Season one of Hulu’s Casual quickly became one of the most underrated offerings of last season, with a mixture of effortless comedy and surprising emotional turns.
Even more quickly, it transformed itself by the end of the season into that rare series that is constantly, unexpectedly rewarding. Part of that might have had something to do with the early snark and witty banter setting viewers up for something lighter than what they would eventually get — a dramedy that expanded its boundaries in confident steps, unafraid to reveal painful truisms about life that are often easier to water down with laughs.
Two more high-profile series that also did this — FX’s You’re the Worst and Amazon’s Transparent — are quality guideposts for those viewers who haven’t yet found out how fantastic Casual can be (the first two half-hour episodes of season two drop Tuesday on Hulu). It’s very easy — and rewarding — to binge the excellent first season in its entirety.
Catching up on Casual is essential because it very much deserves to be in the conversation about outstanding, surprisingly layered half-hour dramedies, so there will be no spoilers about the first season here. And while navigating the forest of television offerings is already labor-intensive and there’s certainly no lack of introspective half-hours out there, Casual seems to be one that was lost in the crush. A quick binge would rectify that and season two proves emphatically (having seen six of the 13) that the first was no fluke.
What’s so sneaky about Casual is that at first glance it looked like, if not a bent rom-com, then a modern take on dating — its opening credits are a graphic riff on the fact that one of its three main characters, Alex (Tommy Dewey), created the algorithm for a successful dating site and that season one is mostly about Alex’s sister, Valerie (Michaela Watkins) reluctantly getting back into the dating world after leaving her cheating husband and packing up her daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), and ending up living in Alex’s house.
And while dating — or more accurately, searching for someone you actually want to be with instead of flee from — still plays a central part in the series, the core is very much not about meet-cutes but about relating to virtually anyone in the world because of being intensely screwed up by your parents, while also self-examining your life to realize that, yep, you might also have something to do with how poorly you’re dealing with the fallout.
Casual was very clever in its ability to morph into something less funny and cheeky than it was at the start and become something more introspective and heartbreaking along the way (though it never lost its connection to the humor). That transformation was surprising but incredibly rewarding and, at the center of the show, were three impressive performances from Dewey, Watkins and Barr, who fronted an ensemble littered with standout actors.
Creator, writer and executive producer Zander Lehmann rightfully kept the focus on the three central characters while introducing the nuances in each that made the series more than what might have initially been expected. As Valerie, Watkins ended up with one of the more difficult evolutions. When we first meet her, Valerie, a therapist, is dealing with a lot on her own plate — a marriage in tatters because her husband, Drew (Zak Orth), cheated on her; her daughter Laura exploring her teenage sexuality and independence in ways that challenged how a therapist might treat that behavior versus how a frazzled mother might; and a need to move on with her life, both in the dating world and trying to make adult friends, all while (mostly) inadvertently messing up in ways that crush both brother Alex and daughter Laura.
That alone could have been fodder for a full season, but Lehmann and director/executive producer Jason Reitman (who again directs the first two episodes this season) have a fully realized world here. As Alex, Dewey’s spot-on comic timing and zen-child approach to happiness and life gave Casual its effortless vibe just long enough to blind viewers to the sadder elements underneath, craftily put into play just before midseason, a revelation that exploded the possibilities of what this series could become. In short, Alex and Valerie’s parents, played by Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed as aging therapists from the free-love, no-rules, do-what-feels-good era, completely and utterly screwed up their children without really noticing or seeming too concerned about it today. They are a hippyesque narcissism nightmare still cluelessly causing problems.
But Casual was already hitting on a number of relatable themes before bringing in Alex and Valerie’s parents to hammer home why the two are so dysfunctional, and Barr as daughter Laura was — and remains in season two — a strong storytelling aspect for the series, at once grown up and assured but also 16 and lost, with Barr turning in a number of deeply effective episodes last season that cemented her versatility.
Valerie, Laura and Alex give Casual enough neurosis to frame numerous stories.
It’s also an important reminder that, while the show started funny and got serious, it never went dark. Part of that is having enough developed characters to paint varied shades into a scene. There’s the wonderful Nyasha Hatendi as Leon, Valerie’s former date turned Tommy’s unlikely best friend; Julie Berman as Valerie’s younger secretary, who constantly provides humor; numerous cameo roles (most notably Eliza Coupe last season) that constantly delight; and a willingness among the writers to get the most out of fine actors and strong characters like Orth’s Drew to keep up an expanded, intriguing world.
This season Casual is featuring Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Katie Aselton (The League) and Britt Lower (Man Seeking Woman) as guests.
If you’ve missed out on the first season — and in the current TV environment, there’s no judgment on not being able to keep up — now’s the time to jump in. If you were there from the start, know that Casual isn’t racing through story in this second season so much as it’s pushing outward in a show of confidence that it’s going to be around for a while and it’s time to better understand the dysfunction that’s at the heart of the main characters who are all trying to figure out how to navigate this life.