There’s a lot to hate about Hulu’s dramedy Casual.
I find much of it unbearable, to say the least. And that feeling is quickly validated by a single scene in season two’s second episode, where Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) — the teenage daughter of Valerie (Michaela Watkins), the show’s psychiatrist main character — is forced to tour a public school she might have to attend. She’s considering a transfer after essentially burning her life at her old private school to the ground, thanks to an event involving an unreciprocated crush on a teacher.
Laura acts as if she’s wandered into the cholera ward in a turn-of-the-century melodrama, even though the school she's visiting is, for all intents and purposes, pretty normal. She treats the people she meets disdainfully, and when it comes time for Valerie and her live-in brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey), to pass judgment, their feelings on the public school system in general boil down to an unproven "Ick."
It’s an enormously irritating scene. The school simply isn't that bad! It’s a pretty typical public school, the sort of school most American kids attend. And Casual presents it as if it’s somehow unclean.
Now, you could argue that the series is emphasizing how blinkered this family is, because it’s so privileged (everybody lives very comfortably). You could say the scene is meant to illustrate how little they understand about life, even though they all claim to have deep insight. Or you could point to how Casual is about people who actively push other people away, and how their behavior at the school is just another symptom of that.
But it’s never entirely clear if the show is aware of any of this. It seems to take the family’s side, in fact: This school is gross. It's so gross that the moment where Laura and Valerie deem it inadequate keeps popping up in the "previously on" segments of that run before other episodes, as if to say, "Well, of course Laura couldn't go to public school." And that dovetails with Casual’s many other problems relating to privilege and insular perspective and tunnel vision.
Oh, wait, did I mention I really enjoy Casual? Like, so much so that I watched all eight episodes Hulu sent to critics before season two as quickly as possible.
Why do I enjoy this show? Not sure I could tell you, but I do!
Here’s the thing: I'm not sure I could adequately pinpoint why I enjoy Casual. When I discuss the show with those who find it hard to take and/or outright awful (including many of my Vox colleagues), the best I can do is, "It's really well-acted." If pressed further, I curl up into a ball, armadillo-like.
But it is really well-acted, especially on the part of Watkins and Barr, who add so many layers to characters we’ve seen dozens of times.
The divorced woman approaching middle age and wondering if she’s wasted her life? It’s been done, but Watkins gives Valerie such nuance and edge that she’s rightly become the most acclaimed part of the show. She's one of the best comedic actresses working today, and on Casual, she gives a performance filled with soulfulness.
It's Barr, however, who has the much tougher part, and I would argue that whether or not you like Casual stems almost entirely from whether or not you find Laura intriguingly misguided or completely insufferable. (For someone who takes the latter point of view, MTV News’ Inkoo Kang offers a great take.)
Laura is, in essence, kind of an asshole to most everyone she meets, without much reason. And, yes, that’s true of lots of teenagers, but TV rarely goes out of its way to force us to spend time with such teens without good reason. (Homeland’s Dana Brody might have been nearly impossible to tolerate in how little she seemed to care about anyone but herself, but her dad was working for terrorists. Her oft maddening insouciance made sense.)
Laura is just a jerk because she’s had a bit of a rough go of it. Her parents split up. She left her school after the teacher incident. She doesn't have a terribly healthy relationship with her mom.
In short, her pouty pettiness is pretty realistic, but we don’t want realistic teenage moping on TV, especially from rich white kids whose list of problems can be summarized as, "Sometimes I feel sad." (I don't mean to denigrate "Sometimes I feel sad" as a problem, but merely to say that it’s a problem TV tends to overuse as a generator of conflict, and I’m not sure Casual creator Zander Lehmann has anything new to say about it.)
So I don’t really blame anyone for finding Laura hard to take, but I find her (and Barr’s performance as the character) weirdly magnetic. I like how she’s applied all of the lessons she’s learned from growing up with Valerie as a constant presence in her life to the most extreme ends.
She seems terrified of forming connections to anyone, and the further season two progresses, the more it seems like she’s constantly finding new friendships but then bailing from them before they've even reached their cruising altitude. And that loops around to why I ultimately like Casual, even if the show never seems to strike the right balance when it comes to portraying its characters’ bubble of privilege: It’s really great at depicting loneliness.
There are so many shows about sad Los Angelenos
I say this while fully realizing that praising "a show about lonely, rich white people" is going to send even more of you running. And that’s fine. Even as an easy mark for this sort of programming (thanks to being a somewhat lonely white person from Los Angeles), I’ll fully admit to groaning when I hear about more of it coming along.
Even worse, Casual is set in Los Angeles, which seems to have created a mini cottage industry of shows about lonely, rich white people in recent years. They range from tremendous (You’re the Worst, Transparent) to not very good (Love) to "about a horse" (BoJack Horseman, also great). But even while your opinions of these series might differ, we can all agree there sure are a lot of them.
What’s weird is how often this criticism comes up specifically about shows set in LA, while it rarely seems to accompany shows set in New York. Certainly, LA is the setting for a lot of television shows, but it’s a distant second to the vast universe of series set in the Big Apple.
And where there are tons of single-camera dramedies about privileged New Yorkers wending their way through life, they seem to draw only a portion of the disdain their West Coast counterparts do.
As a Los Angeleno, I’ve always found this a bit odd, but watching Casual crystallized it for me in a weird way. To live in New York is to live in a city that’s constantly forcing you to interact with people. Even if you’re in the throes of terrible depression, New York smashes you up against all sorts of other people, no matter how much money you might have spent in order to isolate yourself in, say, a penthouse apartment.
But in Los Angeles, you really can seal yourself off in an ivory tower that separates you from people, only enhancing your loneliness. The directors of Casual, led by series co-executive producer Jason Reitman (he of Up in the Air, Juno, and others), call attention to this throughout the show, often choosing the perfect closing image of one of the characters, isolated and alone, staring at some element of their privilege that was supposed to bring them happiness, while sad white person music plays on the soundtrack.
This glum, solitary feeling is made even more explicit in the relationship between siblings Valerie and Alex (which Casual has shaded with all-but-explicit incestuous overtones). The two might try to escape each other, and the damaged wreckage of their family, but they always seem to cross paths at the bottom of their shared despair. The persistence of their ennui represents the show’s central idea: You can do whatever you want to try to forestall your unhappiness, but you can’t put off family and all the honesty it brings.
Which, admittedly, has been done better on other shows and even other shows within the ultra-specific "sad, lonely white people who live in LA and have dating adventures" sub-genre that TV is drowning in. I don’t know that I’d say Casual is great television, but the more I think about it, the more I find that public school scene indicative of what makes it better than its detractors would like to admit.
Attending that public school is probably exactly what Laura needs, because the experience might enlighten her to what a bubble she lives in. But because of where she lives and how much money she has, that will never happen. And while that’s not a "tragedy," per se, it’s at least a missed opportunity. Privilege isolates and devastates people in both directions, and somewhere in its bones, Casual knows this.