We've talked an awful lot — OK, obsessively — about the profound changes in TV drama across the past two decades, with the arrival of the cable antihero, the adoption of cinematic techniques, the prevalence of season-long story arcs, and, most important of all, the growing unwillingness to insult viewer intelligence with sentimental pap and one-dimensional procedurals.
Somewhat less discussed, although almost as radical, has been the transformation in TV comedy. Half-hour shows are no longer built solely to fling punch lines or usher us into escapist comas. With the single-camera likes of "Louie," "Nurse Jackie," "Togetherness," "Girls," and, beginning Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX, "Baskets," there is often as much sorrow and seriousness in a comedy as there is humor. The writers can now veer into emotional topics once reserved for dramas, including depression, drug abuse, loneliness, financial desperation, and severe marital discord. They no longer need to resort to "very special episodes."
In the very likable "Baskets," which was created by Louie CK, Jonathan Krisel, and Zach Galifianakis, who also stars, pathos and indignity are the dominant tones. Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, a man who dreams of being a famous professional clown, but the show focuses more on his tears. There are, of course, moments that might make you chuckle along the way; this is Galifianakis, who has cultivated a uniquely odd brand of flightiness in "Between Two Ferns" and the "Hangover" movies. In a bit of Mr. Magoo-esque slapstick, for example, we see Chip losing control of his motor scooter when a bee gets trapped in his helmet. We learn that Chip's nasty twin brother is named Dale, and when Galifianakis plays Dale, he pours on the comic idiocy.
But generally, Chip is a somber and angry guy whose efforts to succeed never work out, beginning with his failed attempt to study clowning in Paris. He has named his clown persona Renoir, and he has Charlie Chaplin-like aspirations, but once he returns to his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., he's lucky to find a job as a knocked-about rodeo clown. His rodeo boss insists on calling him Baskets the clown; like everyone Chip knows, the guy refuses to take him and his art form seriously. Chip has a French wife in tow — the wonderfully funny Sabina Sciubba, who pronounces "clown" as "cloon" — but she tells him she's using him for a green card and that she plans to sleep around. Chip winds up living with his eternally disappointed mother, played in drag by Louie Anderson.
As the Debbie Downer sketch on "Saturday Night Live" would put it, "Waah waah waah."
It's hard to watch a person face humiliation after humiliation, even someone as fickle as Chip, a guy who studies in Paris but neglected to learn French. "Baskets" has a touch of "The Comeback" about it, as we cringe for the foolish lead character while the world beats up on him. But, like Valerie in "The Comeback," Chip is also endearing enough — and Galifianakis is skilled enough at evoking sympathy — to make you root for him. Ultimately, "Baskets" isn't a cold-hearted laugh at his expense. Chip's downward spiral is affecting, and by episode three, I was emotionally invested in his journey. I was also touched by his new friendship with a feckless insurance agent named Martha (played with exquisite deadpan by Martha Kelly). Chip resists Martha's interest, but we know they're meant to be together.
One of the biggest surprises about "Baskets" is Anderson as Chip's mother, Christine. At first, the idea of putting Anderson in drag seems a little gimmicky. But then, as with many of the male actors who've played Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray," he transcends costume and gender and you begin to care about Christine — especially after we meet her mother, Chip's grandmother, who is a monster. Christine has become an overweight, terminally unhappy person who heaps her self-loathing onto her sons, but we see that she nonetheless has a heart, even if it is fractured. As with Chip and some of the other losers who populate this welcome addition to the crowded field of good TV, she evokes nothing less than compassion.
Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Sabina Sciubba, Louie Anderson, Martha Kelly.
On FX, Thursday, 10 p.m.