Today’s television landscape is littered with prestige dramas, niche comedies, upstart networks, and even companies like Netflix getting in on the original-programming game. So it would certainly be understandable if you missed out on Casual, which just wrapped up its third season on Hulu. Hell, it would be understandable if you’d never even heard of Casual. After all, the show isn’t exactly chock-full of name-brand stars or suspenseful twists.
Of Casual’s three main “stars,” the only one with any recognition is most likely Michaela Watkins as Valerie, who spent a cup of coffee on Saturday Night Live around a decade ago. The other two focal points of the show are Tommy Dewey as Valerie’s brother Alex and Tara Lynne Barr as Laura, Valerie’s teenage daughter. In fact, the only reason I took a chance on the show upon its debut in late 2015 was because its executive producer, Jason Reitman, has either directed or produced such films as Up In the Air, Whiplash, Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Jeff, Who Lives at Home.
In short, Casual may not be prestige-era fare like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, but damn if it doesn't have a little prestige behind the scenes. Reitman's involvement was enough to get me to tune in, and the talent both onscreen and in the writers’ room has been more than enough to keep me coming back for 36 episodes over the past two years.
The story of Casual is fairly straightforward. The show opens with Watkins’ Valerie having just gone through a divorce, living with bachelor brother/tech bro Alex in California and playing single mom to Laura. Valerie’s ex-husband has already moved on with a much younger woman, which certainly doesn’t improve her mood. In a somewhat comedic twist – yes, Casual is technically a comedy, but it can go dark in a hurry – Valerie’s chosen profession? Therapist.
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Valerie and Alex, particularly the latter, have a relationship that steps well over the line of codependency. Over the course of the first three seasons – thanks to a little backstory, including the introduction of their absentee hippie parents – this relationship makes a bit more sense. Laura, meanwhile, isn’t a typical teenager who spends weekends shopping with friends. Rather, she is wise beyond her years, in part because her parents’ approach to parenting can safely be described as “hands off.”
Watkins is her usual talented self, as she’s previously shown in shows like Trophy Wife and Enlightened, and Barr – whose filmography to this point mostly consists of various bit TV parts — is more than capable of holding her own alongside her more seasoned TV mother. But it’s Dewey who has been an absolute revelation as Alex, who found fortune by starting an online dating app and a man who masks his demons with charm and sarcasm.
What makes Casual stand apart from shows of its ilk is the way it ably blends comedy and heartbreak. This is, after all, a show that featured an episode in which Valerie and Alex help their father commit suicide, and plays it - to an extent, at least - for laughs. Other times, particularly when it comes to their codependent relationship and Valerie and Alex’s inability to romantically invest in, well, pretty much anyone, the show is downright tear-inducing.
The fate of Casual is still to be determined, though one can hope Valerie, Alex and Laura return for 13 more episodes of dysfunctional family drama. But even if the show does return for a fourth season, there will be a considerable amount of lag time between now and its premiere. If anything, now marks a perfect time to catch up on one of the best original programs going today — you know, now that you’ve actually heard of it.