Baskets, an FX show that ended Thursday night, is a program that, like many in the overcrowded prestige television space, I know only in passing. The ads for the most recent season—its final one—briefly plagued the subway station by my workplace: a melancholy Zach Galifianakis in clown makeup, gazing softly into the middle distance in a way that is meant to convey seriousness. I have never watched an episode of the show, likely because of my lack of interest in clowns and also the firehose nature of television in 2019. Every show has the potential to be the next Big Thing, and that pressure is exhausting for both viewer and creator alike. Opting out of the churn is one way to manage stress levels; instead of getting really into Succession or watching The Sopranos for the first time, making the choice to watch HGTV on demand feels like the most valuable form of self-care. However, Baskets has been a series that for its entire duration, has confounded me, popping up mostly during awards season as a nominee, and occasionally winning, as comedian Louie Anderson did in 2016 for his role as Mrs. Baskets. A large part of me wishes that was a sentence I didn’t have to think about, but the rest of me is extremely curious. What is Baskets and why?
The best way to learn about a television show is to watch it from the beginning. The second best way is to watch the series finale and try to piece together something coherent from its end. Much like parsing the last gasps of a relationship from the detritus left in the wake of its end, I attempted to make sense of Baskets by watching its demise: last night’s finale. My knowledge of the show is limited to the brief logline found on IMDB, which at the very least seems intriguing—the kind of show an aspiring indie comedian with hot breath would talk about at length on a second date that would likely be the last: “After failing at a prestigious French clowning college, Chip Baskets looks to keep his dream of becoming a professional clown alive.” I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued.
Tasked with figuring out what Baskets was, I turned to the series finale for answers, expecting to be more confused than I was from the outset. There’s a clown named Chip Baskets and his brother, Dale, both played by Zach Galifianakis—a fact that I confirmed by googling after squinting at both men on screen and wondering if they were the same person. Chip Baskets is in a cult; Dale Baskets lives at a trailer park. Dale eventually kidnaps Chip. Also, there’s a woman named Martha (Martha Kelly), who loves Chip but not Dale, despite the fact that they look alike and are both retired rodeo clowns or something. Martha wanders what I believe is the Central Valley in California looking for Chip. She finds him eventually. That’s nice. They lay together in a hospital bed, seemingly on the road to reconcile a relationship that I have no attachment to, but understand that I should feel something.
A major plot point wraps up, though my lack of emotional involvement makes it feel less pressing: Mrs. Baskets, the matriarch of this clown show, is moving to Denver with her husband and her cat, Susan. Comedian Louie Anderson plays in half-hearted, lazy drag —a wig, a caftan, a frosted pink lip—and has won at least one award for his portrayal. I am not upset about the fact that Louie Anderson puts in less effort than, say, Mrs. Doubtfire, but I will remain confused as to why the creators of Baskets decided to make this artistic choice. It is not for me to say, and thankfully, I will probably never find out.
Surprisingly, the emotional contours of Baskets revealed itself right away—a testament to the fact that maybe this show is decent. There’s something sweet here about the Baskets family dynamic, though I sense there is darkness under Mrs. Baskets’s sunny exterior. Was Chip a bad clown, both practically and morally and now, has he changed? A scene at the top of the finale shows Chip in a soft sweater picking vegetables in the blinding California sun. He is at a retreat, reconnecting with himself. We are meant to believe that this is progress, though it’s hard to feel anything when you don’t know how bad it was from the start.