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Casual’s Michaela Watkins on how TV comedies portray problems of privilege

“The people who seem to get picked on the most in television for being coastal elites are people who are at all upset about their own personal lives.”

2017 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony - Arrivals
Casual’s Michaela Watins at the 2017 Writers Guild Awards.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for WGAw

On Hulu’s Casual, actress Michaela Watkins plays Valerie, a therapist in Los Angeles juggling her daughter, career, and personal life following a divorce. It’s the type of show that is easy to lob criticism at for its portrayal of profoundly unhappy yet successful people in one of America’s most liberal cities. And yet, the show has been met with critical acclaim and gained a devoted following thanks to its humor, honesty, and depth.

In season three, which concludes on August 1, the show makes more of an effort to address some of the issues that its viewers grapple with, including the 2016 election and the Donald Trump presidency. On the latest episode of Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff’s podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, Watkins tells VanDerWerff why Casual treats its characters’ comparatively privileged problems with respect, and how to make a small show set in LA seem like part of the real world.

“I think if you try to have a show that’s set in 2017 in Los Angeles and you don’t talk about the world at large you’re being so incredibly disingenuous that I feel like you lose the authenticity and the realness and the honesty of the show,” Watkins says. “Because I don’t have a single conversation with a single person that doesn’t eventually turn to world events.”

Unsurprisingly, the show’s characters have progressive views (Valerie puts her daughter on birth control when she’s 12), but Watkins stresses the difference between a show that is spouting ideology and one that is capturing reality in a specific part of the country.

“I’m sure there’s been some criticism that we’re espousing liberal propaganda because we have a character who’s working for a nonprofit in a climate awareness organization that is working to clean up the environment locally in Los Angeles. That’s not propaganda, that is an actual job that people have and go do,” Watkins explains. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, there are these oil fields, people are getting sick around them, it’s an actual issue, there are lots of activists on the grounds who are doing that.’ Just because it’s in a show doesn’t mean that it’s pushing an agenda.”

VanDerWerff asks Watkins if she feels that the show’s characters are “aware of the dichotomy between these characters’ comfort and their problems,” and if they are aware that others out there are suffering far worse.

“The people who seem to get picked on the most in television for being coastal elites are people who are at all upset about their own personal lives,” Watkins says. “For some reason with Casual, because it’s got, I don’t know, people who seem genuinely depressed and unhappy, then you’re like, ‘Fuck you guys, there are other people who are suffering way more than you.’ I don’t have anything conclusive to say about it, it’s just interesting to me that when somebody’s unhappy there’s somebody who is going to be like, ‘Screw you, there’s somebody who’s more unhappy than you.’”

Watkins recalls an especially vapid sitcom script she read some years ago where she was astounded by how shallow the characters’ problems were.

“I remember I got a script five years ago or something and it was some TV sitcom and I threw the script across the room because I was like, ‘Come on.’ The line was something like, ‘I’m going on a date; I’m going for Italian. Should I wear my hair up or down for linguini?’” Watkins says. “In my mind I was like, ‘We’re in the middle of two wars right now, fuck you! Fuck your ponytail, fuck your linguini!”

While striking a balance between humor and dramatic heft, Watkins looks to the most powerful person in the world as an example of how mental health issues have the power to impact even those who seemingly have it all.

“Were the world tuned right to the fork we would all be so freaking grateful that we have all the things we have it wouldn’t even occur to us to be unhappy. But there is something called depression — I mean, look at Donald Trump, I don’t know a more unhappy, empty, sad sort of man.”

At the same time, Watkins retains the perspective that while Casual seeks to tackle common issues of depression and anxiety, its characters can still be caught up in trivial matters.

“This show definitely I’m sure gets slotted into the bunch-of-rich-white-people-complaining [genre] — I think this show is so much more than that. It feels like an easy assessment,” she says to VanDerWerff, who responds that for season four the show could add a character who follows the leads around with a sign that says “Don’t you know people are suffering?”

“And they’d be like, ‘This guy is following me. Should I ask him out?’” Watkins responds.

Listen to the full episode for more from Michaela Watkins on how her audition process has changed over her career, and how her perception of Valerie has been altered since season one.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.