11:00am PT by Samantha Leffler
How 'Casual' Is Redefining the American Family
Casual is far from your typical family TV series. Straddling the line between comedy and drama, the Hulu original, which is currently halfway through its second season, reads more like a complicated character study than a sitcom, as it explores the lives of two lovingly interconnected siblings brought closer by their disdain for their absent parents and a shared chaotic upbringing that has plagued them in adulthood.
Created by Zander Lehmann (The Shannara Chronicles), the Golden Globe-nominated comedy has a specific dynamic that compels the story forward and distinguishes it from other family centered series.
“It's not a plot heavy show. It feels like a drama, but it is a comedy,” exec producer/writer Liz Tigelaar (Life Unexpected) tells THR. “There aren’t the plot twists and turns. We rely on our relatable specificity to the stories.”
That specificity comes from the bond between Valerie Meyers (Michaela Watkins) and her younger brother, Alex Cole (Tommy Dewey), who suffers from depression. The series explores the codependent relationship the sibglings share after recently divorced Valerie and her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) move in with Alex. The situation is further complicated by the trio’s colorful dating lives and the siblings’ mutual dislike for their uninvolved parents, which has significantly impacted their personal lives.
“They are each other's soul mates, in a lot of ways, and I think that makes sense with siblings,” Tigelaar explains. “You grow up with this person who becomes your other half, and then you're expected to leave the nest and move on without them, and these are just people who are so codependent they can't really move on. I don't know if it's embracing codependence or redefining the American family, but I think it's both.”
When one sibling flourishes, the other falters, and the show relishes in, at times, making viewers uncomfortable with the duo’s unique connection — but never in gratuitous fashion. Case in point: Alex’s stable relationship with girlfriend Emmy (guest star Eliza Coupe) in season one was derailed when Val slept with her after a drug-fuelled night at her estranged parents' wedding.
To hear Lehmann tell it, what sets Casual farther apart from other half-hour shows today is the characters’ “frank and open discussions about sex and sexuality.” As the co-founder of a dating app, Alex has his fair share of sexual partners and just slept with his new boss' assistant, Fallon (former Life Unexpected star Britt Robertson) as a way of getting back at his ex-girlfriend, Sarah (Britt Lower) who just so happens to be engaged to said boss.
Newly single Val has slept with her daughter’s teacher and is currently in the midst of a fling with commitment-shy Jack (Kyle Bornheimer), while Laura just engaged in her first threesome with female and male classmates, the latter of which has cancer. “That was really important for us to show.These are people you’re close with or people you love. Why shouldn’t you talk to them about all the difficult parts of your life — which includes sex, romance, heartbreak, and all of those things we often have to keep trapped inside of us?” Lehmann notes.
Despite being siblings by blood, Val and Alex’s deep-rooted connection to one another takes on many forms. “We always want to twist the drama and the dysfunction between them, which means sometimes they act like brother and sister, sometimes they act like mother and son, and sometimes they act like lovers,” Lehmann says.
Since Alex and Val will never take their relationship to a romantic place, they are a “sustainable” and an especially compelling pair to write for. “You always want the relationship that can't be,” Tigelaar says. “Obviously, these are two people who can't be in romantic love, but it is a love story with Alex and Valerie. We have this endless well of story to keep drawing from, because if they're going to be healthy, functioning, people the way society deems healthy and functioning, it's not to be each other's primary partner. That's the push-pull with them.”
While Tigelaar admits she was excited to “mine this story,” Lehmann says he was a bit worried about how viewers might react to Val and Alex’s extreme closeness, even though it’s part of the appeal. “Their relationship is dysfunctional, it’s not supposed to feel good all the time. You root for them and want them to be happy, but you also know they can’t be happy together. That dichotomy is really interesting and fun to watch in characters.”
Lehmann’s inspiration for Alex and Val's unusual connection comes from the closeness that exists among his own family. “These are universal things, they just hadn’t been brought together in a show before. The show is very specific, that dynamic is very specific, and some of that is based on reality, but some of it is just how we draw our characters. I think that specificity can turn some people off if it doesn’t feel like their experience, but it also endears us to some viewers.”
According to the creator, the chemistry between Watkins and Dewey also helps to facilitate the siblings’ unique relationship. “It’s that sort of thing where you’re playing with expectations, and how they are supposed to be a brother and sister. They pull it off so well that we can get away with doing a lot of things that otherwise I don’t think would work,” he says.
In a particularly raw scene from season one when the family — including Alex and Val’s parents, Dawn (Frances Conroy) and Charles (Fred Melamed) — is gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, Charles recalls how Alex used to pee in soda bottles as a kid instead of leaving his bedroom and using the bathroom. What his clueless parents thought was a funny anecdote turned serious when Alex later revealed he used the bottles because he was afraid of his parents' strange friends lurking outside his bedroom door.
“It came from a place of truth,” Lehmann says of the emotional exchange. “With our actors, we tend to give them one or two really big moments emotionality. In a lot of shows, they trade on the over-emotional moments and that makes them lose their weight. For me, that episode for Alex was one of his big emotional moments.”
Although Lehmann says dramas like Six Feet Under have influenced him, he didn’t set out to redefine what constitutes a family and how various family members interact with one another. “We just tried to make something that felt authentic to us and our experience,” he says the show's writing staff, many of whom have complicated family dynamics of their own. “If it happens to be like other TV shows, I think that probably means other people are having the same experience.”
Adds Tigelaar: “In television there was a huge trend of friends as family and that idea of your family of choice.This, in a weird way, is also a family of choice, they just happen to be family and it's not who most people necessarily choose.”
Casual season two is now streaming on Hulu.