
Instead of being a classic clown — one whose misfortunes are borne aloft by lighter laughs, and an implicit invitation to identify with his troubles — Chip Baskets is most often a selfish creep. It’s a brave move for a performer to make, and congratulations to Galifianakis for his commitment. Just don’t ask me to keep watching him in this role; I’ve already used up a year’s-worth of wincing.
Baskets airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.