TV Notes (Cable)
How FX’s Baskets Will Be Different in Season Two
By David Marchese, Vulture.com
(New York Magazine)
Every family experiences its own surreal and slightly upsetting moments when the façade cracks and unsettling truths that are usually buried come up to the surface. Little things can do it. Maybe it’s a condescending quip by the sibling with a good job at the expense of the sibling stuck in a bad one while you’re waiting to buy tickets for the Chipmunks Squeakquel. Or, maybe, as in the case of the titular family on the upcoming second season of FX's absurd and beautiful family comedy, Baskets, it's an insensitive aside from a son about his mom's weight when ordering dessert at Applebee's. Jonathan Krisel, the showrunner and co-creator of Baskets, which begins its second season on January 19, has a catchall for those moments. "The writers and I call that stuff 'crying in the Best Buy,'" says Krisel. "Our goal with Baskets is to get at exactly those moments. There's something so compelling about unloading emotional baggage in these American places that are so clean and bright and happy." The other reason? "Those moments are pretty funny."
It's the deftness with which Baskets handles these simultaneously cringeworthy, comic, and bittersweet disconnects — which almost always arise from a caring place — that make it one of TV's most emotionally authentic shows about the way families get along, or try to anyway. "Even happy families have things about them that are sad," says stand-up comedian Martha Kelly, who plays Chip's friend, also named Martha. "The Baskets family is always trying to stay physically close to each other, but they end up not really connecting with each other. My family's like that sometimes, too." (Kelly, who hadn't acted before season one, jokes that her character was given her own name "to make my job easier. Going into the second season, I definitely feel less like I'm about to be fired.")
Lest this sound like the show has turned wholly toward sober domestic drama, let’s be clear: This is still a series that follows the misadventures of a wannabe clown artiste (star Zach Galifianakis's Chip) forced to return home to Bakersfield, California, and look for non-soul-destroying clown work; his financially successful and overbearing twin brother, Dale (also played by Galifianakis), who speaks with an unexplained Southern accent; their widowed mother, Christine, played by comedian Louie Anderson in drag (he won an Emmy for his performance); and Chip's friend and emotional doormat Martha, who has a cast on her arm that, like Dale's drawl, remains unexplained. So we're not talking about a straightforward piece of realism. By design, the humor leavens the heartache, and the heartache grounds the humor — the tone remains the same whether we’re watching Chip struggle to open a can of food or Dale try to reconcile with his estranged wife.
But for the upcoming second season, the show's creative team, which, in addition to Krisel and Galifianakis, includes executive producer Louis C.K., have also tried to lighten things emotionally. "The trajectory for this season," says Krisel, "particularly for Chip, was that maybe people get tired of making their lives harder than they need to be. Maybe there's happiness to be found in clowning at a children's birthday. Especially when you're younger, you tend to think that art and comedy can only come from tragedy, but happiness can be just as interesting and complicated."
The second season’s emphasis on happiness is most apparent in Christine’s story line. It’s something Anderson pushed for. “At the end of last season,” he says, “she was spending all her time and energy trying to be supportive of Chip’s dreams, and I think it was important that she start to make some decisions about her own dreams. So I asked Jonathan, ‘Could you make Christine twirl this year? Can she have a little more fun?’ And that’s what the writers did.”
To accomplish that, Krisel drew from some unlikely sources. “Louie was totally right that there was more of a spectrum to exploit with the character of Christine,” he says. “To figure out how to do that, I looked a lot at season four of Breaking Bad, when Walter White become the villain of the show, and they shifted who the protagonist and antagonist were. It was such a cool idea to switch the A plot and B plots around.” Another key influence was Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. “That movie has such a beautiful, pensive approach to a young woman’s feeling adrift, and I thought it would be cool if we transposed that kind of filmmaking onto a woman like Christine. She’s someone who wants to be excited for what her kids are doing, but she’s also really excited by finding the best bargains at Costco. We tried to find the poetry in that.”
The new season also gracefully addresses the issue of Christine’s weight, and the subtle — and funny — tension that arises when she tries to change the unhealthy lifestyle to which her family is accustomed. “There’s a scene with Chip and Christine at an Applebee’s this season that encapsulates a lot of what the show is trying to do,” says Krisel. “They’re just ordering dessert, but because of Christine’s health, dessert has taken on this huge meaning, and Chip just doesn’t get it. The waitress doesn’t know what’s going between them and is seeing these two people having this bizarre argument. So much of the humor in the second season is about deep-seated emotional baggage spilling out into the open like that.”
For Anderson, the focus on Christine’s health was necessary for his ability to play the part. “I struggle with weight,” he says, “and I don’t think we could ignore the fact that Christine is almost 400 pounds. So I really encouraged that direction. We did it in a way that’s serious, but it’s Christine saying, ‘I’ll just have a tiny corner of the tiny piece of the cake,’ and wrestling with it that way. As a stand-up comic, my instinct is to make a big joke out of things, but Jonathan and the writers are so clever about making sure the jokes have a slant that makes the character richer and not just a simple punch line.”
If Baskets has simple punch lines, they usually come at the expense of the beleaguered Martha, who is dealing with the fallout from an ill-conceived bout of van sex with Dale and, two seasons in, still can’t seem to do anything that doesn’t invoke a passive-aggressive response from Chip. “For a moment,” says Krisel, “we had this idea of let’s really get into what makes Martha tick. There is an episode in the new season that goes more into her world, but we thought going too deep would rob her of what makes her funny. It’d be like explaining a joke.”
Kelly admits that she’s been surprised when fans of the show tell her they want her character to be treated better. “How Martha and Chip are on the show is so close to how Zach and I are off the show,” she says. “I call him an idiot all the time. It didn’t even register to me that he could be perceived as being mean.” She’s also slightly perplexed by the curiosity around where her arm cast comes from. “I usually even forget I’m even wearing it,” she says. “It’s actually sort of cozy.”
At the risk of treating a prop with a degree of conceptual clunkiness that Baskets would avoid, Martha’s cast seems like an apt metaphor for how this strangely endearing show works. Sometimes it’s the clunky, awkward things that wind up providing the most comfort. Or not. “The cast is just funnier if it’s a weird thing on the show,” says Kelly, “and we never explain why it’s there.”