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‘Baskets’ Review: Zach Galifianakis Gets Few Laughs in Clown Comedy

FX is cornering the market on unlikable middle-aged white guys

Should you have awakened this morning thinking, “Why aren’t there more shows about unlikable white men attempting to navigate their way through difficult lives?” then you’re in luck — FX, the network that brought you “Louie,” has given you “Baskets.” Which is not “Louie.” Because it stars Zach Galifianakis and is only executive produced (and, for the first episode, co-written) by Louis C.K.

The premise of “Baskets” is simple: Chip Baskets (Galifianakis) wants to be a clown. But not a Ringling Bros., red-nosed, Stephen King kind of clown. He wants to be a classical Pierrot. So he leaves behind his mother and twin brother in Bakersfield, Calif., to study in Paris. Except oops, he can’t speak French. And he’s really quite put out that no one is interested in tutoring him after school hours in English. So he returns to Bakersfield with a French woman who started a relationship with him out of boredom and continues it for a greencard; takes a job as a rodeo clown; and embarks on a desultory friendship with his insurance adjuster, Martha, who drives him around on his errands after destroying his scooter. He’s deeply unhappy, but uninterested in taking any steps to correct his trajectory.

And there you have it: A middle-aged man who is searching for contentment or satisfaction or happiness in a bleached out landscape. “Baskets” can sometimes feel like snippets from a lost ’70s movie, something Jack Nicholson would have starred in, all alienation and elliptical encounters. The surrealness almost disguises the repetitive plot of returning home as a manchild. But as a series, “Baskets” is more bleak than amusing, from Louis Anderson inexplicably playing Baskets’ mother (in a role that should by all rights have gone to Margo Martindale; turns out the roles for women of a certain age in Hollywood are now being played by men) to Martha Kelly’s performance as Martha, stealing every scene she’s in with her long, shapeless dresses, lank hair, and misplaced goodness. She sees Baskets as a forlorn stray worthy of her time; Baskets sees her as the one person who won’t question him.

Galifianakis, meanwhile, takes on two roles: Baskets and his twin brother, Dale, the dean of Baskets Career College. Dale is as upbeat and priggish as Baskets is snappishly melancholy; he has an earnest, vaguely Southern accent, a wife, and two children. Baskets, of course, has none of that and dimly resents his brother’s success. We’re meant to resent and laugh at Dale, as well, but mostly because his life is small and unimpressive. His career college has a silly commercial; he’s eager to shop for a new hutch and leave his children with Chip; he automatically assumes Chip wants to borrow money from him (which of course Chip does).

At the same time, we’re meant to take seriously Chip’s outsized ambitions. When he plans an elaborate farewell performance at the rodeo in the first episode, dressing as Pierrot and forcing the audio man to play something dreamy and French over the loudspeaker system, the juxtaposition is intended to be both comic and sad — except we feel nothing but smug satisfaction when Baskets is taken out by a bull. Pierrot is the quintessential sad clown, one who loves Columbine from afar even as Columbine loves Harlequin. But Pierrots are also movingly naïve, something Baskets is laughably inept at. When a Pierrot is gored by a bull, one should be worried, not thrilled. But Baskets is so smug, so condescending to everyone around him that for just a moment, we’re rooting for that bull.