The ability of Baskets to be uproariously funny one second and utterly heartbreaking the next makes this FX series increasingly difficult to analyze during this first season.
While executive Producer Louis C.K. has a knack for heavy emotion in the midst of brilliant comedy — as he so often does during his own series, Louie — he acknowledges that he is painfully ordinary, save his celebrity status. And Baskets thrives on the ordinary. It extracts hilarity and emotion from the everyday: The bleakness of Chip Baskets’s (Zach Galifianakis) career, personal relationships, and rural surroundings set up this contrast between comedy and emotional pain. While first seven episodes of Baskets expertly maintained that balance, something had to give eventually: Thursday night’s episode, “Sugar Pie,” was the most emotionally tormenting yet.
Last week’s episode, “Cowboys,” ended on a major heartbreak when Chip learned that his mother caused Penelope’s return to Paris. Thursday’s episode picks up where “Cowboys” left off: in the car with Chip, Martha, and Eddie as they return to Bakersfield from their cowboy-inspired quest for identity. Chip is furious at his mom for intervening, even though he knows she was just trying to protect him.
One of Baskets’ strength is its ability to depict how we tend to hurt the people who love us the most. But before Chip can scold his mother about Paris, we get a peek at Mrs. Baskets’s own personal hell.
Mrs. Baskets brings home a baked sugar pie to her friend’s house, where a group of older women are bragging about their children and gossiping. The host sends Mrs. Baskets back home with the pie she lovingly baked, because nobody ate any — but not before she makes Mrs. Baskets self-conscious about her weight problem. She returns home in a fury, throwing away all the sugar products in her kitchen before she passes out cold on the floor. We learn she was living as an undiagnosed diabetic, and was suffering from a severe imbalance in sugar levels, spurring an episode. She’s hospitalized, in a coma for the rest of the episode — the continuous beeping of her life support system instead of her usual kind words, putting the scope of her obesity problem in clear perspective for the viewer.
Chip must spend the rest of the episode in the hospital with his mother. because his twin brother Dale is away at a volleyball tournament with his daughter. Chip is reluctant to stay, since he is still fuming about her meddling in his marriage. But he relents, and returns her love for the first time in Baskets. That doesn’t mean he gets off easy, though: Martha appears at the hospital with a man who has a package for Chip: Divorce papers from Penelope. Before this moment, Chip was in denial about his faltering marriage. But as he sits beside his comatose mother, divorce papers in hand, the reality hits him like a brick. It’s one of the many jarring moments in “Sugar Pie” that forgoes humor to expose the deep insecurities of these ordinary characters.
Yet the most striking of agonizing emotion in “Sugar Pie,” comes from a character who has been painted as near-perfect until now: Chip’s twin brother Dale. When Chip first finds his comatose mother on the floor, Dale tells him to seek help from someone else, because the brothers don’t have enough money to pay for an ambulance. Dale’s stinginess — in the midst of a life-threatening crisis — makes Chip look better than his twin brother for the first time in Baskets. It also suggests that Dale’s own insecurities that are about to surface . While Chip is genuinely concerned for his mother, Dale covers his anguish by diving into his daughter’s volleyball tournament — albeit selfishly, from the sideline.
Dale’s emotional decline in “Sugar Pie” is perhaps the rawest depiction that we’ve seen yet in Baskets. When he scolds his daughter for playing poorly, she looks at him with disdain and says, “Dad, you’re gay,” in a moment that passes so quickly it makes you wonder if it even happened. Dale, whose effeminate behaviors suggest that he’s closeted, crumbles. Overwhelmed by his daughter’s cruel comment and his mother’s condition, Dale lunges to hit the ball from the sideline. When the players pause in shock, Dale tries convince them the act didn’t happen, although everyone saw it, and someone caught it on tape, and plays back the footage for him (“That’s just one of those apps that’ll turn anything into anything”). In the most cringe-worthy scene thus far in Baskets, it’s clear: Dale doesn’t have his shit together at all.
Thursday’s episode proved that Baskets is unafraid to explore both shrewd comedy and tragic pain. Moving forward, the show has a lot of drama to resume as Dale’s sexuality, Mrs. Baskets’s diabetes, and Chip’s overall unhappiness reach the forefront of the show’s plot lines. While I predict the upcoming episodes won’t get any darker, the rawness and emotion in this latest episode confirmed that Baskets’ pulls at heartstrings, just as it makes audiences laugh uncontrollably.