“Casual” didn’t elevate to the level of truly great television by chance.
Under creator Zander Lehmann and his talented group of writers (including Liz Tigelaar, whose talents were recently recognized by Showtime), “Casual” has benefitted from the elevated communication and connection between the show’s characters. In IndieWire’s review of Season 2’s first half, we noted how the dialogue between those characters was enhanced by how comfortable we were with them.
And because we were getting to know more about Alex (Tommy Dewey), Valerie (Michaela Watkins) and Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), so, too, were they getting to know each other better.
In reality, that meant Lehmann and team had time to sit with their subjects, insightfully recognizing their strengths. The trio grew magnificently over the back half of Season 2 into the beautiful, unique individuals we TV devotees always want to see and so rarely get to glimpse.
Just as importantly, their conversations became equally unique, culminating with a Season 2 finale that marked the best episode of “Casual” to date and elevated the Hulu series above the highly-competitive pack of good TV, into something truly remarkable.
Opening the morning after Valerie’s disastrous 40th birthday party on the sleeping face of her (and Alex’s) father, Charles (Fred Melamed), the siblings quickly learn their distanced and despised (respectively) dad is, in fact, dying. And he wants to end his life that night, as not to be a burden to his family. Carefully teased throughout the season, this twist comes as a satisfying shock with immediate consequences, none of which more fascinating than how Charles’ death impacts his granddaughter.
No, Laura is not particularly close with her estranged pop pop, but, as she tells him early in the finale, she was “prepared for a death. I just didn’t think it’d be yours.” Her “boyfriend”/”this guy,” Spencer (Rhenzy Feliz, who’s given one helluva performance), was diagnosed as terminal, and the non-couple couple have been preparing for the end since their beginning. But when an experimental treatment actually worked and Spencer’s diagnosis was reversed, that left the commitment-phobic Laura staring point blank at a very serious relationship that only became that way by surprise.
As unappealing as it sounds, Laura didn’t sign up for this. While the more commonly examined decision is the opposite situation — a partner splits when their person is dying because they just can’t deal with it — Laura is actually scared when her once dying partner is given the chance to live a long life… presumably, with her. “We can do anything,” Spencer told her, in Episode 12, after learning he was going to be OK. But as he stares up at the ceiling, dreaming of the full life before him, Laura silently gazes sideways, worried about the future she didn’t have to think about before.
For a character who started off as the opposite of a teenage stereotype — uninterested in serious relationships, let alone enamored with a “one true love” — this storyline specifically challenged her beliefs in a previously unthinkable way. She wants to be into Spencer, but she’s not. She wants to love him like she did when she thought he was dying, but she doesn’t. She lost “that feeling” and can’t get it back. Whereas before Laura saw no problem with her “realistic” perspective on love, now she can see how her accepted attitude can damage the relationships she wants to hold onto.
Just as importantly, she’s too smart not to notice. She seeks out advice from her mother, and both come to a fresh realization on relationships. Valerie recognizes the inherent flaws in her relationship with Drew (Zak Orth) and decides not to try again, while Laura seems ready to see what comes after the honeymoon phase; to see if it can get better, even when so many relationships never do.
Meanwhile, if anything can be considered a B-story in this straight-A-episode, Alex learns to confront his father before he dies, and, in doing so, agrees to let his dad end his life among the family. How strongly the story fits into the season’s themes of death, parental influence, and platonic love over romantic love speaks to the high-bar “Casual” has set for itself moving forward, as does the acting throughout the finale. Barr remains one of the few actresses who can channel teenage life (she’s 23) without overdoing the drama or understating Laura’s innocence. The delightfully snarky Dewey got a chance to flex his dramatic muscles in the finale — which prove quite strong — and the subtly magnetic Watkins continues to wow as Valerie rediscovers herself.
Heading into Season 3, the cast and conversation have come together to make “Casual” must-see TV. These characters have only begun to grow, but they’ve grown enough where we all should be hearing what they have to say.