Friday, April 1, 2016

Estranged: Schitt's Creek and Baskets

Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, Eugene Levy, and Daniel Levy in Schitt's Creek.

Schitt’s Creek (stylized as Schitt$ Creek), a CBC sitcom airing in the U.S. on the Pop network, is in its second season; Baskets, on FX, has just ended its first. Both are comedies of estrangement centering on dysfunctional families, and both show a desire to dig – patiently, obliquely, as if with a jailhouse spoon – toward the human parts of obtuse or abrasive characters. Despite being resistant to quick affinity or effortless love, each has been renewed for another year. That’s a fine thing: there are audiences out here for them, and everyone deserves a chance to find each other.

The Rose family of Schitt’s Creek were until recently super-rich, quarantined by wealth from ordinary want, weirdness, and each other. Now they’ve lost their millions and have nowhere to live but adjoining rooms in a motor lodge in the titular town, a bankrupt burg with all the charm of rotted wood, which the Roses once purchased because they thought the name was funny. Eugene Levy plays paterfamilias Johnny Rose, the only halfway useful member of the clan (inasmuch as he can calculate a conversation without being distracted by the butterfly of a whim). Catherine O’Hara is his wife Moira, a former soap star who looks and acts like a lemon tastes. Their spawn are Alexis (Annie Murphy), a late-twenties party girl, and David (Daniel Levy), an early-thirties pansexual layabout. Except for Johnny, the Roses come on so vacuous and self-centered that you can almost hear the hollow whistle where intellect and emotion normally reside.

Levy and O’Hara are of course alums of SCTV (1976-84), the best sketch comedy show ever to appear on television. Here, they mostly eschew the high-inspiration hijinks of that show, and of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries (A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration) that helped renew their careers; both are fun to watch, despite-or-perhaps-because-of having so little left to prove. Although O’Hara often seems almost too rigid and tortured to be funny, she pulls fun from a rotation of abominable wigs and a uniquely unstable voice whose tones may veer from grumble to shriek in the space of a sentence. Levy’s role demonstrates his terrific subtlety, but since it’s mostly reactive in nature, he can sometimes feel like a wasted resource. Yet his restraint is a necessary anchor, and he works a nice twist on the “normal” persona he created for American Pie and its 47 sequels: we’re uncertain if Johnny’s self-control and sanity are signs of decency, or of a nihilism far deeper than we can see. Time will tell. (The other known quantity in the cast is Chris Elliott, whom I’ve liked ever since the David Letterman show but have yet to find very funny as Roland Schitt, mayor of the town and owner of the Roses’ motel.)

Daniel Levy and Emily Hampshire in Schitt's Creek.
That much of the show’s spotlight is ceded to the younger generation is surely due to the veterans’ gallantry, and to the fact that Levy’s son Daniel is a creator, writer, and producer of the show as well as a cast member. Fortunately, both the Rose offspring and the actors who play them are capable of surprises. Alexis is as pretty, skinny, and vapid as any runway model, but Murphy’s interpretation is winning, and the character is generously conceived: her self-involvement conflicts with the remorse she feels for encouraging the devotion of Ted, a wholesome veterinarian (Dustin Milligan), while indulging an erotic attraction to Mutt (Ted Rozon), black-sheep scion of the town family. (A marginal mystery develops: though Mutt is posited, in contrast to Alexis, as a paragon of rough-hewn authenticity, his jet-black dye job and gym-rat abdomen suggest he may be just as artificial as she. What’s he hiding? Time will tell.) David, meanwhile, is an arrogant fashionista who, growing too old to maintain the requisite malice, is beginning to let his guard down. At first he’s merely amused by Stevie (Emily Hampshire), the laconic, quietly frustrated girl who tends the motel desk and is attracted to his otherness, and perhaps to his sexual ambiguity. But he starts to respect her as a fellow outlier and sarcast, and their spontaneous, believable rapport becomes the sweetest part of the show. In his arrested-adolescent wardrobe and upswept coif, Daniel Levy is a hybrid of Gap Kids and the Amazing Criswell via Bob Mackie, and his face – with its repertoire of baffled blinks, sensual smirks, astonished eye-pops, and begrudging grins – may be the most weirdly beautiful and expressive on television right now.

An index of Schitt’s Creek’s estrangement from the sitcom standard is that it’s difficult to guess how the writers conceived of some scenes – like the one in which the Roses discover the runaway David sitting in a wheat field, dressed in a cultist’s black cowl, gripping a vaguely Satanic trident and staring at an Amish woman as she impassively tills the soil. No one asks David how he came to be there, or who the woman is, or what her people have made of their odd guest. (“Go home, David,” she simply says.) The absurdity of the tableau is not defused by the script or milked by the camera, it’s merely shown and accepted. This was when I realized that the show, though it had turned me off at first and not made me laugh terribly much after that, had grown on me – that I liked it too much not to like it. At which point, I started laughing more.

