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FXs Baskets Premiere Sets the Stage For Brilliance (Review)
From its very first scene, FXs Baskets operates with a unparalleled sense of artistic clarity, purpose and confidence. It wholly understands its tone, completely defines what it wants to accomplish, and takes no shortcuts in pursuit of audience interest. It is what it is, and it is up to viewers to determine if what it is represents something to which they want to commit.
What that means is that Thursdays premiere episode is short on obvious laugh-out-loud moments. Scenes likely to drive easy laughter are minimal and have largely been teased in promotional clips (the drive-thru soda saga, for instance).
It also means that Thursdays premiere episode creates a layered, richly nuanced environment with layered, richly nuanced characters. In doing so, Baskets sets the stage to delivermeaningfulcharacter development,meaningfulnarrative progression,meaningfulemotion, andmeaningfullaughter as it embarks on its run.
Given that Baskets is ultimately a comedy, the lattermost point is particularly important. Discussion about what constitutes a comedy consistently emerges during awards season, but Baskets creators Louis CK, Zach Galifianakis and Jonathan Krisel undoubtedly accept laughter as an important ingredient.
The laughter they seek to generate, however, is organic and particular to the Baskets environment and its characters. It is not detached dialogue crafted for the sole purpose of inspiring Twitter trends and Tumblr memes; it is material that carries a specific tone, works in a specific context, and applies to specific characters. Baskets is not an abundant source of universal, quotable gags it is a window into certain off-beat characters and the interesting, funny, sad, and even devastatingly depressing events that comprise their lives.
Creating that window comes with a construction process and learning curve, which renders the first two or three episodes more intriguing than exciting, let alone gut-wrenchingly comedic.
By episodes four and five, Baskets has established its brilliant framework. Hilarity and poignancy begins to flow from even the most minute developments and details.
To put it simply, Thursdays Baskets premiere will potentially pique your curiosity. Episodes four and five will surely win your loyalty.
Strategically, that model may doom Baskets to life as another critically acclaimed but low-rated FX/FXX comedy. Galifianakis may possess some drawing power, but nothing about the marketing campaign has positioned Baskets as the light, escapist, accessible fare that tends to draw big ratings. The first few episodes compound that reality, ignoring cheap, viral-ready laughs in favor of stage setting and tonal development. By the time Baskets truly hits its stride in terms of comedy and excitement, its audience will have likely narrowed.
Its commercial performance will not, however, negate the shows artistic value. Thanks to the aforementioned creative framework, it is a fantastic addition to FXs already fantastic lineup of comedies.
While the potential for brilliance exists in the unique comedic voice and confident artistic vision, the performances play an invaluable role in unlocking that potential.
As lead character Chip Baskets, Galifianakis expertly walks the line between sympathetic and unlikable. The viewer will theoretically want to root for Baskets a man struggling to pursue his dream of becoming a clown, demeaned by his family, and shamelessly used by his green card-seeking French wife Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) but his obnoxious demeanor and sour perspective make it difficult to do so.
But while they may not actively root for Baskets, they will easily and meaningfully recognize the humanity of the shows central clown. The character is tailored perfectly to Galifianakis sensibilities, and the actor has no trouble playing the role with the necessary sincerity and nuance.
Galifianakis also plays Chips smarmy twin brother Dale, another seamless extension of his established comedy styling.
Martha Kelly plays meek insurance agent Martha, who develops an allegiance to the shows lead. Through a superb performance, Kelly projects cognizance of Baskets shortcomings and disrespectful tendencies but too little self-assurance, confidence, or mental strength to shake her support. Good-natured, naive and desperate for the purpose one derives from a meaningful relationship whether familial, friendly, or romantic Martha finds herself shamelessly currying the favor of a man whose favor should not carry any weight.
Galifianakis and Kelly are strong in their roles, but Louie Anderson is extraordinary. Donning drag, Anderson plays Baskets mother and delivers one of televisions most compelling performances.
There is no avoiding the surrealist element of the casting, but Baskets is too ambitious to indulge in that well. It neither milks the cheap sight gag nor attempts to make some convoluted sociological point. It simply presents Louie Anderson as Baskets mother and moves right along to developing the character within the shows universe.
The ambitious approach demands an incredible artistic investment from Anderson. If his commitment even slightly wavers, let alone veers toward the tongue-in-cheek, the characterization fails. The concept of a male actor playing Baskets mother is reduced to a comedic device.
Luckily, Anderson conquers the challenge. His performance is utterly immersive, negating the mere possibility that another actor male or female could have more authentically played the matriarchal character.
Andersons performance is hilarious and emotionally arresting. The most reliable source of humor throughout the five episodes screened for critics, the character is also at the center of poignant storylines in the fourth and fifth installments. It would be an utter travesty if an Emmy nomination does not result from this performance.
The excellent Baskets casting extends to guest and bit parts, but it is the aforementioned three leads who most shine. It is the aforementioned three leads who elevate Baskets from an intriguing concept into a resonant reality.
While Thursdays premiere is not the funniest half-hour in television history, it is not an affront to the idea of comedy. It is not a contention that half-hour comedies need not contain humor.
With its intricately constructed environment, dark tone, enthralling performances, and unique, oddball sense of humor, it is a contention that the best, most rewarding comedies make their humor count.
Thanks to the stage-setting of the first few episodes, Baskets indeed makes its humor count. By the fourth and fifth episodes, that high-quality humor is also of a high quantity.
Combined with the emotional poignancy resulting from adept characterization, the meaningful humor establishes Baskets as a truly great television series.
FXs Baskets premieres at 10PM on Thursday, January 21, 2016.
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askets Declines in Week Two
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