Emmy episode analysis: Louie Anderson gives performance of his career in ‘Baskets’

Louie Anderson earned his first Primetime Emmy nomination this year for his scene-stealing performance in “Baskets” as Christine Baskets, the loving but overbearing mother of twins Chip and Dale (Zach Galifianakis). Anderson has a pair of Daytime Emmys in 1997 and 1998 for his voice-over work in his animated series “Life with Louie” and could well win Comedy Supporting Actor this year. He has submitted the episode “Easter in Bakersfield” to Emmy voters.

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Christine Baskets drags her son Chip to church on Easter Sunday, determined to enjoy some family time. They bicker in the car on the way to picking up her mom; “I’ll pull this car over and I’ll spank you,” she scowls. During the church service, Chip escapes for some alone time, and after noticing that Christine’s car is being towed, he embarrasses her and himself when he loudly interrupts the sermon in his attempt to get Christine’s attention.

After church, Chip, Christine and her mother venture out to the local casino for brunch, where they run into Martha (Martha Kelly) and her parents. Forcing the two families to sit together, things get uncomfortable as Chip admits that he is married and had been smoking, “since I was 37!” Christine’s dismay leads to anger and sadness when her mother starts to openly criticize and humiliate Christine about being overweight in front of everyone at the table. Her confidence shattered, Christine walks away from the table dejected, meets Chip over at the slot machines, and shares a tender moment with her son. “My life’s in disarray momma,” he says. “Who’s isn’t?” she proclaims. “Who’s isn’t.”

Can Anderson win his first Primetime Emmy for this surprisingly poignant and risky performance? Let’s take a closer look at his submission:

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A role like this one is perfect Emmy bait. A well-known stand-up comedian transforms himself to play the mother of the main character. He does not play her as a stereotype, he is not a sight gag or novelty-act caricature of a man in a dress. He’s playing a fully-formed woman of a certain age and he does it beautifully. Emmy voters will be smitten with this risk-taking performance.

His episode is the perfect Emmy submission as it showcases Anderson’s impressive range, as well as providing just enough impact and empathy to leave a lasting impression. Anderson has honed the particular mannerisms and body language of a woman of this age, and plays up the eccentricities of an older woman who loves food and wants to be closer to her sons without veering into being too hammy or exaggerated. You forget that you’re watching a man playing a woman after the first minute or so, and suspend that disbelief because Anderson delivers a really surprising honesty and pathos in this performance.

And he is genuinely funny. As a stand-up comedian, he is naturally effective when delivering funny one-liners that sit in the air uncomfortably. For example, after the church service, Christine subtly defends her “free spirit” son in conversation with an acquaintance, and also brags about other family members, who recently “flew first class,” which in her mind is something to be proud of in the mundane world of Bakersfield, California. It is the effortless way in which he hilariously but subtly delivers line after line that might convince Emmy voters that he deserves to win.

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“Baskets” is a very offbeat absurdist comedy. The kind of humor on display here may not translate or appeal to the average Emmy voter. That could hurt Anderson, who is up against more mainstream competition like the guys from HBO’s “Veep.”

As this is the only nomination for this under-the-radar FX comedy, could that be an indication that Emmy voters did not “get” the show?

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