When Louie Anderson died on Friday, it felt like dozens of moms who I knew and loved all died at once.
That’s because Anderson took with him his portrayal of Christine Baskets, the doting but demanding mother of Zach Galifianakis’s depressive clown in the brilliant, bone-dry comedy “Baskets,” which ran on FX from 2016-19.
For me, Christine is one of the great TV characters, up there with Homer Simpson, Tony and Carmela Soprano or any of the Golden Girls. She was a caricature of a matriarch, but brought complexity and nuance to a type that is usually relegated to sketch comedy, two-dimensional walk-ons or viral videos of monstrous Karens.
As a fat person, as a Midwesterner, and as a drag enthusiast with a folksy middle-aged persona of my own, watching Christine Baskets in all her ridiculousness, nuance, power and covert wisdom was thrilling. It was a portrait of a woman I know and love who has never been presented with such affection and skill on television, before or since.
I spent my first 28 years in suburban Chicago, St. Paul, Minn., and Madison, Wis. The Upper Midwest is home to many people like Christine: strong, sturdy, hardworking women whose cheerfulness was both a personality trait and a strategy to navigate a world that regularly underestimated them.
The women I’m thinking of would hate that description, not just because they’d think of “sturdy” as an offensive euphemism, but because they don’t like taking compliments. (“Hardworking? Me? Please, I’m just trying to get through until Friday!”)
In case you missed “Baskets” (it is currently streaming on Hulu), the show starred Galifianakis as Chip Baskets, a French-trained clown stuck performing at a rodeo in his hometown, Bakersfield, Calif. Chip’s mother, Christine, loves her four sons, has a great recipe for something called “whiskey salad” and refuses to admit that her late husband’s suicide was anything but an accident.
Galifianakis, who was also one of the creators, said on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast that while conceiving the show he imagined Christine speaking in Anderson’s voice, which led to the idea of casting the beloved comic and game show host. While “Baskets” was set in California, the long O’s and nasal A’s of Christine’s accent hail unmistakably from Anderson’s native Minnesota.
Anderson modeled Christine on his own mother, Ora Zella Anderson, a woman he lovingly described as a “passive-aggressive Midwesterner.” His 2018 book, “Hey Mom,” was about lessons he learned from his mother, but you needn’t look further than his “Baskets” performance to see the impact Ora had on him.
Anderson was a man portraying a woman, but he eschewed some of the more well-trodden tropes of drag. This was not Divine in “Hairspray” or “Polyester,” playing a housewife turned up to 11. Anderson’s performance was earthier and more sensitive, but equally impactful.
Christine’s wardrobe — a meticulously realistic selection of costume jewelry and dressy casuals that seemed culled from the plus-size offerings of retail chains — is a much subtler form of camp than you’ll find on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Anderson told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air that he handpicked his dresses with his mother and sisters in mind.
To be sure, Christine Baskets was ridiculous. When she goes to Denver for the first time, she immediately tells the airport cabby “I love Denver!” After she buys a rodeo, she proudly puts a nameplate on her desk that reads “Ro-de-Owner.” She is shocked that a Black stranger isn’t as interested in visiting the Reagan Library as she is.
But we laugh with her as much as we laugh at her, and we root for her as much as we cringe. It’s the kind of laughter you share with your sibling when your mother does something embarrassing: You love her, but oh my God, are you kidding me?
Christine was the butt of jokes, but she was nobody’s fool. In “Uncle Dad,” an episode from Season 1, Christine gives a tour of Bakersfield to Penelope, a Frenchwoman whose interest in marrying Chip goes only as far as a green card. One stop is Costco, the bulk retailer that was featured prominently in several episodes of “Baskets” even though it wasn’t actually a sponsor.
“Acid reducer! This stuff is a life saver!” Christine shouts as she throws nearly an entire case of generic Prilosec into her cart. “Do you have multipacks like this in France?”
“I don’t think we take so much medication in France like you do,” Penelope smirks.
“Oh, well that’s a shame,” Christine replies with genuine pity in her eyes.
But Christine is not oblivious to Penelope’s condescension or opportunism. At the end of the episode, she deploys a plan to ship Penelope back to France and out of her son’s life, booking Penelope’s flight and driving her to the airport herself. “I’m not as simple as you think I am, dear,” Christine says, her cheerful demeanor cracking just enough to reveal a steely resolve.
Anderson’s size added another layer of complexity to Christine. When Christine dons a swimsuit and determinedly performs water aerobics alone in a lake in the middle of the night, in a Season 2 episode, she inhabits her body in a way that we’re not used to seeing on film or TV.
Onscreen, fat bodies in bathing suits are generally used as sight gags, as when (to cite just one example of many) Gwyneth Paltrow jumps into the pool while wearing a fat suit in “Shallow Hal.” We’ve seen them be humiliated and abused on “The Biggest Loser.” Occasionally, we’ve even seen them celebrated, as in the triumphant pool party scene in the Aidy Bryant comedy “Shrill.”
But Christine is a departure from all of these portrayals. Her body is sometimes a source of pain and sometimes a source of power, but it is always treated with tenderness and honesty.
She’s occasionally sheepish about her appearance, but has interests and goals besides losing weight. Her love interest, Ken, is attracted to her, but she accepts his affection with neither saucy confidence nor paralyzing insecurity. When a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes requires her to start exercising, she is excited, nervous, embarrassed and determined all at once.
Christine Baskets was many things all at once. She was laughable, she was strong, she was powerful, she was vulnerable, and she was deeply in denial about certain painful truths in her life. She was an exaggeration, but she was true to the spirits of real women whom I’ve never seen portrayed anywhere else with such care and virtuosity.
I’m going to miss her.