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Desperate lives played for grins in FX's finely woven Baskets


Yes, that’s Zach Galifianakis as a rodeo clown in Baskets. FX photo

Premiering: Thursday, Jan. 21st at 9 p.m. (central) on FX
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Louie Anderson, Martha Kelly, Sabina Sciubba, Ernest Adams
Produced by: Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel, M. Blair Breard, Dave Becky, Marc Gurvitz, Andrea Pett-Joseph

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FX’s male-centric misery index remains very much alive and suffering, even without Rescue Me.

The network and its offshoot, FXX, still provide homes for Louie, You’re the Worst, Man Seeking Woman and Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll. But all are pre-serpent Gardens of Eden compared to FX’s Baskets, in which Zach Galifianakis (it’s bad enough having to repeatedly type his name) plays perhaps the saddest sack in TV series history.

Galifianakis and Louis C.K. are the principle co-creators and executive producers. And these are two guys who could turn a Civil War era root canal into a considerable amusement. Baskets also marks the gainful return of Louie Anderson as Baskets’ matriarch. It’s a role that oddly suits him in a comedy that stretches absurdity to near-infinity -- and gets away with it.

Galifianakis, as Chip Baskets, is first seen in Paris, struggling through a “Clown Theory” class at the Academie de Clown Francaise. He yearns to be classically trained, but the lessons are taught in French, which Chip doesn’t speak. Before heading disconsolately back to his hometown of Bakersfield, CA, he succeeds in getting the self-absorbed Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) to marry him -- not out of anything resembling love but for a Green Card in a country she’s always wanted to visit.

Six months later, she’s living apart from him and demanding $40 for an HBO subscription. This doesn’t quite equate with Chip’s $4 an hour salary as an apprentice clown at the two-bit Buckaroo Rodeo, where a big splash is Kato Kaelin performing the National Anthem. The place is owned by a crude but somewhat kindly old cowpoke named Eddie (Ernest Adams), whose underpaid clowns have been quitting on him like clockwork.

The comedy quickly gets better, even if Chip’s circumstances don’t. Riding his little scooter, Chip crashes after a bee buzzes him inside his helmet. Plain-faced, emotionally repressed Costco claims adjustor Martha (comedian Martha Kelly) is soon on the scene. She’s painfully dutiful, has a cast on her right arm, and is lonely enough to even covet the exceedingly disagreeable Chip as a friend and perhaps something else someday. Martha also sounds and looks somewhat like Roseanne Barr, who otherwise would never take the verbal guff that miserable, beaten-down Chip aims her way.

Then there’s Mama Christine (Anderson), a firm, but even-spoken Costco addict who also has raised a more prosperous twin named Dale (Galifianakis). He’s the twangy founder and dean of Baskets Career College, which basically teaches a bunch of crap and is “open to minorities,” as the TV ads say.

“I thought I smelled a ponytail. If it ain’t my evil brother, Chip,” says Dale before he’s inevitably asked for money.

Baskets has some elements of the old, highly dysfunctional Mama’s Family sitcom. Also, the early stages of the arms-length Chip/Martha relationship are somewhat reminiscent of the Phil/Carol standoff in Season One of The Last Man On Earth.

The desperation is in a league of its own, though. But not to the point where Baskets ever becomes unwatchable. The plug-along trio of Chip, Martha and Mama Christine is a finely oiled machine of characters in need of major overhauls. Through the five episode made available for review, they bruise each other time and again while also taking barely measurable steps toward the dim watt bulbs at the end of their tunnels.

In Episode 4 of Baskets, this is what amounts to progress. Chip has bitched and moaned all day about first going to church with his mother on Easter Sunday and then accompanying her to the traditional brunch at Casino Magic. He makes big, childish scenes at both venues before stomping off to play the slots. She eventually joins him, prompting her misfit son to finally admit, “My life’s in disarray right now, Mama.”

“Whose isn’t?” she says quietly before an adjoining player whoops it up at winning big. “Shut up!” Mama yells. The End.

Baskets otherwise shows no signs of melting into anything close to gooey sentimentality. Its trials and tribulations pole vault over those on HBO’s Girls, but without getting all whiny and preachy about it. Galifianakis, Anderson and Kelly fit their roles like the thick rubber gloves used in emptying human waste from portable johns. What fine messes they’re in.

GRADE: A-minus

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