In 2017 many TV shows will attempt to comment on the current political climate, either through biting satirical commentary or heavy-handed visions of a dystopian future. These forms can be cathartic, but one thing television is sorely lacking is portrayals of how politics affect average people. Thankfully that’s exactly what Zach Galifianakis offers in painful yet lovely doses with his understated, absurd, and hilarious black comedy Baskets.
Baskets is set in Bakersfield, and if you're familiar with California, you know that this is a political statement in itself. Bakersfield these days is a town you drive past, known to most Californians as a stop for In-N-Out Burgers on the way to wherever they're going. Surrounding Bakersfield, you see mile after mile of drought-stricken farms with signs out front reading "Thanks Nancy," mocking House minority leader Pelosi for lacking the godlike ability to rehydrate a landscape ravaged by global warming.
Bakersfield, in Kern County, is a red dot in a sea of blue. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy has his home office in Bakersfield. The streets are named for country singers, although country music left a long time ago. In Baskets, Bakersfield stands in for all the American towns whose glory days are behind them; towns where the prominent landmarks are the rodeo, the train station, and the Arby's. Bakersfield, both in reality and on Baskets, is a place you live if you're an American dealing with the outcomes of government decisions, not if you have a hand in making them — unless, of course, you’re Kevin McCarthy.
The setting of Bakersfield allows Baskets to show us characters that most mainstream journalists and political pundits have only heard about: people whose politics aren't formed on the pages of the New York Times opinion section, but in fast food restaurants and abandoned parking lots. Its sympathetic protagonist, Chip (Galifianakis), is the stereotypical lost child; a middle-aged man who still dreams of being taken seriously as a clown. Chip is an absurd character, but he shows us why someone might not find salvation in American party politics. As Chip struggles to practice his art, he can't hold down a job, and ultimately resorts to casting his lot with a band of heroin-addled gutter punks. The only intervention we see from government is when he's arrested for trespassing. The only hope he has comes in fleeting moments of clowning between handing out Arby’s meals and being gored by a bull at the rodeo. He’s a man who doesn’t see any options, and regards all of wealth, power, and politics as something forever out of reach.
If Chip represents the disaffected political dropout, his brother Dale (also played by Galifianakis) stands in for the average Trump voter. Dale is about the best version this fictional Bakersfield has of a local boy made good. Dale has founded a suspect for-profit college where he makes his bones peddling useless, unaccredited degrees. He’s clawed his way from working class to solidly middle, and though he's an arrogant prick, you somewhat understand his relentless condescension towards his loser brother. You can tell him "you didn't build that," but if he didn't build it, why haven’t the rodeo men, addicts, and Costco employees who populate his universe pulled themselves up, too? You hate Dale for his petty bourgeois sensibilities, but you also see where he's coming from. He can finally afford to take his family to Applebee's, and his wife to a date night capped with unlimited mimosas. Why should he help his deadbeat brother who never bothered to put on pleated khakis and a polo shirt to try and make something of himself?
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While Chip and Dale embody very specific types of Americans, their mother Christine (played by a cross-dressing Louie Anderson) embodies how the the average American deals with politics. For many in the United States, politics are about emotions and not about facts. Journalists and educated urbanites are often baffled by why an American would vote against their self-interest. “Why would you vote for a candidate who wants to repeal Obamacare if you're on it?” is just the latest version of a question as old as the U.S. itself. A quote often attributed to John Steinbeck rings in one’s head when pondering this problem: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Christine isn’t naive enough to imagine herself becoming a millionaire this late in the game, but she is fascinated by the dreamy, intangible political promises that offer something different than the lot she’s been given.
In the fourth episode of Baskets' current season, Christine wants nothing more than to visit the Ronald Reagan Library. She finds herself nearby when Chip is ordered to appear before a judge, and she figures she’ll make the best of a bad situation. Christine is a diabetic, unemployed, single mother, but she loves Ronald Reagan! It isn't his politics she loves: it's his cowboy look, his tough talk to the Russians (she squeals, "the Iron Curtain, I've always wanted to go behind that!”), and that he reminds her of a time when life was better.
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Christine visits the museum with a new flame whose daughter is also waiting to stand before a judge. He’s a diehard Jimmy Carter supporter, but he agrees to go to the museum regardless. When things get tough during the visit he says to Christine, “It’s not your fault, Christine, I promise you, and the recession wasn’t Carter’s fault. If Ronald Reagan had been president in 1978, he would’ve been a one-term president. Some things are just bigger than the office.” Christine and her date both see their favorite Presidents not for their policies, but for what they represented, and what could have been. For Christine, politics is escapism; something to aspire to, not to be lived.
So often politics on television gets lost in the aspirational agendas of shows like The West Wing or Last Week Tonight, or it’s reflected through the dystopian worlds of Battlestar Galactica and Mr. Robot. Rarely do we see regular people on TV, and it's even rarer that those folks talk about politics. Baskets reminds us that for most people, politics are deeply personal, very emotional, and often, they don't make much sense.