Saturday, February 20, 2016

Christine's World

Watching Louie Anderson perform Christine Baskets on the FX dramedy/comedy/hell-I-don-t-know-what-to-call-it-really Baskets is not actually about watching someone perform:  it's watching someone be.  Anderson is so damn good you lose track of what he's doing, and you find yourself completely enmeshed in what Christine is doing, saying, acting like, thinking even.  It's the kind of acting that can only be seen on TV because you need several episodes of it for the whole process to sink in, and then suddenly an epiphany happens and it's there:  we're witnessing brilliance.  Let's call it "art."  Why not? 
The epiphany for me came in the third episode, and my adoration just grew from there:  Chrisitne curled up on a couch, covered in a shimmery quilt, talking about the beauty of the curly-fries.  Louie is in drag in the scene of course, in the whole show, playing Zach Galifianakis' somehow inert and yet completely overbearing Republican mother, Christine, who lives in a suburban dreamhouse in Bakersfield, California stocked with Costco items of every sort.  The drag is really just a way to get there:  not a lot of makeup, simple hair, blowsy, beautiful, no-nonsense, older-lady clothes that are only noticeable because they are designed not to be (except for the incredible Easter bonnet Christine wore in the Easter-themed episode, which is probably the best Baskets I've seen so far).  Christine seems to have stepped out of someone's actual life, stumbling Purple-Rose-style onto the FX platform, ready to go.  It's effortless, what Louie does, and yet his contribution has the nuanced, steely-eyed essence of someone really knowing how to make shit matter.  
Even though the show focuses primarily on Galifianakis' inept clown-wannabe (he went to a French clown school only to flunk out and return to Southern California to be a rodeo-clown), and that's OK, it's Christine who is the center of the show's universe.  The atmosphere and ethos of the show emanate from Louie's way of being her, a style that cancels out style but somehow manages to be better than stylish:  it's drag without camp.  Instead of parody and mockery, Louie, and the writers/creators of Baskets (Galifianakis, Louis CK, and Jonathan Krisel) seek homage in the bleakest and most banal of places.  The show gets off on absurdity, but not the kind that makes people look weak and worthless; it's absurdity that somehow saves people from themselves, even while they figure out how shitty everything is.
Christine is not really brave or incredibly intelligent, or really worth our time.  She just is.  And her existence is significant because it's not.  She lives in her own bubble of Ronald-Reagan wishes and Costco dreams.  She doesn't seem mean-spirited, but she is sort of gnarly and vindictive in the best of ways.  She can do a passive-aggressive one-off with the best of them, and yet you truly believe that she loves herself and the people she chooses to love.  She seems to have a heart made of two-by-fours and vinyl siding, and that's a compliment she would approve of I think.
I keep thinking of Raymond Carver when I think of Christine too, and Louie's way of pulling the whole thing off.  Carver wrote beautiful blunt and nuanced short stories about nobodies, most who live in California.  His stories have the same rote, sweet no-nonsense intent that Louie gives Christine.  Baskets totally benefits from that sensibility.  What could have been a Galifianakis lark about a down-and-out rodeo-clown with French inclinations opens up to become a minimalist and stark meditation on what it means to be a nobody in a world of nobodies, with Christine the empress of it all, a queen driving around in a maroon Chevy four-door sedan going to pick her elderly mother up for church, or eating a hotdog at (yup) Costco, commenting on how inexpensive it is, and you also get a drink.  Carver's stories opened up from closing down, and Louie's sense of timing and shaping of scenes, the way he uses his face not to register feeling but thought, is that same process of closure being the door to something else:  he's writing a book of short stories about Christine Baskets every time he enters a room. 
So here goes:  Louie Anderson is now a genius in my book, and while Baskets is funny and sweet and filled with odd and off-kilter laughs (as well blessed with another great performance by the gorgeous deadpan Martha Kelly as an insurance agent with a broken arm and a humble need to go missing), it's really not the show as much as Christine's world I'm interested in.  And I don't want a spinoff ala Laverne and Shirley or The Jefferson by any means.  I'll watch Baskets just for those few minutes when Christine appears, saunters through, says something stupidly on-target, and then goes back to hosing off her driveway.