The more I think about “Casual,” the new Hulu series created by Zander Lehmann and executive produced and directed by Jason Reitman, the more the show feels like the clearest representation of a new horizon: The mushing-together of all filmic media. “Casual” features on-screen talent that feels television native. It’s produced by folk from the feature film world. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. And it lives on Hulu, a digital platform that for $11.99 a month is completely ad-free. It’s a crazy world of storytelling these days, and “Casual” may basically sit at the nexus of it.
Fundamentally, the show is extremely simple: A family dramedy about adult brother and sister Alex (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie (Michaela Watkins) who move in together after Valerie’s divorce leaves her eager to flee her home. Valerie brings her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), which means it’s a house filled with people who are very uncertain about how they feel about their current partners, their one-night-stands and sex in general.
The show’s defining hook (beyond the brother-sister relationship that — given how a very large percentage of the American population can relate to it — is surprisingly under-explored in television) is that Alex is the co-founder of a dating website. The fictional Snooger was set up to help the helpless find love… or at least a one night stand, perhaps even with Alex himself, who’s mastered the art of manipulating algorithms to keep his bed occupied at night. But while human relationships can’t be quantified in the long term, when you’re keeping things casual the real word becomes complicated.
“Casual” is set in Los Angeles, and can’t resist poking fun at trendy topics like SoulCycle or the paleo diet. It also digs deep into the topic of open relationships, which is increasingly well-tread ground — “Blunt Talk” and “Transparent” are just two recent examples. And also, every once in a while, the writing of “Casual” falls into an utterly predictable trap. Too many times, it’s easy to guess who’s walking in on or waking up next to who.
Fortunately, many of those moments are then maneuvered into a plot development that proves pretty intriguing. Oftentimes, that’s because that’s taking an expected outcome and twisting it into something profound and affecting, or taking an expected outcome and letting it play out further than expected. Which is something that keeps “Casual” away from just being a low-budget indie film stretched out into 10 episodes; the way the plot is developed and explored keeps it feeling authentic to a serialized format.
Valerie works as a therapist, which is just one entry point for the show to dig into the psychology of its characters in a very blunt way. The most divisive element of the show is probably the character of Alex, who knows that he’s an attractive white male but otherwise lacks any other sense of self-awareness. Dewey has great comedic timing, but more schmarm than charm. With a personal outlook just one notch on the douchebag scale below people who write pick-up artist books, Alex is at times hard to take. Of course, he gets knocked on his ass a fair amount because that is how good storytelling works. “Casual” never presents Alex as a hero figure, but it’s much more interesting to watch Valerie flail around the dating pool, even when she makes terrible choices herself.
Meanwhile, I can’t say if Laura is a perfect representation of modern millennials (wait, we’re calling them “becomers” now?), but Tara Lynne Barr brings a rich sense of an inner life to the character, something often lacking from the prototypical teen girl seen on screen lately. Laura has complaints and makes mistakes, but there’s depth and justification to them (beyond her just being a teen girl).
In general, there’s a solid cast on display here. Guest star Eliza Coupe (Jane from “Happy Endings”!) is a more than welcome late arrival, other suddenly appearing folk like Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed bring heft and pedigree you didn’t even realize was missing. And while I’m on the fence about Dewey, Watkins is just flat-out a revelation. Hilarious in the balls-out comedy work she’s done in recent years, here she brings that same energy to a role that, in the hands of a different actress, could have become a sad-sack pity party. Executing the giggle-cry — one of humanity’s weirdest and most difficult yet also most common combo emotions — is basically an impossible task. And yet, in the aftermath of an incredibly awkward and ridiculous romantic encounter, she nails it. All applause to her.
Hulu will be dolling out new episodes of “Casual” on a weekly basis, which might be the best way to engage with it. Over the course of the first season, Reitman and his fellow directors (which includes Fred Savage, one of TV’s most reliably consistent helmers) set a consistently mellow yet melancholy tone that isn’t necessarily easy to binge-watch. Yet it’s one people will end up discovering for some time to come, after its run ends, as an intriguing surprise.
“Casual,” in some ways, reminded me of the 2000 film “You Can Count on Me,” featuring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as siblings who are also in the midst of screwing up their lives. But we don’t see a lot of intimate character studies like “You Can Count on Me” in the independent film world anymore. Instead, they’re being made for television. Or whatever we’re going to call it, as the singularity approaches.
The first two episodes of “Casual” are available now on Hulu.