Casual, Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2, “Pilot” and “Friends”
Written by Zander Lehmann
Directed by Jason Reitman
Released on Wednesdays by Hulu
Michaela Watkins has long been stealing scenes on television. She was the best wife on Trophy Wife, no small feat when your competition is Malin Akerman and Marcia Gay Harden. She managed to stand out among a powerhouse ensemble on Wet Hot American Summer and stole scenes from actors like Jeffrey Tambor and Bradley Whitford in the best episode of Transparent season one. Even her brief stint on Saturday Night Live resulted in one of my favorite obscure Weekend Update characters, Angie Tempura (better known as the “bitch please” blogger).
In the new Hulu sitcom Casual, created by Zander Lehmann and executive produced by Jason Reitman, Watkins is finally given a stage of her own to shine as recently divorced and single mother Valerie. Valerie moves into her tech bro brother Alex’s house with her teenager daughter Laura as she attempts to get back on her feet. Watkins is more than capable in the spotlight of a lead role. Her comedic timing is, as always, impeccable, but she finally gets to show off her dramatic chops too. She turns in a physical, lived-in performance that manages to communicate sadness and neuroses without turning Valerie into a twitchy, crying mess. Valerie is shy without being precocious; her confidence damaged without being completely broken. Watkins is at her best in a brief scene with Valerie, her ex-husband, and their divorce attorneys. She manages to imbue the scene with enough melancholy to make it believable that this a woman whose husband left her for a younger woman, while still finding the bitter humor in all of it.
The two other lead actors are good in their roles, if not as great as Watkins. Tommy Dewey, best known for his performance as a douche of a romantic interest on The Mindy Project, plays Alex, Valerie’s brother who also wrote the algorithm for the very dating apps Valerie is using (a moral quandary that the show does not avoid). Dewey plays him with enough of a restrained swagger that he isn’t completely insufferable, but hopefully the show lets him develop into more of a real human being than an Entourage castoff with a heart of gold. Tara Lynn Barr impresses as Laura, with a Christina Ricci-esque presence and just enough vulnerability to prevent the character from veering off into being a wise-beyond-her-years teenager. The three main actors all work well together, especially Dewey and Barr, although the first two episodes could have used more time exploring the hands-off mother-daughter relationship.
Reitman, a two-time Best Director nominee at the Oscars, directed the first two episodes, and unsurprisingly, Reitman has given the show a visual language that separates it from many other sitcoms. Many of his framing choices are reminiscent of his work on Young Adult, and although the tone of this series is less caustic than that film, his commitment to using smaller moments to develop the character of his female lead is very welcome here. The teleplay from series creator Lehmann is briskly paced and the dialogue is quippy and hilarious.
The show avoids clichés that lesser series about online dating would fall into. There is no “Valerie gets her groove back” montage; the show lets whatever awkwardness of reentering the world of being single live on its own without adding wacky or absurd hijinks. Even when Valerie goes home with a much younger man, the show retains its emotional honesty rather than playing it broad for laughs. In the second episode, Alex attempts to buy cocaine for his straight-laced friend Leon. Instead of having a wild night out where Leon lets loose, Alex is arrested by an undercover cop, a nice spin on how that subplot would turn out on a sitcom versus reality. The show also avoids making too many jokes at the expense of millennials, which is a huge relief. Its observations about the younger generation are specific and cutting and character-based, rather than the broad, “smartphones, am I right?” perspective that many other shows fall into.
Hulu released the first two episodes of the season on Wednesday, October 7th and the streaming service will release the remaining eight episodes every Wednesday morning, rather than dumping them on the web all at once. Along with Difficult People and The Mindy Project, Hulu has proven to have a strong eye for comedy programming, perhaps even stronger than its competitors. It’s doubtful that Casual will break out in the way that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or Transparent did, but with network comedy almost completely devoid of any show worth watching, it’s certainly a welcome show. It feels invested in exploring online dating and the generation gap in a much more honest way than most comedies even attempt. That perspective coupled with its masterful lead performance from Watkins makes Casual worthy of a serious commitment from any television fan.