Casual is the kind of show that's best when binge-watched. The somewhat thin family dramedy gradually gets its hooks into you when you can watch a whole bunch of episodes in one go. I devoured the season in two big chunks (of the first four episodes, and then the remaining six), and it definitely played better the more I watched.
Naturally, Hulu — the streaming service that airs Casual — opted to release episodes on a weekly basis, starting in early October. But as of Wednesday, December 2, all 10 episodes are available for you to marathon, and hopefully, the conversation will take off around this often lovely little show.
By its finale, Casual has become the kind of low-key sleeper that TV needs more of. In some ways, it's similar to one of the best shows of 2014, Transparent. It's about a bunch of upper-class white folks who constantly deal with relationship angst. It boasts a solid cast with a TV veteran in a leading role. And it's on a streaming service not known for its original programming just yet.
Transparent, of course, was built around the struggle for acceptance trans people face in America every day. That gave it a stronger center than Casual has, but Hulu's series is asking some interesting questions in its own regard — namely, just why do we have families or monogamy anyway?
Casual is about as low-concept as you can imagine
At the center of Casual is a premise so non-premise-y that you'd be forgiven for thinking the show was the kind of series characters on other TV shows might joke about. Valerie (Michaela Watkins), struggling in the wake of a divorce, moves herself and her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), into the home of her brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey). That's it, really.
Sure, there are some stabs at talking about how the internet and mobile apps have changed our relationship to dating. Alex, after all, made his fortune by creating an algorithm for a dating site (one that has failed to find him the love of his life, in true occupational-irony-narrative fashion), and Laura deals with being a teenager in an age of social media panics and sexting.
Since the show hails from executive producer Jason Reitman (who directed the first two episodes), it would be understandable to fear the show as a slightly gentler version of his truly awful, alarmist "the internet is ruining everything" 2014 film Men, Women & Children.
But creator Zander Lehmann (part of a talented writers' room that includes unsung TV writer Liz Tigelaar) has more interesting things to consider than whether smartphones have made it too easy for teens to see each other naked. If the internet has made it easier than ever to find just the right person for whatever itch we need scratched, be it sexual or social, then why do we continue to form permanent bonds with people who too often disappoint us?
It's an idea driven home by a character who joins the show in its second half, a woman in an open relationship who doesn't allow herself to believe she should only sleep with one person just because she's in a relationship with that person. Lots of shows would have turned her into a joke, but Casual's characters, lonely and heartbroken as they are, look at her and ask if maybe this is another, possibly even better way to live.
This is a showcase for one of our best comic actresses
Casual is more wry than funny, but it has some sharp observations and moments. It's also got a secret weapon in Watkins, who's long been the funniest thing about a wide variety of projects (particularly the recent, sadly failed sitcom Trophy Wife) but is instead here to show off her dramatic chops. Yes, she gets laughs, but she plays Valerie as a woman who got trapped in one of the Choose Your Own Adventure bad endings and isn't sure how to make it into a good one.
TV shows featuring extensive parts for teenagers often send up viewers' red flags (and justifiably so), but the relationship between Barr and Watkins is frequently poignant. Trying to figure out how to move forward in the wake of divorce, Valerie needs her daughter to be much more friend than child — but that means when she needs to be a mother, their relationship falls apart in little pieces, then all at once.
If there's a weak link here, it's Alex, whose quest to defeat his own algorithm and find his best possible match seems the most like something added via network note. His hookup of the week often drags down early episodes, and it's only when he commits to a relationship that his storyline starts to come to life.
Casual definitely gets better as it goes along. Its early episodes are filled with the sorts of stories that only young TV shows will do (particularly ones that would wreck the whole premise of the show if they stayed permanent). That's what makes it too bad that many viewers had to wait to see the season's superior second half.
Because once the show taps into its questions of just why we continue to adhere to the same social structures we have for millennia when we ostensibly have other ones we could be trying, it becomes something much more special. Some relationships hang together because of inertia, Casual suggests, but some run more deeply than we possess the ability to understand.
Casual is available on Hulu. New episodes appear on Wednesdays, and you can watch the first two right now.