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A fantastic Baskets deftly balances sweet and sour

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For all of its abrasiveness and melancholy, Baskets can be a very sweet show. Galifianakis doesn’t pretend that the life of Chip Baskets is an admirable one, nor does he shy away from the painful delusions that uphold his entire worldview, but he also relishes in Chip’s commitment to reaching for the brass ring in spite of all evidence to the contrary. This obviously doesn’t just extend to being a professional clown, but also a husband to a woman who obviously doesn’t love him, a son to an encouraging but disappointed mother, and in “Uncle Dad,” a part-time uncle for his two nieces. Naturally this requires some tolerance for Chip’s worst qualities—constantly dismissing Martha, a stubborn refusal to listen to others, general low-grade dickishness—but it helps that the creative talent clearly have a lot invested in the character, as well as the other people that surround him. Baskets may be on a left-field wavelength, but it’s positive qualities are universal.

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“Uncle Dad” features two concurrent storylines that focus on playacting: Chip and Martha act as makeshift parents to Dale and Nicole’s kids while they’re out getting a good deal on a hutch, and Christine plays mother-in-law to a befuddled Penelope despite her tenuous marriage to Chip. Compared to the last two episodes, it’s relatively low-key, focusing more on oddball exchanges and situations rather than hitting the throttle on the tragedy, but it also manages to skillfully incorporate enough painful subtext to provide weight to the stories. Chip wants to finally do something right, and Christine wants Chip to be happy; both go about this indirectly and succeed in limited ways. It’s a little less strange than the last few episodes of Baskets (and this episode begins with Eddie sacrificing a rodeo bull and polling the rodeo clowns for which cut of the meat they want), but it’s also more emotionally direct in unexpected ways.

Let’s start with Chip and Martha who look after Sarah (Malia Pyles) and Crystal (Julia Gruenberg) and deal with their various emotional troubles at school. Sarah is fighting with her best friend who has turned all of her other friends against her, while Crystal performed a dance at school that provoked her classmates to laugh at her. They’re both common problems that many children face, but Chip goes about “solving” them in confrontational ways. Chip takes the whole “family” to Sarah’s friend’s house in order to resolve their conflict only to quickly bail on the plan when it gets out of hand quickly, but one gets the sense that the charade helps Sarah anyway. Though Dale may be a successful businessman in Bakersfield, his attitude towards his kids is condescending at best, but Chip at least listens to her and attempts to fix her problems, which is the gesture she really needed.

But it’s Chip’s advice to Crystal that really stuns in its emotional honesty. Crystal performs the dance to Chip and Martha and Chip quickly informs her that she’s a terrible dancer and that her peers were laughing at her, but that she can own those laughs by performing an even worse dance tomorrow. It’s clearly advice that comes from personal experience (one can reasonably assume that Chip’s childhood was not a good one), and though it’s brutal, it’s also exactly what Crystal doesn’t hear from her own father. “No matter what terrible thing happens in your life, it doesn’t matter because you’re in on the joke,” Chip tells her in the most openly heartbreaking line in the episode. For a few brief moments, Chip, Martha, Sarah, and Crystal are one happy family, sharing their feelings and eating hot dogs and rice. But as soon as Dale enters the house and begins barking at Sarah and Crystal to help their mother with the hutch, the illusion shatters, and Chip leaves openly embarrassed at his fleeting moment of levity.

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Meanwhile, Christine and Penelope spend the day touring Bakersfield as a way to get to know each other. Though Christine acts outwardly kind and generous to Penelope, she’s quietly seething with contempt for her treatment towards Chip, condescending to France every chance she gets and making snide, knowing remarks in her direction. But despite Penelope’s indifference towards Chip and her eye-rolling attitude towards the scenery and the second Arby’s that has opened up in town, she does try to be forthright with Christine about her feelings towards Bakersfield and her marriage. She’s upfront with her about how it’s a green card marriage and that it’s Chip who lives in a fantasy that they are in love.

Christine hears this but also doesn’t. Louie Anderson does stellar work here simply listening to Penelope’s responses and trying to hold back her maternal protectiveness over Chip, but it all comes crashing down when Christine shows Penelope where Chip’s father died. Christine tells her that her husband Daniel “accidentally fell off the bridge while admiring the river,” which sent Chip into a deep depression as a child only for juggling to serve as a tiny life preserver for him. It’s a stunning tossed-off statement that single-handedly recontextualizes the episode’s earlier suicide jokes, and provides some more psychological definition to Chip’s character. Christine asks Penelope not to hurt her son, and Penelope in a stunning moment of cruelty tells her that she “can’t do any more damage.”

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Unfortunately for Penelope, this propels Christine to call her father and inform him of her marriage to Chip to which he replies that if she doesn’t return to France immediately she won’t receive any money from her trust fund. “I’m not as simple as you think I am, dear,” Christine sneers in Penelope’s face as she weeps for her situation. Writer Samuel D. Hunter (who also wrote last week’s winning episode) does careful work to empathize with both women in this situation; Penelope clearly wanted a life outside of her hometown and found a quick way out through Chip, and Christine squashed Penelope out of love for her son. But all the empathy in the world can’t take the sourness out of that scene, especially its placement near the end of the episode. Christine vengefully takes action out of love but ultimately displaces another human being in the process.

In the end, Hunter doubles down on the devastation by having Chip call Penelope in a panic asking if she wants to have kids with him only to find out that Penelope is leaving the country. There’s a karmic attitude at play in Baskets; a nice moment cannot exist without a bitter one coming up from behind. It’s a way for Galifianakis to keep his characters in neutral position, but it’s also a damning worldview. Joy and misery coexist whether you want them to or not, and Baskets subtly argues that the best art comes from the intersection of those two feelings. It’s what drives the series and also what makes it stand apart from a crowded field.

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Stray observations

  • Funniest moments in the episode in ascending order: 3. Eddie taking requests for meat from the bull; 2. Chip running through the school trying to find Sarah and Crystal; 1. The koosh ball discussion at Sarah’s friend’s house, especially the father who clearly has no interest in anything that’s happening.
  • Fun fact: Episode writer Samuel D. Hunter is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
  • Christine is loyal to the original Arby’s in town, but admits that some claim that the fries are curlier at the second location.
  • “There comes a time in every rodeo bull’s life when it’s time for him to acknowledge that he’s now just a no good, worthless piece of dog meat.”
  • “Nicole told me to ask you to watch the girls. Might as well just stick them in the refrigerator.”
  • “Suicide is not the answer usually.”
  • “I did this dance in drama and everyone laughed.” “Everyone laughed? I got to see this dance.”
  • “Wrong number.”
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