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If you’re the type of person to crack jokes at a wake, this is the show for you.
Casual, one of television’s most criminally underrated shows, is as assured and confident as ever in its stellar third season. The Hulu dramedy follows neurotic siblings Alex (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie (Michaela Watkins) as they navigate love and commitment in Southern California. Although the title is an overt reference to online dating, its recent episodes focus on family after the tragic (or tragic-ish) death of their narcissistic father. In the second season finale, Charles (Fred Melamed) asks his children to help him die. At his funeral, their mother drops a bomb: Dawn (Frances Conroy) was pregnant with Valerie when she and Charles met.
It’s only fitting that Casual, which opened with its characters talking over someone’s funeral procession, begins its newest installment with an outburst of laughter at this casual revelation. The truth might be painful, a secret that will cause years of damage to their family, but Valerie’s teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), finds it very, very funny.
If you’re the type of person to crack jokes at a wake, this is the show for you. Produced by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), the characters in Casual use humor to deal with the pain in their lives—and often to avoid living them. Laura, who seems about 10 years older than she is, employs her too-adult smarts to avoid doing much of anything. After duping her parents into paying for her tattoo removal, Laura is forced to get a summer job when they wise up to the con. Instead of flipping burgers, she signs up to be a lab rat for clinical test trials. Alex, a failed app developer, sabotages his own therapy sessions by flirting with his psychiatrist. Valerie wants a new table so she can figure out her life, although it’s unclear why she needs furniture for that.
These people are vain, self-absorbed, and kind of horrible. Alex rents his house on Airbnb while he tries to figure out the next big thing, but he can’t stop asking his befuddled German housemate existential questions about whether humans are prone to cooperation or conflict—and then talks over his guest when he tries to respond. It’s clear Alex just likes to listen to himself.
When a booty call asks Alex how many women he telephoned before asking her to come over, he says four. “But you’re the only one I wanted to hear from,” he adds.
What makes Casual great is that it knows its characters well—how they behave and see the world—and the audience feels as if we come to know them, too. The viewer relates to Alex, Valerie, and Laura not in spite of their flaws and idiosyncrasies but precisely because of them. The characters in your average sitcom rarely have a point of view on the world outside their bubble; life happens to them. Here we have the rare treat of spending time with people who are so full of opinions that they are constantly on the verge of alienating everyone around them. One day it’s highly possible that all of their friends may develop the good sense to lose their phone numbers.
The first three episodes of Casual are so chock-full of killer moments that it’s tempting to make a review just a list of memorable one-liners. When Valerie wearily wishes her assistant a good weekend, exhausted after another thankless day of listening to people’s problems, her employee informs her it’s only Monday. “Oh God,” Valerie moans. “See you tomorrow.”
These nuggets are a testament to the stellar writing, which has never been more finely attuned to Casual’s acerbic strengths. When critics comment that a show reminds them of other shows, it’s usually a bad thing—as if to say that the concept is unoriginal and the jokes derivative. But Casual recalls streaming TV’s other great intergenerational dramedy Transparent in the best way. Creator Zander Lehmann’s show is a less jagged pill than Transparent, which is about another clan of Los Angelenos whose definition of a group hug is a passive-aggressive insult. Casual hides a surprising warmth underneath its thorny veneer, but it is no less insightful. A scene of Valerie and Alex scattering their father’s ashes over a cliff as they struggle with how to talk about him nails the complications of mourning a difficult parent.
But what makes the show work so well is the chemistry between its cast members. As a performer, one of the most difficult things to act is familiarity—to broadcast the idea that you are surrounded by people you have known your whole life, not strangers you met at a table read. Watkins and Dewey don’t look much like family (the half-sister reveal clears up a few things), but they have that indescribable thing siblings have, where a simple glance can underscore years of tangled history.
Watkins remains the standout, and the Emmys should be tried on war crimes if her beautifully understated work continues to go unrecognized. You may remember Watkins as the condescending corporate executive from Enlightened, but Valerie is closest in spirit to her character from In a World, the acclaimed indie comedy where Watkins played the world-weary sister to an aspiring voiceover narrator (Lake Bell). What makes Watkins’ performance in Casual unique is that she never plays Valerie as jaded; she’s merely adapted to a lifetime of disappointments, a failed marriage and a daughter who is a walking reminder of all her worst mistakes. Valerie is so used to being crushed that she seems to walk with a self-inflicted hunch.
Casual, though, finds wisdom and even poignancy in its characters’ bitterest regrets. Before they scatter their father’s ashes, Alex asks Valerie what it’s like to be a mother. “It’s like watching yourself go through life a second time, except this time you’re just a voice and no one is ever listening to you,” she explains. Valerie jokes that her parenting book must have gotten lost in the mail. These were the days before Amazon Prime, after all.
The truest comedy comes not from avoiding our problems but delving deeply into them, using humor to more fully see ourselves. In between laughs that earn their pain, Casual allows us to both reflect and be reflected.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.