At every available occasion, Jason Reitman has demonstrated that he’s either unprepared or unwilling to accept the sea change moving 21st-century America into the brave new World Wide Web. In 2009’s “Up In The Air,” the Internet was here to take our jobs. Two years later, in the black comedy “Young Adult,” the Internet enabled queen-bitch Mavis Gary’s campaign of self-destructive obsession. And in last year’s “Men, Women & Children,” the Internet might as well have been the newly-crowned Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, dissolving marriages and corroding morals from atop its slowly-buffering steed.
So the broad-strokes concept of “Jason Reitman directs a TV show about the trials and tribulations of finding meaningful connection in the age of online dating” should have been fraught with the potential for disaster from the very start. Mercifully, however, Reitman’s not in the driver’s seat on Hulu’s latest original series “Casual,” at least not in terms of overall vision. Creator credit goes to Zander Lehmann, a man with a clear understanding of online dating’s equal potential for horrendous mismatches and fleeting comfort for the lonely but love-worthy. Sometimes digitally coordinated meetups go great, sometimes calamitously un-great —in other words, it’s just another part of life in the hectic, bizarre, confusing status quo of 2015.
Lehmann’s nests his surprisingly adroit take on the ups and downs of one-click dicking in a Duplass-ian tapestry of distinctly Californian family dysfunction, a hop and a skip from his own “Togetherness.” Beyond genetic markers, the three core members of the show’s central clan are united by their extremely comfortable attitude towards sex and equally extreme discomfort in their own skin.
“SNL” castoff and “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp” secret weapon Michaela Watkins thrives in the sort of role that most network programmers might like to pretend doesn’t exist. As Valerie, she’s a single mother making her first tentative efforts at dating following a not-so-amicable separation from her perfidious ex-husband. Watkins has no shortage of comedic chops, but “Casual” also affords her the chance to evince sincere vulnerability, frustration, weakness, and strength. In her perilous quest to relocate Valerie’s groove, Watkins shows that women who don’t look like they were just taken out of shrink-wrapped plastic can be sexy and desirable. Her sex drive does not nearly match that of her sixteen-year-old daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), who is introduced in the pilot bent over a hot tub. She does the sorts of things that requisite teenage characters in big-screwed-up-family dramas must, following in the footsteps of Claire Fisher from “Six Feet Under” by dabbling in substances and lusting after her hunky photography teacher.
Laura’s probably the thinnest character of the show’s main trio, but she’s not the most difficult to tolerate. That’d be Alex (Tommy Dewey), Valerie’s younger brother, cofounder of a popular dating site inexplicably named Snooger, and the owner of the lavish mansion in which they all comfortably live. Lehmann first presents him as a smartass who acts just as smug as he knows his good looks allow him to, but then, of course, he is desperate for affection deep down. Dewey comes tantalizingly close to selling this character during a pivotal monologue during a Thanksgiving dinner near the end of the season, but for the most part, he has trouble getting the audience in Alex’s headspace.
The family’s freewheeling approach to sexuality, at least a partial byproduct of the do-as-you-will mentality dominant in Los Angeles County, verges on the unnatural with unsettling frequency over the first season’s ten episodes. Up until somewhere around the midway point, it appears that Lehmann is building to a confession of love between siblings Valerie and Alex, but later episodes reveal what may initially look and feel like sexual tension to be a far more complex and hazardous form of symbiosis. Each fears that the other might be the only one who could possibly understand them; after all, they’re the only two people on Earth who endured being raised by their parents. So when something threatens that bond —whether it’s a budding romance or Valerie’s desire to move into a space of her own— the self-interested impulse to torpedo it can be awfully tempting.
“Casual” generally shares the strengths and weaknesses of the recent wave of mumblecore-influenced TV programming. That means that for an ostensible comedy, it is seldom funny, and when it is, it’s more of the sensible-chuckle “Girls” funny and less of the actual-laugh sort (Though a running gag in which Val receives dick-pics as a button to several scenes works like a charm). Before the audience can really get settled in the neuroses of Valerie and her brother, they can both be difficult to invest in. But the general quotient of entertainment is leavened by a rich cast of supporting characters played by superlative character actors. Fred Melamed reprises the aggravating-oaf role he perfected in “A Serious Man” and “In A World…” as Val and Alex’s father, while the always-wonderful Frances Conroy escapes the hellworld of Ryan Murphy and steps in as their mother. Special recognition also goes to a vanity-free performance from Eliza Coupe as a possible love interest for Alex, and to Nyasha Hatendi as Alex’s nebbishy friend. The population of Lehmann’s perhaps-too-clever world, where sixteen-year-olds toss off one-liners about Rothko, vitally help to ground the more self-indulgent elements.
But as the title suggests, the prime objective of “Casual” remains a cross-sectional portrait of the woolly wilds of adult dating. Admittedly, Lehmann takes some easy potshots at times (Valerie can’t figure out texting etiquette… because she’s old!), but mostly he’s trying to give the diverse buffet of sexual experiences available to the open-minded a fair hearing. The emotional fallout of a foursome, the twin possibilities of liberty or shame stemming from an anonymous boot-knock, and the wispy limits defining experimental bisexuality all receive their share of thought and consideration. The show enjoys sex, revels in it, and simultaneously recognizes its potential for ruinous consequences.
Watching “Casual” makes for an agreeably pleasurable experience, though Hulu has hobbled this highly binge-able show by trotting out one episode per week, as opposed to Netflix and Amazon Prime’s lump-sum rollouts. The show’s gradual exposure of Valerie’s many layers as she struggles to learn how to be happy again makes for a compelling central pillar for the program, and a decent portion of what lies around the periphery works just fine. Hanging out with the witticism-spewing Alex, Val, and Laura is fun enough to merit a second date, at the very least. [B]