With this week’s release of its fourth and final season, “Casual” finished a magical run. One of Hulu’s first original series, the show managed its main characters’ personal turmoil with great care, avoiding some of the teen and midlife cliches that can befall so many other TV shows.
Aside from sharp writing and an influx of strong directorial voices, “Casual” also greatly benefited from having the best soundtrack in the business. It’s a catalogue of songs, bridging decades’ worth of sensibilities, that worked in concert with Mateo Messina’s gentle, understanding score to make a solid musical foundation for the show’s 44 episodes.
As music supervisor for all four seasons, Tricia Halloran helped bring together that wide-ranging collection of songs, from Dirty Projectors to Cyndi Lauper, Sinkane to Richard Hawley, Anderson .Paak to Lucius. As Halloran told IndieWire, her process benefited from a great amount of trust with show creator Zander Lehmann and executive producer Helen Estabrook.
“One thing that stands out to me about ‘Casual,’ besides how awesome everybody was to work with, is the producers really respected the editor’s cut and the editor’s music choices,” Halloran said. “I think in most TV shows the editor’s cut is like a rough draft and then the producers put their music in. We maybe clear what we can or what we can’t afford we take out. But in this, sometimes we’d be going through the editor’s cut and I would say, ‘Well, you know, do you want to look at other songs here?’ And they would look at me like, ‘The editor put it in. Why would we change that?’ They had a lot of respect for the editor’s music choices, which I thought was pretty cool and different.”
Val, Alex, and Laura’s Songs
The beating heart of “Casual” is the trio of family members at its center. Siblings Val (Michaela Watkins) and Alex (Tommy Dewey), along with Val’s daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), represent the three individual strings braided together to form the emotional rope holding everything together for four seasons. So it made sense that each character would have their own distinct musical taste.
“We definitely had a lot of those conversations, especially as the season evolved,” Halloran said. “After the first season, it was pretty set. Surprisingly to me, Val turned out to be very classic soul; the classy end of soul, like the Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. It wasn’t what I would have necessarily picked for her from the beginning, but really worked with her character and we stayed really true to that.
“Alex, he’s like a grownup that is still a boy. But he’s cool without really trying to be cool. We did a lot of indie rock for him, but real indie rock doesn’t really play that well in the background of the scene. So we did obscure soul 45s. There’s a few great catalogs of out there that you can get a reasonable background music prices, but it’s really authentic. There was just so much music issued in the ’60s and ’70s that didn’t become hits or ever get signed to publishers or major labels that you can really mine that. I thought it always sounded great in Alex’s [house] when we played that in the background.
“Laura was very contemporary and very indie, mostly. Hers was, in a way, the hardest because we really didn’t feel like the old classic music was right for her, like it was often for Alex and Valerie. So we had to find things that really played well with her that felt youthful. A lot of her selections ended up being my favorite placements, because that was where I could really be super contemporary and edgy.”
[Note: We spoke to Halloran about some of the memorable song placements over the course of each season. Some spoilers, including some for Season 4, follow.]
One of the places that the soundtrack of “Casual” cemented its value was in its end credits’ songs. This particular episode closes with Alex facing a combined professional/personal failure, while Val makes the leap back into the dating world.
“Especially on TV shows, you really don’t even hear the credits music sometimes, but they were determined to make their statement. Even if you only heard a few seconds of a song,” Halloran said. “Either you find them right away, they’re in the editor’s cut and then it’s like, ‘That’s it. It’s never going to change!’ or they’re super difficult because it is very important.”
“A lot of times I felt like in ‘Casual,’ we tried not to use music that was too emotional. We didn’t want to be too on the nose about like, ‘Here’s what you’re feeling right now.’ But we did sometimes need songs with a lot of emotion like that Bahamas song [“Lost in the Light”]. There was so much going on, so many different emotions to address in the end of that episode that is almost like, ‘How can a song do this?’ But then when you find the right one and it really does. Helen and Zander both love Bahamas. So I think she was like, ‘Let’s try this song there.’ And it totally works.”
The failing health of Charles (Fred Melamed) — Val and Alex’s father and Laura’s grandfather — was a fulcrum for the end of Season 2. As paramedics wheel Charles across his driveway from the back of an ambulance, Harry Nilsson’s “I’d Rather Be Dead” plays through to the end of the episode.
“That was in the script. To me, when they wrote it in, I was like, ‘That’s going to be too cheesy and dumb.’ But it was brilliant. Alex goes to [Charles’] house, but then he walks away without going in and then the ambulance pulls up and you’re like, ‘What just happened?'” Halloran said. “That’s what’s great about this show, too. You could do something goofy like that and it would totally work. Or you could do something very serious and sentimental and it would also work. As long as you didn’t overdo it in either direction.”
In the Season 2 finale, Charles makes the decision to end his life on his own terms. When he requests that his family not only be present for it, but help him in the process itself, it leads to a sequence that finds the three remaining members struggling with what’s about to come.
“Leon is driving Val to pick up her car. There was nothing scripted there and we don’t always have music in the cars on ‘Casual.’ But we wanted something there that was emotional. She was obviously going through so much right then,” Halloran said. “I think Helen actually said, ‘How about something like Nina Simone?’ I pitched a lot of things that were lower-budget but sounded like Nina Simone. And she goes, ‘No, I mean, why can’t we have Nina Simone?’ I’m like, ‘OK, Nina Simone, it is!’ So we listened to a few and chose that.”
The episode ends just after Charles’ final peaceful moments. As Val, Alex, and Laura are left trying to figure out what to do next, the season closes with Val and Laura moving into their own house.
