There's no other way to say it: FX's new comedy Baskets isn't for everybody. The Zach Galifianakis-starring sad clown dramedy, which premieres Thursday at 10/9c, is silly and depressing in equal measure. The first five episodes are funny and beautifully shot, but they're bleak. The comedy is broad and the drama is claustrophobic. There's nothing else on TV that takes its mixed tone of slapstick goofiness and deadpan melancholy. Galifianakis himself openly admits it might not work. So it's best to know what you'll be in for should you decide to watch.
Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, an aspiring highbrow clown who is forced to move back home to Bakersfield, Calif. after failing out of a fancy French clowning academy. He takes a dead-end job as a rodeo clown to support his freeloading French wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), who only comes to America with him for a green card. His mother (Louie Anderson, more on that below) and twin brother Dale (also Galifianakis) aren't thrilled to have their underachieving kin back in the fold. The only person who wants to be around him is Martha (Martha Kelly), a sad-sack insurance claims adjustor he treats like crap.
Baskets was co-created by Galifianakis with Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel, who also co-created Portlandia. A little bit of each of its creators' sensibilities can be identified, but fans of Between Two Ferns or Louie or Portlandia won't necessarily like this. So, how to decide? The way you answer these questions will help determine if Baskets is right for you:
Do you like The Hangover?
If you can quote the bro-comedy that made Galifianakis a star, you probably won't like this show. That movie's subtext of misery and cruelty is explicit here, but with a humanity and empathy for its characters that The Hangover avoided. There are no Ken Jeong caricatures here. Instead, there's comedian Louie Anderson in drag as Chip's mother, which Anderson underplays naturalistically. It's a man playing a woman, but it's not a drag performance. "I tried to play a real person," Anderson told TVGuide. "I did that passive-aggressive mom who has a troubled family, who says 'You should get a job that pays the rent.'"
Do you like Eastbound & Down?
It's a lot like HBO's cult hit baseball comedy, but without Kenny Powers' charisma. Where Danny McBride's performance as a mercurial pitcher was all external, with unfiltered windiness and city-leveling rage, Galifianakis' is internal, inarticulate and simmering, hidden behind a cigarette and his beard. He's equally enraged, but quietly so. The shows share a similar first-season premise, where an overconfident would-be prodigal son returns home to a family and town that doesn't really want him around. Like Eastbound & Down, it's a detail-oriented character study about a man at the end of his rope.
Do you like cringe comedy?
Baskets is a brutally uncomfortable show. The characters treat each other terribly. Penelope does nothing but take advantage of the lovelorn Chip, and Chip is too pathetic to even see it, let alone do anything about it. In turn, Chip is mean to Martha, making her drive him around and not even letting her call him her friend. Martha's boringness and spinelessness is excruciating to watch. She's like a kicked dog in human form. Just about every scene has a moment of obliviousness that makes you do that suck-air-through-your-teeth thing people do when they see something that looks like it hurts.
Do you like "weird" stuff?
Zach Galifianakis and Jonathan Krisel are associates of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose Adult Swim shows influenced a lot of comedians to stop telling jokes and instead provoke the audience with strangeness and linger on one bizarre idea for a very long time. Some of their patience-testing sensibility feels present in Baskets, especially in bits like the interminable drive-through routine and the fact that Martha has a cast on her arm that's never mentioned.
Do you like small stuff?
Krisel describes Baskets as an uncool, "micro-observed" family drama about a mom and her son that's also about Costco membership and going to church. "It's not trying to be edgy," he says. "It's just a couple of people driving around Bakersfield trying to be a clunky family together. That seemed exciting to us."
Are you comfortable with feeling two emotions at once?
Nothing on Baskets is just one thing. For example, in one episode Chip befriends a fellow rodeo clown who's also a Juggalo, a fan of the terrible rap group Insane Clown Posse. Juggalos are a marginal subculture who, when they're mentioned in the mainstream at all, it's as a classist joke about how dumb and trashy they are. (See this SNL sketch). Baskets' Juggalo, though, manages to be fully realized in just a few scenes. He is dumb and trashy, and the fact that he's a Juggalo is played for laughs, but he's also a sad, desperate character who's trying to better his lot in life. You will feel contempt and empathy for him at the same time. Not everyone can handle that.
Are you afraid of clowns?
I mean, it's a show about a clown. If you get panicky when you see someone in white face paint, you should avoid this show.
Baskets premieres Thursday, Jan. 21 at 10/9c on FX.