Zach Galifianakis’s character Chip is in a bad way at the beginning of Baskets’ second season.
Last we saw Chip—better known as Baskets the Clown—at the end of Season One, he was running away from his life, hopping a train into the great unknown. It was a typically romantic and fanciful move for the unconventional character, but as we discover quickly in this week’s premiere, the reality of life as a tramp is not quite as glamorous as he may have imagined.
By the end of this week’s premiere, Chip has found a new family in a group of homeless, traveling street performers with The Matrix-inspired names like Morpheus and Trinity. Things turn real dark, real fast once Chip figures out what his new family really means when they say they want to buy some “snacks.” Hint: They’re not talking about Pringles.
Jonathan Krisel, who co-created Baskets with Galifianakis and Louis C.K. and directs every episode, tells The Daily Beast that he and his collaborators liked the idea of Chip, out on the road, searching for a “new family,” because of how much trouble he had “trying to fit into his own family” during the show’s first season. “Here’s this other family of freaks, who are all runaways,” Krisel says. “They’re like him.”
In the first season, it was Chip’s time in an elite Paris clowning school that helped shape the rest of his story back home in Bakersfield, including the indignity of having to become a rodeo clown. His time riding the rails at the beginning of season two serves a similar purpose, Krisel says, explaining, “We wanted to create something in the present that would have an impact on the whole season.”
Watch this exclusive clip of Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskets from the season two premiere of Baskets, airing on FX tonight, Thursday, Jan. 19, below. (Baskets Footage Courtesy of FX Networks)
In the first episode, Chip delivers a line that seems particularly apt on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration. “I don’t think clowns are needed as much now that the world has become so clownish,” he remarks to his new tramp friends. That line was improvised in the moment by Galifianakis.
At the time they filmed that scene, Galifianakis had recently shot his much-talked-about episode of Between Two Ferns with Hillary Clinton. Krisel reveals that someone from the Trump campaign reached out to Galifianakis about appearing on the Funny or Die series as well, but the actor refused. So he was fully immersed in the “absurdity” of the 2016 campaign when those words came out of his mouth.
“I thought that was a great line to sum up where we’re at in this moment,” Krisel says. “Comedy’s in a weird spot, because you’ve got this very funny, buffoonish guy getting all this attention.” He says it’s almost “not fair” to those who are trying to create an original, absurdist show like Baskets.
It’s a challenge that Krisel, Galifianakis and Louis C.K. have embraced wholeheartedly this season, not only pushing the show’s absurdity further, but also deepening its more serious elements. To that end, there is a truly shocking death at the end of episode two. And we get to see the evolution of season one’s most compelling character, Chip’s mother Christine Baskets, a role that won comedian Louie Anderson his first Emmy Award at the age of 63.
“The first two episodes of the new season are completely different from the rest of the show and the rest of the season,” he says of the “dark and twisted” storyline that takes Chip way outside of his comfort zone. In fact, the second half of the season pivots away from Chip and towards the point of view of Christine.
Describing the character as an “extension” of his mother in an interview with The Daily Beast last January, Anderson said, “It’s so nice when you can find a pool within yourself that’s endless. I mean, it’s hard for me to even be Louie Anderson anymore. I want to be Christine, she’s much more fun.”
It was Louis C.K. who first suggested that Anderson play Christine. And it was his idea to give the character a love interest of sorts this season. This new relationship is just one of several plots, including the character’s battle with her weight, that gives Anderson even more room to grow into the role in season two.
“This is so lame, because I think it’s the FX slogan, but he really is fearless in how he comes up with ideas,” Krisel says of C.K., who has spent a lot of time in the writers’ rooms of shows like Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien over the years. He remembers C.K. saying that what often happens in those rooms is someone will throw out a crazy, hilarious idea, but then someone else will say, “But we’ll never do it.” He told Krisel, “Those are the only ideas I want to do.”
“When he came into the room, he did push it further with some really poetic ideas,” Krisel adds of the man behind FX’s Louie. “It was inspiring. His mind is just so fast and can see the beauty in a lot of small things.”
Those writing sessions with C.K. led to the question of what an “art film” about someone like Christine would look like. “We’ve seen the art film about the artist, but what about the art film about the artist’s mother?” Krisel remembers thinking. “She doesn’t look like it on the surface, that she deserves this kind of poetic art film, but why not give her that treatment?”
Krisel envisioned Christine’s arc in season two as a “late in life coming-of-age story” in the vein of a certain type of movie about young people figuring out who they are. “But you never see this woman get that treatment,” he says. On the one hand, she’s like any woman looking for love and some sort of meaningful companionship. “She’s also a Costco lady,” he says, laughing. “It’s so strange, this man playing this woman. But it’s one of the most realistic characters on TV.”
While filming the show's first season, Krisel says he didn’t want to “push” Anderson too hard, because he could tell there was only so much he could do in a day. After Anderson won an Emmy Award for the show last summer, Krisel challenged him to get in good enough shape for season two that they wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. “He almost trained for the show, he mentally got in gear,” Krisel says. “The Emmy did not hurt. It gave him a little boost of confidence and I think the work that he did in season two is amazing. Just blew me away.”
There’s a scene early in the season in which Christine, who has been working so hard to exercise and lose weight by doing water aerobics, is forced out of her routine when she has to leave home to help Chip. At the motel where she’s staying, she is disciplined enough to lock the mints from the pillows in her room’s safe so she won’t eat them.
The motel has a pool, but when she sees it filled with gleeful, playing children, she can’t bring herself to disrobe and get in to do her exercises. Just when you think she’s going to give up, she drives to the ocean at night, wades into the cold water alone and starts slowly moving her arms back and forth.
While Anderson was “totally on board,” Krisel says he was “very nervous” to shoot the scene in the freezing cold ocean. “We didn’t know, is he going to go into shock because it’s so cold?” he remembers wondering. Just beyond where Anderson had to stand so that it would be deep enough to do water aerobics, there was a massive drop-off. “If he steps too far…” Krisel says, trailing off, not even wanting to imagine how things could have gone wrong.
The end result is no less revelatory than the scene in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight where Mahershala Ali’s character takes Chiron swimming for the first time. It’s a moment that could only exist on a show like Baskets and is just one of many beautifully bizarre scenes to come this season.