No one likes to admit it outright but sometimes life can be pretty disappointing.
You stack up your dreams and barely-whispered expectations in the hope they will lead somewhere special and when they don’t, you either have a choice to give up entirely or cobble together a rough approximation of what you wanted, willing it to be satisfying in some small way.
It rarely is, of course but as Chip Baskets (Zach Galifianakis), the eponymous protagonist of Baskets, knows all too well, when you have a dream, and it consumes your very being, you have no option but to keep pursuing it come what may.
In Chip’s case, his dream is to be a clown and it takes him to Paris, France where things go disastrously wrong, largely on account of the fact that he doesn’t speak French and can’t understand a word his teacher, performed with all cliched arrogance you can imagine, says in the classroom.
But it’s not a total loss – he ends up with a beautiful French wife, Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) who tells him outright that she doesn’t love him, is only willing to marrying for a green card, which, once acquired, will be her ticket to go find a man she actually loves and wants to marry.
So one second thoughts, it is a total loss then.
But Chip will not dissuaded and returns home to Bakersfield, California where he gets a job as a rodeo clown; admittedly, it is not quite as artistic as he’d hoped for, OK it isn’t at all, and his boss Eddie (Ernest Adams) willingly admits he pays terrible money and that everyone eventually quits on him.
With little to go on, and not much in the way of a supportive family – his mother Chrstine (Louie Anderson) is more concerned with Costco memberships and new Snapple flavours than her son’s welfare, and twin brother Dale (Galifianakis again) is too busy running his laughably second-rate, and that’s being generous, careers college located in a fetching strip mall – Chip can only plow on and hope for the best.
Which pretty much does not eventuate, save for the accidental acquisition of a friend Martha Brooks (Martha Kelly), a quiet, unassuming kindly woman who works in Costco’s insurance division and for reasons known only to her takes a liking to Chip, which is unusual because like many of the people in Baskets, he’s not particularly easy to like.
And that’s the great contradiction of Baskets.
It’s stacked to the hopelessness-filled rafters with a suite of characters who haven’t realised their dreams, or some cases even attempted to, who are reasonably narcissistic and just plain rude – poor Martha only gets treated decently by Chips mother who assumes that the put-upon insurance worker and her son are drinking wine and having sex on a rug somewhere – and whose lives are pale imitations of anything anyone would consider a success.
And yet somehow through all this endless existential angst, and it is bleak, bleak, BLEAK, you find yourself drawn into the world of Chip and his broken dreams, Martha and her barely-articulated anythings, and Christine who clearly long ago gave up on anything but the most banal and superficial of pleasures.
It’s a tribute to creators Galifianakis, Louis C. K. and Jonathan Krisel, who also acts as the showrunner, that Baskets is as engaging as it is, with their decision to thread through the barebones humanity of the series with glimmers of hilarious absurdity and sharp-eyed observations of life’s ability to confound even the most deeply-held of dreams.
Life sucks seems to the motto, and it likely will go on sucking, and there’s every chance you won’t be a particularly nice person while that happens, and yes that makes Baskets hard going at times, but then there’ll be a throwaway line such as Chip remarking to Martha that it’s OK living at a motel because “It’s only permanent”, or scene such as when Chip berates his landlord for his unhealthy obsession with rent, and suddenly all the grinding humanity is leavened enough for you to like these people and persist.
The thing is, the more you watch it, the more a kind of benign Stockholm Syndrome kicks in; that’s not meant in a nasty putdown way, rather you begin to understand that all of us to one degree or another – save for Tony Robbins who probably has everything he needs and then some – haven’t quite got what we want out of life.
We might not be living as bleak an existence as Chip and the gang but we’re all been there in some form or another, or its that very accessibility, that ability to identify with people who in their simultaneous bleakly cartoonish failure and unwillingness to throw in the towel, that holds the key to Baskets appeal.
Laugh out loud you will not, or not much but chuckle knowingly and wince at the truth of it all you most certainly will, and little by little you’ll find yourself wanting to see where tenacious holding on to dreams, no matter how flawed in their execution or dead on arrival they may be, can take you.
It’s hardly going to be an inspiring journey, but it will be funny, it will be heartfelt and it will all too human and real and it will be, much as we hate to admit, life as we know it to some degree or another.