“So then by the time we got to the end credits, I was like, ‘Well, we can’t use a big song here because we’ve just spent a fortune on Nina Simone.’ So that’s where we put Laura Marling’s ‘Once.’ I really wanted to get Laura Marling in something because I just think she is so amazing and I’ve loved her for a long time. So that was an episode where I really thought she could work here,” Halloran said. “It’s great to know artists like that, because what could stand up to Nina Simone? You can’t just put any low-budget band there. There’s a lot to live up to in that episode and she has all those qualities that could really go alongside and do it well.”
“It’s commonly not about what the music supervisor’s favorite things are. It’s great if you have taste in common with the executive producers and the editors, but it’s really always about what serves the picture. But I do think that on this show more than with most other shows I’ve worked on, there’s been an opportunity for me to get my creative voice in there,” Halloran said. “I have to say that probably my favorite placement is the X song, ‘The World’s a Mess’ that’s playing when Laura’s in the car just bolting town. She’s just, ‘I’m outta here.’
“This is what’s fun about being a music supervisor and also hard. I had to play the whole emotion of the episode, but something that driver would play. She was a goth and she only drove at night, and she was even weirder in the script than she came out being when they shot it. So I just spent a lot of time trying to figure out what can I play that is really outsider but still people watching can relate to and is really gonna sum up Laura’s emotions. And I feel like X just really was right in the zone on that. They’re probably one of my favorite bands of all time and one of the first outside-the-mainstream bands that I really latched onto. So it felt very satisfying to get that in there.”
As Season 3 neared its close, the series jumped back in time for a Jason Reitman-directed flashback episode set in 1999, during Val’s pregnancy. (Since first working on “Casual,” Halloran has also served as music supervisor on a number of Reitman’s feature films.) Set over a decade and a half in the past, Watkins and Dewey still play the younger versions of their respective characters.
“What I remember about that episode is that we were very excited,” Halloran said. “Musically, the editor and I, we really wanted to put songs in there before [Jason] heard it, that we thought he would love. We were convinced that we knew Jason’s taste and put in all these uber-cool songs from the ’90s. And then he took most of them out and put in these big, slightly cheesy pop hits. It’s a great example of how you can’t really just peg Jason. He watches the picture and then he knows what he wants, but it’s not necessarily what you would expect.
“But the Folk Implosion [“Free to Go”] stayed in, which was one of my favorite bands from that era. It was a really fun example of going back to a specific time and really using music to help set the tone. And we did work a lot on that one to do that.”
The title of this episode takes its name from Big Country’s 1983 hit “In a Big Country,” which also plays a prominent role in the story. As Alex preps for what he hope will be a hallucinogen-aided quest for enlightenment in the wilderness, the group at the campfire next to him play the song on a continuous loop.
“I’m proud of that one because another song was scripted. The artist wouldn’t license their original master. They wanted to license a newly re-recorded master, which is somewhat common. It’s for a variety of reasons and it’s totally their choice, but we didn’t like the re-record that much,” Halloran said.
“It was definitely a song that was so heavily featured, it’s like, ‘Oh shit, the pressure’s on!’ It had to be something that was fun and a song that people loved. But then if you hear it too many times it’s like, ‘Well, do we still love it?’ Poor Alex is just tortured by it. So it was a little tricky, but that song slotted right in there. Zander’s more involved with the writing, so he was super into the original song. But he ended up being so happy with ‘In a Big Country’ that I felt very proud. That was a true music supervisor save that because it was such a bummer when we couldn’t get the original.”
“[The writers] kind of set a standard. It’s not a big use, but it’s when Laura’s just had a one night stand and she’s leaving and they wrote in this band Kodiak. And it’s like, ‘Who’s ever heard of that band?’ Nobody’s written in Kodiak on any show I’ve ever worked on. They would commonly write in pretty obscure stuff like that, which is great,” Halloran said.
Later in the episode, as Val steals her boyfriend’s car back from a scammy mechanic, the scene is tracked to “Juvenile Thrills” from Norwegian garage rock band The Launderettes.
“They had another song written into the script, but it didn’t work when they tried it with picture. So then I worked on it. I sent a bunch of songs, but that Launderettes song was literally the first song that I thought of and then the editor ended up picking it,” Halloran said. “They weren’t in love with it, but everything else they heard was totally wrong. And then eventually by the time we got to the final cut, it was like, ‘OK, well I guess we love it because we’ve listened to 50 other songs and nothing works. So it’s a go!’
“I loved that use. I thought that whole thing that Val was doing was totally out of character for Val. So to me, to play traditional Val music would be weird. So, you know, that’s why I picked music that was not totally her, but very feminine, very grungy and garage-y, like she’s really getting out of her comfort zone.”
Two of the most pivotal moments in the finale center around a pair of songs: Queen’s “Radio Gaga” underscores a celebration montage that culminates in a karaoke performance, and a lesser-known song from a beloved artist plays over the show’s farewell scene.
“Those were in the script and they were just perfect. I wasn’t sure how the Queen song would play, but then once they shot it, it was like, ‘This is brilliant.’ It just is such a great wrap-up for them. And for those two going on the town and doing that, it worked really well,” Halloran said. “The writers definitely had a lot of musical opinions and they wrote a lot of stuff that worked very well. They definitely listen to a lot of music outside the mainstream, which I think also as part of what made the show so well informed musically.
“I just keep coming back to how great it was to work with amazing people. Like there were no throwing tantrums. There was no yelling. It just was such a pleasant experience and Helen and Zander are so, so good at what they do in a way that’s supportive, working with you instead of making things more difficult. There was just something unique about this one. I don’t know if I can really put it into words.”
All four seasons of “Casual” are now available to stream on Hulu.