In college, I learned about “tragicomedy” when I studied Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, which was first performed in 1953. Roughly, it is a constant mixture of tragedy and comedy and pathos and empathy and satire…sometimes a character’s saddest moment is what causes us to laugh. I took to the form right away.
Then last year, I started watching a show on the FX network called Baskets…it is a perfect example of tragicomedy; in fact, I think the show is perfect. Not for everyone, but that adds to its perfection…it doesn’t pander to an audience via formula, it doesn’t go for the easy series of jokes, it doesn’t rely on a laugh track. Baskets pools a group of characters in places and situations and then lets the tragedy and comedy of life unfold and intertwine. Sometimes the comedy is absurdist, over-the-top…like when the twin brothers Chip and Dale (both played by Zach Galifianakis) ruin their mother’s home in a senseless fight; sometimes the tragedy is shocking…like when Morpheus (Tobias Jelinek) makes a bad decision to dangle from the side of the train; and sometimes the tragedy is comic…like when the mother, Christine (Louie Anderson…no kidding) finally gives in to her pain at the death of her mother—her scene in the bank should win Anderson another Emmy.
I find myself unable to appreciate the humor or the attraction of most other “sitcoms” today. I understand that they aren’t targeting me as their audience, but I wish they aimed higher for their own audiences…they should create a humor and characters and a story that bring their audience along for the quality. Many of today’s dramas seem to aim higher, seem to push the limits of drama and intrigue…but they can become intense; a friend’s recent comment claims that watching The Americans is, indeed, too intense. So where does that leave us when we want a good, comic, engaging show to watch? For me, Baskets has filled that void excellently: an innovative, tragicomic tone; expertly written; sensitively acted; always surprising.
In a nutshell, Baskets is about people who are more edgy than real, but too real to be ignored. The anchor to the story has been Christine, matriarch of the unlikely Baskets family, which includes her own twins Chip and Dale; her adopted twins Cody and Logan (Garry and Jason Clemmons); her mother, Grandma (Ivy Jones); and Chip’s ubiquitous friend, Martha (Martha Kelly). Even the smaller parts are strong and fresh, including Penelope (Sabina Sciubba) the French wife, Eddie (Ernest Adams) the rodeo owner, and Juggalo (Adam Zastrow) another would-be clown who ends up working at Arby’s.
The characters may come across at times as one-dimensional, because each has a focus of personality: Cody and Logan are millennial DJs; Dale runs a failing business college; Martha is an insurance adjuster; and Chip—ostensibly the center of the story—pursues his dream to be a clown, except that he realizes, “I don’t think clowns are needed as much since the world has become so clownish.” But like the overall mixture of tragedy and comedy throughout the show, each character surprises in any given episode with multiple dimensions. Chip proves to love his mother, despite his frustration with the apron strings; he is jealous of his twin and Martha, even though he dismisses them each regularly; he wants to pursue his dream, even though he recognizes that it is a nightmare.
Louie Anderson as Christine has proven to be a stroke of genius for creators Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan Krisel. Anderson won an Emmy and the Critics’ Choice Award for the show’s first season, partly based on the writing but certainly based on the depth and complexity of personality that he infuses into Christine. He credits his mother and his sisters for a lifetime of inspiration and raw material…but I believe that the richness of his performance comes directly through him, directly from his heart: it is too genuine to be an imitation.
Baskets has completed its second-season run of ten episodes, and I’m thrilled because it has been renewed for a third season. I admit that I had doubts during the very first episode…I remember thinking, “Is this going to come together? Is this going anywhere?” Part of what confused me—in hindsight—was the tragicomic mix of both story and characters. Soon my confusion gave way to fascination…and to laughter and tears. I re-watched the first season as a binge-frenzied preparation for the second season; it was even better the second time around, and then the second season was better than the first. Find it online and binge on it…it’s not for everyone, but it may be for you, too.