Zach Galifiniakis' spectacularly drab America
Baskets' portrait of the country is fit for a sad clown
Season one of Zach Galifianakis' Baskets was not a happy affair.
The dramedy of Galifianakis' Chip Baskets, a literal sad clown in a TV landscape full of them, concluded its first season by shuttering the Bakersfield rodeo where Chip worked. "Got ourselves a cease and desist order from the humane society," says his boss Eddie, a charming caricature of a decrepit cowboy. "Reckon I'll ride out west, hold me up a train, get my ass all shot up, die in a creek somewhere." Of course, this makes no sense, even as a fantasy of living in a Western. "Riding west" from Bakersfield will land you in San Luis Obispo, and the cowboy thing doesn't work quite as well on the beach. That's not the point, though. The point is that Bakersfield's spectacular drabness forces fantasies like these. Death — or at least the romantic prospect of it — can seem preferable.
In season two (beginning on Jan. 21), Chip reacts to Eddie's rant by doing what he does best: He makes an inferior copy. The guy who chose "Renoir" as his clown name (and reenacted a magical Parisian picnic with a hoagie and yellow dip) tries, in season two, to mimic Eddie's fantasy of escape. If he can't be a cowboy, he'll ride the rails. He'll join an inferior strand of mythic Americana and reinvent himself as a hobo. Rather than live with his mother and his newly separated brother Dale, he'll jump on a train and die in a creek.
Baskets isn't exactly about the America the politicians forgot, but it is about the suicidal aspect of the fantasies to which that America clings. Set in Bakersfield, California, one of America's reddest cities in one of its bluest states, the show resists the typical sardonic send-up of Middle America. This not American Beauty. Far from scorning suburban housewives, the show offers an astonishingly sympathetic portrayal of one in Christine Baskets, Chip's long-suffering mother (exquisitely played by Louie Anderson). Christine is funny and passive-aggressive and warm and unconditional. She masks her disappointments to prop up a version of happiness America promises and never quite delivers. What fantasies she does entertain are negative: She misses the Reagans ("we'd be on Mars right now living if Ron and Nancy we’re still in") and her husband Nathaniel "fell off a bridge" while "admiring the river." At night.
The trouble with that America is, surprisingly, that there isn't much room for Real American Men in it. The frontier is gone; the hearth remains. The suburbs are so sunny and scrubbed that even the big American fantasies that should power a red state paradise are struggling. The Bakersfield rodeo was dying long before the Humane Society shuttered it; no one wanted to go, even when the tickets were free.
That Christine is enjoyably three-dimensional changes the way this kind of show usually works: Baskets refuses to fully validate Chip's despair at being unable to fulfill his role as man or artist. Sure, Christine is tough to live with, and the same could be said of Martha, played by breakout star Martha Kelly. As Chip's long-suffering friend, Martha is so dull, so abject, and insistently kind that she accidentally adopts a coyote (she thought it was a stray). If that's a metaphor for her relationship with Chip, it's also evidence of how much loss Martha's placid resignation can expand to accommodate. Her pet is dead, her house destroyed, and she barely objects. Even when snakes are biting her, Martha apologizes for "overreacting."
This is hilarious, but it's also key to the show's portrait of a flat and undramatic America. The women's grief is as real as Chip's; it's just muted. This new American Dream is drabness itself, and surviving that is the challenge: not jumping on a train. Nothing is great, and no one — except for Chip — expects it to be. But hey! There are two Arby's and a Costco.
Life in the Bakersfield suburbs may be comfortable and free of complaints. That doesn't translate to anything resembling happiness.
That might sound cliché, but I'm trying to explain the curious middle ground the show carves out here, because its even-handedness — its insistence on making everything look clean and flat without quite turning it into a soul-killing hell-hole — really is interesting. The rodeo could be such a gift! Imagine the cinematographic possibilities! But Baskets withholds and films it as dirty and bleak. As cinematographer Christian Sprenger said, "Paris is an extraordinary magical dreamland and Bakersfield is not. We wanted it to be a harsh, realistic, sun-washed, and flat place."
If this is America as parking lots and Coke, the Coke has gone flat. So what's the point? Where can a second season of this go?
For one thing, Baskets' insistence on showcasing the corporate side of suburban comfort highlights the stupidity of Chip's despair. In trying to join an old tradition of free American train-hopping rebels, he keeps running up against the fact that there's just not much for him to rebel against. His mom is actually pretty nice, and Chip's hobo days establish that his drive to be an artist is hampered by that fact: Despite being his mother's least-favorite, he's too well-loved. A homeless troop of performers informs him that he will always — like his wife Penelope, whose father supports her — be a "tourist."
The second and smarter revelation is that this premise can be generalized. Almost everyone in a gang of homeless clowns Chip joins is revealed to be well-loved by their long-suffering families. Their troubles aren't a function of a bad home life. Everyone is a tourist here. Everyone can go home. In other words: Authenticity is dead.
The shallowness of the American Dreams in Baskets are a direct function of the bland comfort a corporate suburban existence makes possible. Arby's is a fine place to work, with "a very competitive wage increase for employees who stick around." Costco managers are kindly and beholden to the local Baskets Community College, where Chip's brother Dale isn't just the dean, he's a student and janitor! It's all logos and veneers. And hey! The Ronald Reagan library is pretty cool!
In its second season, then, Baskets judges Chip for wanting to escape — even as it makes clear why he might want to. From cowboys to clowns to hobos to actor-presidents, the show ushers Chip through a series of American identities that should be compatible with art or freedom or something. But he just keeps ending up in the same old basket. And suicide isn't an option: It would break his mother's heart.