While Zach Galifianakis probably is best known for the broad humor of the "Hangover" movies, a persistent, gloomy undercurrent drifts through even his funniest work.
Alan, his anti-social "Hangover" provocateur, projects a clinical neediness and instability that grows when he’s off his meds. Galifianakis' online talk show, "Between Two Ferns," presents him as the alternately insecure and hostile target of insults. Even his most famous guest, President Obama, got in on the act ("When I heard that people actually watch this show, I was actually pretty surprised," Obama said.).
Galifianakis' latest effort – "Baskets," a mordant FX comedy about an ineffectual clown – hasn't drawn "Hangover" or Obama-level attention. But the show, which caps its first season Thursday, succeeds in taking a broad premise and narrowing it into an exploration of the darker recesses of the comic psyche.
There's nothing new, of course, about a sad clown. But Chip Baskets is a case all his own. He returns to his bleak California hometown after flunking out of a pretentious Parisian clown school (L'Académie de Clown Française) with little to show, save for a Vespa and a beautiful French wife who married him for a green card.
He quickly loses the scooter (to an accident) – and the spouse (to virtual desertion). Baskets gets a job as a rodeo clown, but he can't outrun the bulls.
He also can't avoid his family, including his obnoxious, successful-by-comparison twin brother (also played by Galifianakis) and their Costco-obsessed mother (Louie Anderson). The Anderson casting, like much of the rest of "Baskets," transcends first impressions. Anderson is far more than just a fat guy in a dress: His Christine Baskets, a loving mother who lives in denial, provides the emotional glue for her crumbling family.
The show also plays with audience expectations through Martha (Martha Kelly), a seeming sad sack who befriends Chip and stands by him, even as he projects his failures onto her. Sure, she’s rife with self-esteem issues. But even as she sleepwalks through life, she’s got her eyes open enough to somehow see the good in people.
Martha might be right: Over the course of the first nine episodes, "Baskets" has slowly unwoven to reveal, in part via flashbacks, how Chip’s life went wrong, the underpinnings of his familial dysfunction and the grim backstory of his poor-little-rich-girl wife.
"Baskets" takes unexpected turns, buoyed by clever writing filled with telling lines. In the initial episode, when Chip declares his clown name is "Renoir," his grizzled old cowboy boss insists he use his surname: "You know how many of you clowns end up in a basket? That's the most perfect clown name I ever heard!"
But it’s the visual images stick most – no more than the heartbreakingly funny scene in the latest installment in which Chip tries to relive a romantic Parisian picnic, alone on the side of a Bakersfield, CA, road. Instead of eating goat cheese on a baguette, he tries – and fails – to consume a soggy six-foot hero.
Chip Baskets has bitten off more than he can chew. But Zach Galifianakis hasn't. His "Baskets" is an acquired taste, more bitter than sweet, but well worth sampling.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.