The Zach Galifianakis vehicle was a lovely little show about the power of forgiveness and the wonder of rodeo clowns.
In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: the four-season FX comedy Baskets, which recently aired its series finale. You can watch the show’s first three seasons on Hulu and its fourth season on FX’s streaming platforms.
Baskets — a sweet and sad comedy about a rodeo clown and his loving but dysfunctional family — ended this month with a lovely finale. Depending on your perspective, its four-season run was either way too short or surprisingly, mercifully long.
In the “way too short” column: The series seemed to get a little better with every season. It starred a genuine movie star in Zach Galifianakis (in a dual role, even!). It won an Emmy for supporting actor Louie Anderson’s performance as the main character’s mom, in a role that never once courted transphobia, despite featuring a cis man in a dress. Critics generally loved the show, which counts for a lot at critic-loving FX. Surely it could have eked out another season or two!
But in the “surprisingly, mercifully long” column: Basically nobody watched the darn thing. In its fourth and final season, Baskets never attracted more than 350,000 viewers who watched the broadcasts of one of its 10 episodes live. And even if double that audience checked it out on streaming — unlikely but not implausible — that’s still just barely over 1 million viewers watching any given episode across all platforms. Even Baskets’ fellow FX series Pose, which is not exactly a ratings barnburner, routinely draws over 500,000 viewers per live broadcast. How was Baskets not canceled immediately?
In some weird way, the show’s acclaim and ability to evade cancellation despite a truly tiny audience might make it one of the shows that most exemplifies the Peak TV era, when a show can run four seasons with very few people knowing about it, because the long tail of streaming means it could be discovered for decades to come.
Baskets was always going to be a niche hit at best. But so long as it’s available to stream on some out-of-the-way corner of Hulu, anyone whose interests could reasonably align with the niche it serves just might stumble upon it and like what they see. Maybe that’s you?
Baskets was the rare show to mine humor from rural-adjacent America, in the form of the rodeo-loving Baskets family
The center of Baskets is Chip Baskets (Galifianakis, who also co-created the series with director Jonathan Krisel and Louis C.K., who was never as involved in this show as with his other projects, and who was fired after season two, when his past sexual misconduct came to light). Chip studied at a prestigious clown academy in Paris, but when the show begins, he’s come back to Bakersfield, California, to live with his mother and explore his options.
Anyway, this isn’t a spoiler: Pretty early on, the would-be artiste becomes a rodeo clown.
That sounds like a goofy premise, right? Oftentimes it was. Somewhere near the heart of Baskets were a lot of thoughts about the power of clowning and silliness for the sake of silliness. There were full clowning routines scattered throughout the show’s four seasons, and it had tremendous fun with the way Galifianakis looks like he’s got a little raincloud perched over his head.
Even better, Baskets eventually found a way to have Galifianakis play two characters, by adding Chip’s twin brother Dale (yes, Chip and Dale) to its story. And with Anderson as their mother Christine and the dry-as-dry-ice Martha Kelly as Chip’s friend Martha, Baskets built up a considerable comedic ensemble of four characters played by three actors. That setup, combined with Krisel’s steady and patient camerawork, often evoked the feeling of a comedy you might go see in an arthouse theater — all wide shots that waited for humor to unfold like a flower.
But Baskets was also a sweet, touching, and melancholy story about the power of forgiveness. It wasn’t that the Baskets family had that much water under the bridge, but there was enough for the show to maintain uncertainty around the question of whether Christine and her boys might ever find a way to all live peacefully together. And it ultimately considered questions of when you should give up on a person who might have wronged you and whether redemption is even possible after certain transgressions — questions that have a special resonance in the 2010s.
As a longtime California resident, I also loved the way Baskets depicted Bakersfield: as a dusty and slightly barren place that, nevertheless, boasts a population of nearly 400,000 people (hey, that’s almost the entire audience of Baskets!). It’s the kind of place that isn’t unsophisticated or unusual; it’s just the kind of place that doesn’t always show up on TV, something the Baskets family was keenly aware of and tried to fix by bringing culture to their corner of the Golden State.
Baskets is the quintessential show that’s not for everyone — to get on its wavelength, you really have to like scuzzy, low-fi comedies that don’t work too hard to pack in lots of jokes — but in the end that might be its greatest charm. Shows that aren’t for everyone invariably are for someone.
Baskets’ first three seasons are available on Hulu. Season four is available on FX’s streaming platforms and will arrive on Hulu in 2020.
Author: Emily Todd VanDerWerff