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What does it mean when we describe comedy as “divisive”? Sure, humor is subjective, and expecting it to be good for all time zones is unrealistic at best and naïve at worst, but “divisive” implies alienation and hostility, two qualities that many don’t normally associate with comedy. Yet from Andy Kaufman to Tim & Eric, there’s a long history of divisive comedy that has always attracted hordes of passionate fans thrilled to find humor on their specific wavelength. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for someone. Some might call that pretentious or obnoxious. I say it’s important.

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Created by Zack Galifianakis, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule), FX’s new comedy Baskets is certainly not for everyone, and has received a polarized reaction from critics. To his credit, Galifianakis is keenly aware that a wide audience may not react well to a series about a professional clown struggling to make a living, but I personally think that this may be the perfect time for a show this specific to come around. Baskets will certainly alienate those expecting laugh-out-loud jokes every scene or for every punchline to be telegraphed from a mile away, but for those weaned on Louie and Adult Swim avant-garde weirdness, and who have embraced such “sad-coms” as You’re The Worst, Rick and Morty, and BoJack Horseman, Baskets will be right up their alley.

On a narrative level, “Renoir” is a classic pilot episode, establishing the premise of the series and introducing the principal characters. It follows Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets from Clown College in Paris where he’s failing because he doesn’t speak French to his home in Bakersfield, California where he’s taken a job as a rodeo clown. We meet Chip’s family—his mother, Mom Baskets (a phenomenal Louie Anderson), and his brother Dale Baskets (also Galifianakis) who is Dean of Baskets Career College. After Chip crashes his scooter because a bee flew in his helmet visor, he meets Martha (Martha Kelly), a kind, quiet insurance agent who takes a liking to Chip even though he treats her dismissively. Finally, there’s Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), Chip’s French wife who doesn’t love him and only married him so she could move to America. It’s standard sitcom pilot material; most of these characters are sketches at the moment that will likely deepen over time.

But “Renoir” distinguishes itself from the pack in a few key areas. First, there’s the relaxed, almost languid pacing atypical for a comedy pilot. Galifianakis and co. luxuriate in situations and gags that would normally be tightened up to remove any and all fat, like Chip trying to order a really specific soda from a fast food drive thru or just the repeated scenes of Chip running away from bulls at the rodeo. Second, the stellar photography, which has a restrained color palette that drains Chip’s world of most brightness. It’s a perfect choice on the part of Galifianakis, as it captures Chip’s cloudy, drab headspace without putting too fine a point on it.

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But where “Renoir” and Baskets really shines is its melancholic mood, which stays consistent even as the series’ tone veers from broad comedy to pointed drama. From its first few minutes, it’s clear that Baskets is a show about struggle and displacement. It’s about realizing your dream, deciding to pursue it, and then living with the consequences, except that dream is becoming a professional clown. Chip may be arrogant and abrasive, but I find it hard not to sympathize with someone who feels so out of place at home, abroad, and at work. He’s consumed by shame and worthlessness, evidenced by him having to escape to his mother’s bathroom to smoke cigarettes so he doesn’t have to face her. The world knocks Chip down at every turn, partly because of the decisions he has made and partly because the modern world has little place for artists of mainstream pursuits let alone niche ones. Chip believes he’s destined for greatness as a clown, which is a patently absurd idea, but Galifianakis dares the audience to take that idea seriously.

Case in point: Chip’s planned swan song after he decides to throw his dream away. He goes out into the rodeo arena and tries to perform a solemn, graceful performance accompanied by music from a gramophone over the PA. For a few seconds there, you can see what Chip wants to accomplish, something beautiful, majestic, and different…and then he’s run over by a bull yet again. The crowd cheers. Chip lies in the mud, despondent and frustrated. But afterwards the rodeo manager Eddie (Ernest Adams) makes him head clown by default (everyone keeps quitting), and Chip takes it as a sign. “See you later, Renoir,” Eddie yells out, complying with Chip’s preferred clown name. “It’s Baskets!” Chip yells back. “Baskets the clown!” Sure he’s not a clown in Europe, but he’s one in Bakersfield, and that counts for something.

If you’re on its level, Baskets is very, very funny, but more than that, it contains a unique, subdued beauty like few other TV shows on the air right now. It asks a lot of its audience, particularly to laugh at and with its subjects, but if you decide to embrace it, it will reward you with an unpredictable, experimental rhythm, a gentle humanity, and a coarse sense of “Fuck you” misanthropy as well. Baskets is not for everyone, but it’s for someone. Hopefully that someone is you.

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Stray observations

  • Hello, my name is Vikram. I will be covering Baskets this season. I studied Ice Cream Truck repair at Dean’s Career College, so you know you’re in good hands.
  • It needs to be said that this is probably the best acting in Galifianakis’ career, even though he’s essentially playing the same character he’s been playing for years.
  • Baskets is so good at the little character details. Some of my favorites include Eddie drinking out of a toilet mug, and Mama Baskets chugging some liquid, choking on it, and then saying, “That hit the spot.”
  • My favorite gag in the episode may be the motorcycle airbag going off too late.
  • The Baskets Career College commercial has a huge Tim & Eric vibe to it, and it just killed me. “All kinds of chutneys.”
  • Some of the sodas Chip asks for: Tangerine Fanta, Tab, Pepsi Lime, and Schweppes.
  • “I’ll have the number four.” “A carrot?” “Yes. A carrot.”
  • “Do you know how much that school was in Paris? I paid in Euros, so I don’t know exactly how much it was, but there were a lot of Euros on that check.”
  • “You seem a little like a packrat. I get that vibe from you.”
  • “I forgot to tell you I lost my virginity at this motel.” “What room?” “13.” “Good.”

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