In "Baskets," a dark and strangely beautiful new sitcom debuting Thursday on FX, Zach Galifianakis plays Chip Baskets, a man with two apparently impossible dreams.
The first is to be a clown of a particularly artistic, "European" sort. We meet him in Paris, where he is flunking out of the Académie de Clown Française and, having run out of money, is about to return to Bakersfield, Calif., where he will find work in a rodeo. Elaborately dressed and carefully made up, he will cast his pearls before swine and his body before bulls.
His second desire is to win the love of Penelope (Sabina Sciubba), a French singer who agrees to marry him only because "I want to go to America. When I find a better guy who is better looking I go with him and I leave you." Nevertheless, Chip hopes she might come to love him like "those nice stories about arranged marriages or Stockholm syndrome" and spends on her what little money he has. He's like a sideways version of Dr. Rath in Von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel," a sad clown playing a sad clown.
The series was created by Galifianakis, Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel, who directs and co-writes "Portlandia," and it has something of the quietly eccentric, slightly melancholy, dreamlike naturalism that show shares with C.K.'s "Louis." It follows also in the steps of other FX/FXX series, including "Wilfred" and "Legit" and "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" and "Terriers," in which men struggle belatedly with maturity: "I'm an adult and I can do whatever I want," Chip insists, childishly. "I am a grown man."
But the show is not a brief on maleness. Apart from Chip's twin brother, Dale (also played by Galifianakis, with a strangely fey Southern accent), its main roles are female — though one of those is played by a man, Louie Anderson, as Chip's dismissive, protective mother. Whether the casting was a sudden inspiration or an inside joke, Anderson's dignified and layered performance justifies it. It never feels like a stunt.
Just what Chip has been doing in the couple of decades of adulthood that precede the series is not discussed (within the first five episodes at least). The show's creators did not strive to make him likable — he is angry and bitter and impatient — but in making him helpless but not hopeless, they've also made him sympathetic. You feel for him, want him to simmer down, to grow up, to let go. He is surrounded by people who, though they may be just as complicated or conflicted, are easier in their skin — are capable, even for a minute, of a happiness Chip only feels when he blinds himself to his actual circumstances.
Bone-dry stand-up comic Martha Kelly plays Martha, a compulsively self-sacrificing insurance adjuster who decides to be his friend, as if out of the blue but perhaps for reasons later expressed in an episode where she adopts what she imagines is a lost dog: "He was abandoned, maybe mistreated; I'm supposed to help him turn his life around; if I don't he's probably going to end up thinking all people are bad and very likely could end up eating somebody's baby."
Besides the three creators, the writing team includes playwright Samuel D. Hunter, winner of a 2014 MacArthur "genius grant," comedian Rebecca Drysdale and "Portlandia" writer Graham Wagner. And as in "Portlandia" and "Louie," the comedy, while true to human nature, is touched with weirdness: an invented Neil Diamond song, "Easter in Bakersfield"; the terrible French language tape that Chip listens to on ear buds throughout one episode, with phrases pulled as if from his own mind ("Je deteste ici," I hate it here; "Je voudrais echapper," I would like to escape); Kato Kaelin singing the national anthem at the rodeo; Chip's mom chugging a sports drink until she coughs it back up; the TV ads for the "career college" Dale runs out of a strip mall, whose subjects include Cell Phone Repair, Legal Guardianship, Ice Cream Truck Management, All Kinds of Chutneys and Personalized License Plating.
Not unusually, the show gathers depth and delicacy with time and context and as characters come into focus and into different configurations. Down to the smallest speaking part, the actors are well cast and unusually believable; one is surprised to learn they are actors at all.
When: 10 p.m. Thursday