Zach Galifianakis in Baskets.

Anyone who reflexively asks what the point could possibly be of a comedy that doesn’t make you laugh is unlikely to find much pleasure in Schitt’s Creek – and even less in Baskets. Zach Galifianakis stars as Chip Baskets, who dreams of being an artist-clown in the commedia dell’arte line; he has been attending clown college in Paris, though he speaks no French. While there, he proposes to the woman he adores (Sabina Sciubba), despite her insistence that she doesn’t love him and would marry him only to get American citizenship. Expelled, he lands back in his hometown of Bakersfield, conservative stronghold of Southern California, the town that produced Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. While working as a rodeo clown, Chip tries to bear the burden of human contact: his sugar-addicted mother, Christine (Louie Anderson), thinks superstores are wonderlands; a beyond-deadpan insurance adjuster, Martha (Martha Kelly), is his only friend, but he doesn’t like her much; his twin brother, Dale (also played by Galifianakis), is a snippy dolt who runs a storefront diploma mill and moves and speaks as if on strings controlled by a spastic deity.

Co-created by the star with Louis C.K. and Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia), Baskets may be the show Galifianakis has been waiting his entire career to get the chance to do. Like that career, the show proceeds from stupefying premises and works at being as huggy as a porcupine. The Galifianakis style is based on frustration, resentment, and whatever is the opposite of cool; though his characters (The Hangover, Dinner for Schmucks, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Birdman, HBO’s Bored to Death) are generally harmless, their energy radiates from the two vertical prongs of anger and intent over the bridge of his nose. Never mellow, never accepting, the characters are focused on what they want or need – in Chip’s case, love, validation, belonging – and impotently angry at the people and circumstances that foil them.

Sabina Sciubba and Louie Anderson in Baskets.
Baskets is a collection of quiet, desolate episodes, with a definite miserablist tendency. Dust, penury, and mundanity pervade the settings; the stories are about humiliation and defeat. Chip, evicted from his motel room, sleeps on hay bales in a reeking barn, then is tossed out of that into a mound of garbage bags. With his pants down. His sole (temporary) redemption is his promotion to head rodeo clown – though he’s assured that that only makes him the biggest turd on the turd pile. The season finale saw Chip, staring through the hole in the bottom he’d been scraping all along, jumping a boxcar and rolling off to new fortunes in a (barely) comic twist on the end of Five Easy Pieces. This is depressing, all but hopeless business, but the show cultivates theme and mood with tenderness, humor, imagination, and an avoidance of pathos. It will not tell us how to judge what it shows, starting with Chip himself, an angry little man who imagines himself a delicate artist. In his way, he may actually be one: clowning in a spotlight in the rodeo ring, dressed with absurd incongruity in his Pierrot getup – puffy blouse and classical pose, white pancake and purple tears – he’s different than he is anywhere else. He’s not very good, but he is transformed, visibly throwing off the weight of his anger to achieve something like lightness and grace. (Then a bull bursts from the darkness and knocks him on his ass, to the crowd’s delight.) Baskets could be the masochistic fantasy and petulant bleat of the un- or underappreciated artist, but it could also be the story of someone struggling to hold his soul above the turd pile of life. If you prefer the second option, the question of whether that soul belongs to a true artist or to a self-deceiver who would be more useful as a shoe salesman becomes, at bottom, irrelevant: it’s a soul, either way.

The laugh of Schitt’s Creek and Baskets is not the laugh conventional sitcoms have taught us to want. Rather than bellowing up from the diaphragm or fluttering down from the upper throat, it comes in small explosions through the nose, or lingers at the corner of the mouth. Sometimes it’s a shake of the head, sometimes but an echo in a back part of the brain. It gestates in a space as remote from the pleasure center accessed by conventional comedy as Bakersfield is from Hollywood. But if neither show delivers the solid, syndication-ready laugh of a Seinfeld, a Modern Family, or a How I Met Your Mother (to name three shows whose reruns I often watch), their characters are more than capable of projecting through our plasma screens to plant their fucked-up realities in our rooms. We grow attached to these characters, to their weirdnesses, their worlds. We wonder little things about them. Will the Roses ever leave Schitt’s Creek? Will Chip finally mate with his muse? Will Mutt and Alexis discover the truth about each other, whatever it is? Will Dale and Martha make babies, and if so, will they be freaks? Will David graduate from culottes and high-tops to long pants and loafers? Is Chip’s boxcar heading east or west? Time will tell.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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