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Reality rears its ugly head on a melancholic Baskets

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The lies we tell ourselves are very important for no other reason than they give us a reason to wake up in the morning. Sometimes these lies are small and relatively harmless, but other times they’re so big they can consume someone entirely and transform them into a completely different person. Regardless of size, it’s always easier to live the lie then confront the truth, because the latter demands a fundamental restructuring of one’s own belief system, i.e. if the belief that gives you strength no longer exists, where does your strength come from? The obvious answer may be “within,” but that’s much easier said than done.

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“Stray” lives in the moment when Chip realizes the lie that he has a loving wife can no longer sustain him. It’s a funny episode driven by an absurd plot—Chip gets a $900 insurance check for his unfixable scooter and decides to spend it on a 32-inch TV to impress Penelope, who’s currently shacked up with an attractive farmer named Ben (Shel Rasten) who already bought her a 32-inch TV—but it’s the episode’s melancholy that stands out stronger. I was curious to see how long Galifianakis and co. could sustain Chip’s delusion without it becoming too grating and tipping over to the ugly side of absurd, but “Stray” quelled any fears I had by focusing pretty intently on Chip reeling from something he knew all along.

Meanwhile, Martha deals with the difficulties of keeping a stray dog she found in her backyard. She names it Boots and wants to turn his life around by taking care of him and not giving him to a shelter. Unfortunately, she’s unaware that the “dog” is actually a coyote, and while she’s at the pet store, he destroys her house and kills Samantha, her beloved fish, in the process. It’s a slightly too obvious metaphor for her co-dependent relationship with Chip, who in the first half of this episode treats her like an employee and relies on her to buy ad space and chauffer him around, but it works because of Kelly herself who plays up the character’s sweet but ultimately self-defeating behavior. She never stands up for herself with Chip, so Chip will keep running her life and slowly tear it apart in the process.

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But after Chip is out on the street desperate for a ride, Martha comes to pick him up and they both share a moment that suggests mutual respect going forward. Martha lost a fish and Chip lost a wife (though he never really “had” her in the first place); they don’t say it, but Chip realizes that Martha is more like him than he initially thought and they bond over their respective failures. It’s a short but sweet scene that solidifies their connection, even if Chip refuses to describe their relationship as “friends.” They’re two outsiders uncertain of where they belong and unsure of where they’re going.

“Stray” brings this idea home in the final few scenes when Chip informs Martha that her dog is really a coyote and berates her for her impulse to help others instead of herself (“He’s a wild animal! He was born lost! So are mosquitos! You don’t go around rescuing them!); it’s a little cruel, especially in light of Chip’s own delusions, but it’s also something Martha needs to hear, even if it’s painful. But when Chip helps her out and they bring the coyote out near a wildlife refuge, he breaks down and confronts himself through the coyote about his own lack of prospects. It would be an intense scene because of Galifianakis’ acting alone, which is almost painfully desperate, but the writing courtesy of Graham Wagner nails the mix of absurd and melancholic with Chip saying things like, “Coyotes and insurance adjusters, it’s not a good mix” one second and then “You belong out there, and I’m stuck in this world” in the next. Chip falls apart for a brief second, but when the coyote comes at him, he jumps back into the car and he and Martha head off. Life goes on, with or without the lie.

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From its very conception, Baskets explores the delusions artists need to tell themselves in order to pursue their dreams, but exaggerates them to epic proportions. It’s not just that Chip believes he’s a clown, it’s that he believes he can be treated like an artist in Bakersfield, and that he can have the lovely French wife, and that he can win the respect of his family. It’s too many lies to keep him getting up in the morning. However, sometimes all you need is the brief moment where your delusion is given just a hint of life. Just after Chip says goodbye to Penelope, she convinces him to swim with her, and it’s the most beautiful moment of the series so far. Krisel shoots the scene with a muted tranquility, with the pool’s airy blue light of gleaming beneath the two of them as they briefly share the life Chip so desperately wants but knows he won’t have. But just as soon as he pulls his head out of the water, she’s gone, with only a flash of her body visible in the frame. The lie can only bring comfort for so long before reality rears its ugly head.

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Stray observations

  • Shel Rasten plays Ben, the farmer that stays with Penelope while he’s in town. He’s good at playing the affable hunk that just wants to give Chip a nectarine.
  • Louie Anderson returns as Christine in another wonderful scene where she tries to get Chip to visit her neighbors. Their son is an astronaut. “I miss the Reagans. They loved to go to space. We’d be on Mars right now living if Ron and Nancy we’re still in.”
  • Chip asks for an Americano at a convenience store. When the clerk doesn’t know what that is, he takes a hot dog.
  • Chip wants to take an ad out in the Yellow Pages, but wants it to stand out, so he wants it in the White Pages.
  • Chip on trying to slash Ben’s tires: “Either I’ve got a bum nail or these are really upstanding radials.”
  • “Martha, you’re embarrassing me in front of the barista.”
  • “Good for him! I’m 20th in line to get a fuckin’ corndog tomorrow.”
  • “You in space juggling. You wouldn’t even have to juggle! I’m funny too!”
  • “Nectarines are good for the air.” “Who gives a shit?”
  • “What mental disease is this?”
  • “Honest work.” “Oh that sounds gross.”
  • “You’re just a grubby little guy, aren’t you?”
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