What happens when a man is forced to live by his wits alone… But he doesn’t have any? That’s the burning question “Freaks,” the Jan. 19 premiere of “Baskets” tried to address — and, in a return to form, it wasn’t pretty. Or rather, it was — but only in the way it always has been, a mix of film stocks, acting styles, and references to Antonioni, the Wachowski sisters and more…
Chip (Zach Galifianakis) is now a vagabond riding the rails… Well, briefly anyway. After being caught and kicked off his free ride, he decides to take a snooze beneath an underpass, where he crosses paths with a troupe of traveling street performers. This motley crew is led by hot/gross Morpheus (Tobias Jelinek, last seen as one of the agents in “Stranger Things”) — a charismatic leader whose authority is largely denoted by his possession of assorted kitchen utensils, while a trenchcoat-less Trinity (“Longmire’s” Mary Wiseman) offers Chip some much-needed kindness after his rough morning.
A can of Chef Boyardee ravioli Chip randomly procures becomes the yardstick by which we can measure Chip’s ability to make his own way in the cold, cruel world — and not unlike the contents of that can, we learn that Chip’s survival skills are mushy and shapeless, at best. In the opener’s best scene, he spends the morning on Wile E. Coyote moves, trying to open it with a signpost, rock, wrench, and gravity. In the end, it’s Chef Boyaredee: 1/Chip: 0… Rendering dear, simple Chip putty in the hands of Morpheus, who can at least outwit a can of pasta. Morpheus easily lures Chip into the fold by way of a can opener and gives him a new name: “Noodles.”
Once the troupe gets a load of Chip’s okay-ish clowning skills during a sidewalk matinee performance, Chip’s star begins to rise within this decidedly dark constellation of characters. Morpheus indicates his approval by bestowing a Excalibur-esque soup ladle upon Chip. This doesn’t sit well with Trinity, formerly entrusted with the ladle, prompting her to confront Chip fireside one evening. She doesn’t much care for Chip’s superior airs, which she imagines must be the result of his having attended that fancy “clown boarding school” abroad. Unable to bear Chip’s rise and her own demotion, Trinity decides to hit the road solo…
And then comes the reckoning that usually follows after an acolyte like Chip has won the approval of a charismatic but shadowy rogue figure on the lam. After breaking into a house that appears to have be temporarily vacated by vacationing owners, we learn Morpheus and his followers are rather partial to heroin (which Chip desperately tries to mistake for an EpiPen habit). The other shoe has clumsily dropped… Right onto Chip’s clueless head. Maybe life with Dale and Mama Christine (Louie Anderson) wasn’t that bad… And as he attempts to take his leave from these ne’er do wells, the cops show up.
One could argue that, however briefly, Chip’s declaration of independence was looking promising. Surrounded by his newfound family of fellow performers, he managed to revive his clown career for a good several nanoseconds, at least. But if the movie “Showgirls” taught us anything, it’s that unchecked ambition almost always comes with a price. And you can be sure that watching Chip pay the piper will prove to be highly uncomfortable, per usual.
All in all, a strong, sweetly dark experimental episode of a strong, sweetly dark experimental show. We look forward to the season as it unrolls — and particularly to the return of the show’s greatest talents, Martha Kelly and Louie Anderson.
“Baskets” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.