“I am a clown!” shouts comedian Zach Galifianakis into the receiver of his shoddy, motel-room telephone. “I’ve always been a clown, and I always will be a clown!”
If the 46 year-old had been discussing the acting roles he’s usually typecast as, the actor’s overly-assertive statement would have accurately fit his filmography thus far. Over the course of his Hollywood career, the man has played many a bumbling fool (an abridged version of the extensive list includes socially awkward Alan in the Hangover saga and Hobo Joe in Muppets Most Wanted).
This particular line, however, is delivered by Galifianakis with gusto, spoken with unquestionable confidence rather than embarrassment or shame. The actor delivers the line not as himself, but as the down-on-his-luck Chip Baskets—a clown college dropout whose passion for performing in the circus is thwarted on more than one occasion. This time around, Galifianakis really is a clown—and the pilot episode of unique new FXX series Baskets suggests he is ready to really put on a show.
The episode begins at the prestigious Académie de Clown Française in Paris, France. An arrogant instructor stands before his eager students to deliver the day’s lesson, which is taught entirely in French. As the camera pans over to a discouraged Galifianakis, viewers soon discover that his sadness stems from an unfortunate language barrier. Consequently, Chip flunks out of clown college and flies home to Bakersfield, Calif. With nothing to show for his European endeavor but a verbally abusive girlfriend and a crappy blue motor scooter, Chip returns to the States hoping that his remaining (but ever-dwindling) dignity will be enough to fuel his pipe dreams.
Written by a trio of some of Hollywood’s most notable goofballs (stand-up star Louis CK, Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel, and the great Galifianakis himself), Baskets is a contemporary, 2016 take on comedy. Refreshingly original, it adopts an uncommon style that strays far from recorded laugh tracks and overdone physical bits tossed in for a cheap laugh. Instead, this series sports a puzzling melange of contradictory genre pairs. In the span of just one 30-minute pilot, viewers chuckle and smile during one scene, feel sympathetic and sad the next.
For a series whose protagonist is an aspiring clown, this new comedy is deliciously depressing. Chip is a good guy—he means well, is passionate about pursuing a clowning career, and is repeatedly jabbed by the sharp pang of unrequited love. In spite of this, the 30-or-40-something Chip oozes an inexplicable arrogance and exudes an off-putting vibe of rebellious teenage angst. He’s moody, broody, and an utter disappointment, if you ask Chip’s mother (played by Louie Anderson). A literal sad clown who just wants to love and be loved, Chip is A. A. Milne’s’ Eeyore, personified. Unexpectedly entertaining, Baskets’ quirky combination of dry humor and bleak plotlines add a charming air to an odd show.
Much like the show’s main character, the events that transpire throughout the first aren’t all that interesting, either. Highlights include glances at the Baskets family photo album, a humorous drive-through experience, and the awkward antics of rodeo clowns. Despite the layer of boredom that shrouds every scene, Blankets is peppered with witty throwaway lines and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes. This weird kind of comedy paired with well-executed, deadpan deliveries identify the show as one of the smartest series out there.
Another notable aspect of the unique FXX comedy is the way it plays like an indie song. Moody but mellow, Baskets carries a creative and cool tone throughout with its impressive cinematography. Playing with colors and sets, shadows and lighting, the creators’ keen attention to detail is evident in the impeccable quality of each inventive and beautiful shot. In one short scene, the camera rests intently on Galifianakis’ partially silhouetted face. Smoke dances out of the end of his cigarette as a single tear escapes from his defeated demeanor.
Channeling Napoleon Dynamite-like idiocy in a dusty, Napoleon Dynamite-like world, Baskets does little to elicit the hardy, cheap laughs expected of a Galifianakis film. Instead, it is a shining example of crafty comedy that takes a great risk with its decidedly depressing premise.
By taking on this kind of an unprecedented risk, however, actor-turned-producer Galifianakis is like a circus performer in his own right—one who is willing to juggle conflicting genres and run with it. Satisfied with the series premiere, viewers just hope he will not end up dropping the ball.
Featured Image by FX Productions