Speaking directly to the potent emotional resonance “Casual” has built over four seasons — and, in particular, in its beautiful goodbye — this review was very nearly titled, “An Unfounded and Irrational Letter of Hate to Those Who Ended a Perfect Show.” Anyone who’s seen the final episode will understand: It’s a bittersweet conclusion for our core trio of characters, as well as the audience who’ve become invested in their all-too-relatable search for connection, intimacy, and happiness in a world that’s becoming more and more divisive.
It’s also over far too soon, both because we are greedy TV consumers who always want more of a good thing, and also because “Casual” is its best self in Season 4. What began as an examination of online dating’s oddities has blossomed into a fully-fledged appreciation of relationships in all forms. The final season of Zander Lehmann’s Hulu series illustrates everything viewers could want from a half-hour hybrid of comedy and drama. It’s ambitious without losing the ongoing narrative thread; after a time-jump to start the season, “Casual” toys around with advances in tech that are either inevitable or quite plausible.
Alex (Tommy Dewey) goes on a date in virtual reality, filled with pop-up ads shouted through eerily lifelike avatars and online shopping built into each romantic meeting spot. Valerie (Michaela Watkins) struggles with Ova, a nearly omniscient virtual assistant similar to Alexa or Siri that’s a little too involved for being far too impersonal. Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) all but ditches tech to embrace her adulthood, and therein lies the key connective tissue: No matter how shrewdly the episodes’ broader themes tackle topical issues, “Casual” remains a story about a family looking for love.
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In their shortest season, the writers really go for it, too. Episode 5, “The Last Super Bowl,” barely ties its story to the series’ roots in the internet, dating apps, and A.I. Instead, it’s about celebrating the NFL’s last game — take that as you will. An episode like this, based in speculative historical fiction, could’ve gone off the rails into a weird form of preachy fan fiction, but instead it honestly wrestles with moral issues raised by entertainment. Alex isn’t berating anyone for liking football. He’s torn between wanting to watch the game and knowing that doing so is its own form of support. Alex is being asked to examine himself through a wider lens, and “Casual” does this again and again until its surprisingly moving conclusion.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the review contains spoilers for “Casual” Season 4, including the ending. Please skip to the last paragraph if you want to remain unspoiled.]
For all that happens in Season 4, the plot can be wrapped up succinctly. Alex, having tried and failed to establish a real relationship with Rae (Maya Erskine), the mother of his child, accepts a larger responsibility than himself and moves to Austin, Texas, to stay close to his daughter, Carrie. Valerie, meanwhile, chooses to help herself after spending so many years trying to help other people; after raising her daughter and counseling countless patients through therapy, she opens a wine shop. Laura, as the youngest, repairs her relationship with her mom, her ex-girlfriend, and, most importantly, herself. She finds self-worth, and simply moves forward with her life.
There’s a scene in the final episode (“Finale”) where Laura and Valerie look at each other and ask how the other is doing. Both say “good” and both mean it; that’s as much as they need, and it’s the secret Valerie has been seeking all season; all series, really. She can be happy with herself — a simple statement some spend their whole lives struggling to realize. It’s a happy ending filled with closure for both women, but Alex’s isn’t so clean-cut. When he looks out at his empty house, Alex starts talking about staying in Los Angeles, but then he bursts into tears. He can’t stay, he knows it, and it hurts. “I don’t want to be somewhere you’re not,” he tells his sister. “I don’t want to start over.”
Be it Dewey’s honest, desperate performance delivered with heartbreaking acceptance, or Alex’s years-in-the-making breakthrough cracking through a snarky facade, seeing the brother and sister hold each other in the kitchen where they used to bond over breakfast is overwhelming. It’s hard to suppress the tears just remembering this scene and impossible while watching, but the takeaway is bigger than these two individuals. Alex, Valerie, and Laura remind us to appreciate what we have right in front of us; to literally reach out to our family and friends instead of virtually poke them to mimic the gesture.
“Casual” isn’t dismissive of technology or pessimistic about its future. There’s good to be found in mankind’s advances, so long as all the bells and whistles don’t distract from what really matters. Lehmann’s show found these truths on a regular basis, and mined many in a short timeframe this season. It’s about love, not hate, so while certain critics may feel the need to lash out in anger at a thing of beauty pulled from us too soon, these four seasons provide a lifetime of moments to treasure.
“Casual” Season 4 is streaming now on Hulu, along with the first three seasons, so get to it.