TV Recap: Baskets, ‘Renoir’

Written by Chris Diggins

Baskets Poster Wide

Baskets, ‘Renoir’ Plot Summary:

After failing at a prestigious French clowning college, Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis) looks to keep his dream of becoming a professional clown alive.  

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with awkward or cringe humor. On the one hand, I can understand why someone would find humor in situations where someone is saying or doing something incredibly embarrassing. On the other hand, I feel pretty strong secondhand embarrassment, and I just generally don’t find watching terrible people dig themselves into holes to be all that funny. It’s a conundrum that makes reviewing Baskets, a new FX comedy by Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan Krisel, somewhat difficult. As a show, it revels in the kind of awkward, drawn-out humor you might expect if you’ve seen the co-creators’ former works (Louie, Tim and Eric Show, etc), which I find extremely hit or miss, but there’s also a spark of inspiration about it that I can’t help but keep thinking about.

Baskets -- Pictured: Zach Galafianakis as Chip Baskets. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Baskets follows Chip Baskets, a man whose greatest dream in life is to become a clown. To that end, he’s enrolled in a prestigious clowning school in France, with only one major problem: he doesn’t know any French. After flunking out, he’s forced to move back to his home town of Bakersfield, California, where he attempts to keep his dream alive by becoming a rodeo clown. He’s joined by his new wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), a Frenchwoman who openly admits that she does not love him and only agreed to his proposal so she could move to America. His only friend in this endeavor is Martha (Martha Kelly), his insurance agent who takes a shine to him despite his rude and dismissive treatment of her.

As said earlier, there is plenty of awkward humor wrung out of this premise. There is something comical in the level to which Chip single-mindedly pursues his goal of becoming a clown, despite all obstacles. And there are plenty of jokes that work wonderfully because of their overt weirdness (the commercial for Chip’s brother Dale’s (also Galifianakis) college career center is delightfully bizarre). Still, it’s hard to overcome my mixed feelings about this approach to comedy. There is humor to be found in Chip’s situation to be sure, but it can also become mean-spirited. His treatment of Martha in particular verges towards being pointlessly cruel for me, and it dampens the laughter when I start to feel genuinely bad for her.

Zach Galifianakis as Baskets
Photo Credit: Ben Cohen/FX

But I think what’s really unique about Baskets that sets it apart from other shows of its kind is how it recognizes the inherent tragedy of its premise. Chip’s desire to be a clown is absurd, and the show does not shy away from that absurdity, but it also treats that desire seriously. At heart, Chip is a frustrated artist, someone who feels he has something to express deep in his soul but cannot find the means to do so. His family is financially supportive but mock his dream to his face; his wife tells him that he will never be a clown. Stripped of its humor, Baskets is a bleak tragedy about a man who gives everything he has to achieve his most fervent dream and comes up short. This is sad, and more importantly, that sadness is allowed to exist as an element just as vital to the show as the comedy. We are not asked simply to laugh at Chip, but to understand and empathize with him, and that elevates it above your average cringe comedy.

It can be hard to be objective about something when you can recognize that it’s not entirely to your taste. But even though I’m not thrilled with a lot of the humor, Baskets still makes a strong case for itself. It is audaciously weird, a blend of high tragedy and bizarre comedy that feels tangibly different from nearly every other show on TV. And while I’ve said over and over again how ambivalent I feel, I also can’t stop thinking about it. Baskets won’t go over well with everyone, but for those who can accept its weirdness, I suspect it might be one of your new favorite shows.

Rating: 8 out of 10