'Casual': TV Review
Jason Reitman's Hulu series revolves around a divorcee and her teenage daughter.
First impressions of the Hulu original comedy Casual: It's funny, strongly realized, self-assured and a joy to watch. After watching an episode, you want another.
It's those easy elements that are so impressive — because they were hard-earned. It's very difficult to take a 30-minute comedy (dramedy?) and make it feel fresh when you're using time-tested themes of personal change, dating, coming of age, etc., especially in the Platinum Age of Television with all of its limitless options for viewers.
Casual, which kicks off its 10-episode first season on Oct. 7, had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Wednesday.
Series creator and writer Zander Lehmann and executive producer and director Jason Reitman have put a lot of love and attention into the series, which is about the newfound world of post-divorce dating for Valerie (Michaela Watkins of Enlightened and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), a 39-year-old therapist with a 16-year-old daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr of Aquarius). Mother and daughter move in with Valerie's younger, man-child brother, 35-year-old Alex (Tommy Dewey of The Mindy Project), a perpetual bachelor who is co-founder (and algorithm writer) of the dating site Snooger.
Casual is fueled by what seems like its effortless ambition. Lehmann and Reitman have taken easily recognizable situations from comedies and dramas and done enough digging through them to hit something deeper and more meaningful. Lehmann has crafted characters who are familiar but whose individual journeys through those tried-and-true themes uncover personal truths.
Both Valerie and Alex have a lot of baggage: Their parents were therapists and, ultimately, not very good parents nor very good at marriage, sleeping around regularly and making their children want to block them out entirely as a coping mechanism.
But it's hard to escape the shadow of your parents, even when you're all grown up. Valerie is a successful therapist who probably overanalyzes things as she realizes her marriage has been terrible (and she's been complicit in it). So being "newly single" might be part of the hook of Casual, but Valerie, through the triumphant work of Watkins, doesn't make it feel like a cliche. She makes it feel complicated, as though a person can do clueless things even if her brain knows better (because the body has needs).
The specter of parents is also evident in the character of Laura, who grew up smart and aware and can, at times, barely seem like a teenager. She's sexually mature because Valerie wanted to be enlightened and understanding as a parent, though Laura's actions can't help but recall those of Valerie's mother (therapy, anyone?). At the same time, Laura's easy relationship with sex and sexuality stands in stark contrast to Valerie's last years of matrimony, during which she shut down sexually to the detriment of the marriage.
By the way — because now seems like a really good time to emphasize this — all of these elements take a comfortable backseat to nonstop humor and witty (and snarky) banter between Valerie and Alex. The show is, first and foremost, very funny.
The series can seem so effortlessly brisk that the worry is in writing it off as a stakes-free joke jukebox — which is why the bricklaying that Lehmann and Reitman, who directed the first two episodes, do to stand it up is so crucial.
Mostly the witty banter comes from Alex, who, on the surface, fits into that familiar comedy trope of the free-spirited, stress-free dude whose charm draws women in droves. In Casual, it's almost like Lehmann and Reitman want you to bite on the conceit immediately: Alex = cynic. But at the same time, they coax out nuances to show that no matter what Alex is saying or doing on the outside, he's plagued on the inside. They accomplish this in the first two episodes (of the four I watched), setting the template: Alex's dreams going from funny to sad; Alex's desire to keep Valerie and Laura living with him because it provides him with a sense of family he never had and cuts through his loneliness; Alex's pensive or vulnerable moments, captured with just a flicker of a facial expression or a savvy positioning of the camera.
Dewey is another exceptional casting choice because he's got Lehmann's smart-dude patois down pat, hitting all the notes of sarcasm and irony and smug charm that cement the funny-lothario trope, while also nailing the fatigue of it all. Nowhere is this more clear than when we learn that most saccharine truth: He doesn't really want to sleep around; he wants to find love.
Normally, this would be a pratfall: The guy who does the dating-site algorithm can't find anyone by being his true self (and the notion that no one would match up with him is probably Casual's biggest mistake early on). But instead of just dropping an anvil on us, Lehmann and Reitman have done their detail work. Yes, Alex is clueless, but maybe it's a facade he's constructed based on what he learned from his parents. Maybe it's just easier to be cynical, like his therapist parents, about real love, thus making it easier to sleep around.
If we don't get any of that detail, Casual becomes more or less standard fare, heightened because Watkins and Dewey do exceptional work. But it becomes increasingly clear that Casual is better than that.
One of Casual's secret weapons is that it's good enough at nailing the familiar comedic "situation" right out of the box, which could be enough for some. But to subvert the genre, or at least give it more depth by shading the characters, is how it impresses.
Since Laura is supposed to be an older soul, a 16-year-old acting like a 26-year-old — clearly more mature than her uncle and, at the moment, more sure of her life than her mother — she can, at times, come off as that too-savvy teen (a credit to Barr's convincing and strong portrayal). Part of this is Laura's precocious sexuality and sometimes dismissive coldness to Valerie. But eventually Laura will, like the others, have more depth and more to play with in future episodes.
Though he only directs the first two episodes, credit Reitman with giving Casual a sophisticated yet digestible sense of style that's alluring — it looks like a feature film and has, with its use of curated musical choices, just the right sound and overall "feel." You want to devour episodes quickly, but they never seem like empty calories. That's an achievement because you can enjoy the series on multiple levels — easy humor on the first pass, a better understanding of motive derived from fleshed-out characters on the next viewing.
Hulu has done well enough with both its originals (Difficult People, The Hotwives of Las Vegas) and its acquired/joint productions (Moone Boy, The Wrong Mans). And a huge push to add original content has resulted in the upcoming J.J. Abrams-Stephen King drama, 11/22/63, starring James Franco.
The streaming service is now solidly in the Netflix and Amazon arena, and Casual is an impressive step forward.