Cloons, Cowboys and Costco: Baskets’ Case For Free Product Placement

Baskets, on the FX network, is a show as polarizing as it is bipolar. Created by Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover, Between Two Ferns), Louis C.K. (Louie, Horace and Pete), and Jonathan Krisel (Tim & Eric, Portlandia), Baskets follows forlorn, French-trained clown Chip Baskets (Galifianakis), who, broke and estranged from his French wife, attempts to navigate personal and professional crises while working as a rodeo clown (or “cloon”) in Bakersfield, CA.

Combining the harsh realism for which C.K.’s work is well known with Galifianakis’s off-beat deadpan and the post-modern alternative comedy of Krisel, the show swings like a pendulum from stark, universal truth to the absurd and surreal and back again, making it one of the most thrilling, surprising, and often alienating shows in all of television.

One of its most divisive elements, perhaps, is its use of product placement. The two brands they favor: Costco and Arby’s.

Baskets relies so heavily on its use of brands that they can almost be considered characters themselves, commonly as backdrop yet sucking up pages and pages of dialogue, at times detracting from what is really at stake but never upstaging it.

Martha, one of the show’s central characters, is a Costco insurance agent. Her Costco-emblazoned Oldsmobile becomes a reliable source for transportation after Chip crashes his scooter.

Chip’s mother, Christine Baskets (played brilliantly by Louie Anderson), absolutely adores Costco and shops there so exclusively that virtually every product in her home bares the Kirkland brand.

The rodeo where Chip works—sponsored by Costco.

Costco (and Kirkland) is virtually everywhere, and the same can be said for Arby’s. Without too many additional spoilers, sad characters are encouraged to go get some curly fries. The downtrodden apply for jobs there. Life lessons are doled out as quickly as the food. Possibly even love is found there.

“Everybody is happy at Arby’s,” Chip’s own mother tells him. And in Baskets, it seems to be true. But some viewers want no part of it.

Claiming it detracts from the show’s heart, of which Baskets has a tremendous amount, the barrage of bonus packs and beef ‘n’ cheddars has irrevocably turned off many viewers. But those viewers aren’t seeing the bigger picture here.

In an interview with AdAge, Co-creator Krisel explains the use of real brands is about creating a real universe—that Baskets really shills for no one.

“Both are brands that we just wrote it into the script and then asked them if we could do it. There’s no money involved. We’re not advertising for them, but it’s more about the authenticity of having the real thing and not having it be a fake brand. And both of them were accommodating in that we’re not celebrating them; we’re not making fun.”

Having real brands anchors the characters into their reality—the expansive blandness of their environment, physically and metaphysically—and no brand is blander than Kirkland. This use of a universal blandness extends further to reflect upon and illuminate Chip Baskets’ past, which Krisel asserts is the heart of the show, the heart of Chip Baskets.

“That’s the whole show—Paris: the simple thing, and America: parking lots and Costco—so the beauty versus the ugliness. Clown school in Paris, rodeo clown in America—it’s back and forth.”

Like everything in Baskets, Costco and Arby’s are the swing of a pendulum. To one end an aching, uber-American, big box reminder of loss, of Paris, of the good life, of art and simplicity and fulfillment and love—gone—and to the other a familiar place, a simple place, an American place, but one where you’re family, and the curly fries are always hot.

Baskets will return for a third season in 2018, but you can stream the Season One now on Hulu.

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