When Zander Lehmann chose to write an episode of “Casual” envisioning the end the National Football League, it wasn’t a rash decision.
“I was terrified of the NFL in writing this,” Lehmann said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was basically shocked at every turn that they didn’t shut it down or say we couldn’t do this.”
The episode — pointedly titled “The Last Super Bowl” — follows the series’ de facto leads Alex (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie (Michaela Watkins) as the former hosts a spur-of-the-moment Super Bowl party in his expansive Los Angeles home. But Alex’s party isn’t celebrating the big game itself; it’s celebrating that it’s the last “big game” ever. In Lehmann’s imagined future, set approximately five years from today, “the NFL is on the one-yard-line of its demise” after the courts side with the players’ union and force the league to shut down. Though the players’ specific complaints are not referenced, they’re easily assumed given what’s going on now.
“I find watching football makes me really uncomfortable because I know it’s objectively really bad for these people’s lives. People are getting brain disease and it’s something we’re all aware of, [but the NFL] is as popular as ever, I guess,” Lehmann said. “Then there’s this social justice component where there’s deeply, deeply entrenched racism in the sport that we all also know is happening, and yet a large portion of this country thinks it’s a personal affront if you mention the fact that there are no black owners and virtually all the people getting hurt are black kids thrown onto the field.”
So with the support of his writers’ room, producers, and cast — along with constant supervision from the Lionsgate legal team — Lehmann went forward with using the last Super Bowl as a backdrop within his final season of “Casual.” For an unassuming show about family, relationships, and how the modern world affects both, a bold stance on the NFL is just one element of many that stand out in Season 4. Between an arc dedicated to virtual reality dating, a voice assistant called Ova echoing aspects of “2001,” and the forecasted doom of America’s most popular, problematic sport, the last set of eight episodes feels noticeably charged, as if the team was incentivized by the impending end to put everything they had on the table.
And that’s pretty much what happened.
“We basically got free reign from Hulu and Lionsgate — they said, ‘Do whatever you want,’ which is nice,” Lehmann said. “So we felt like, ‘OK. We’ve got one last eight-episode bunch. We want to give [the characters] a proper sendoff, but we also want to try something that’s a little new and a little different.'”
The final season of “Casual” hasn’t garnered comparable attention to 2018 endings like “The Americans,” “Scandal,” or “New Girl.” Yet it’s arguably one of the more ambitious finales of the year and certainly one of the best. Here’s how peak TV’s most criminally overlooked comedy ensured a lasting legacy with an unforgettable goodbye.
[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Casual” Season 4, including the show’s ending.]
A More Than “Casual” Relationship to Technology
Despite four years of strong reviews, early awards attention, and strong backing from a growing streaming platform, Hulu’s first half-hour series following its big rebranding — which was also ushered in by the drama series “The Path” and the limited series “11.22.63” — always felt like it was flying under the radar. Season 4’s time jump from present day to the near-future gives the new season added resonance, yet it doesn’t detract from the show’s ongoing story.
“I was really surprised — in a great way — that we were advancing three years,” Watkins told IndieWire. “The show has always been about technology as well, and I loved the way that was woven into it where [Valerie’s] a therapist, but she’s having these dreams — and this fight — with technology.”
Applying the internet, social media, and various apps to your personal life was a driving theme of “Casual” all along, and it took on more prominence in Season 4.
“The task of the writers’ room was basically, ‘What problems do you foresee in the next five years that are gonna come to us, and how can we make those fun and funny?'” Lehmann said. “What we ended up with was what you saw: It’s near-future, it’s kind of sci-fi, but it’s still the tone of the show — it’s not malevolent and evil and [saying] technology will ruin us. I think it’s what the show was at first: a meditation on a world where it’s getting harder and harder to connect.”
“I’m glad we didn’t make a show about ‘tech makes us distant from each other’ — because no shit,” Dewey said. “Something this show has always been great at, and this is no credit to me, is showing restraint. It has some funny little grace notes about where we might be going in five years, but it’s not ‘Black Mirror.’ It’s not telling you what to think about tech. It’s just kind of there and present.”
For Dewey’s character Alex, that meant exploring more and more realms of online dating. The man who created the popular dating site Snooger is still looking for love in Season 4, and that takes him into the world of VR.
“When someone pitched the idea of virtual reality, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely going to happen,'” Lehmann said. “We’re going to see that at some point, and it’s going to be funny, and it’s going to be fucked up. There are going to be bots and bad actors and people who are stealing your shit.”
In Episode 3, simply titled “Virtual Reality,” Alex thinks he’s made a connection with someone via virtual dates, but it turns out she’s a scam artist trying to steal his identity.
“The dating sites allowed Alex to find weird versions of love that he never would have, but then he also meets people at work and in everyday life like we all do, and there is no answer,” Lehmann said. “We never said there was an answer. We never said technology was a good or a bad thing.”
Yet “Casual” always provoked thought about technology’s greater purpose, and four years playing these characters got the actors thinking about how to use tech themselves.
“I think I remain kind of cynical about tech,” Dewey said, reflecting on four years of seeing that world through “Casual.” He’s “fine” with driverless cars, but hates the idea of household devices like Amazon Alexa or Google Home that’s recording all the time “when you’re in your house being an asshole — I just don’t like it.”
“Maybe I just started paying attention to tech a little bit more, and seeing what it was doing to us,” Dewey said. “I know there’s always been a nasty trolling culture where we can hide behind avatars and be nasty to one another, but it just seems like it’s gotten worse in the four years we’ve been making the show.”
“Personally, I think we’re all addicted,” Watkins said. “The feelings I have when I’m not next to my phone or I’m sitting idle is not a feeling of ‘All is well,’ it’s a feeling of jittery, ‘Oh no, what’s happening? What am I missing?’ Or it’s this longing that someone texted me, and I think that’s really awful.”
In part because of her experience on “Casual,” Watkins is trying to stay off her phone for the first 45 minutes she wakes up and the last 45 minutes she goes to sleep. She’s enlisted her husband and a close group of friends to help keep each other on track, but even this relatively minor break from the phone can be difficult.
“We’re all failing miserably. We’re all just completely, completely failing,” she said. “[The idea is to] wake up, ingest your coffee, read a book before you go to bed instead of tweets to Iran. It’s so much better for our health, and we can’t even do that.”
A “Meta” Ending That Ties Together the Pilot, the Finale, and More
“Casual’s” advancements in tech aren’t conveyed as cure-alls for Alex and Valerie’s romantic woes or additional impediments; they’re just another way to meet someone. The series studies the value of authentic connections, no matter how they’re forged, and Alex ultimately chooses his future based on what he learned: He moves to Austin, TX, away from his sister and niece, so he can stay close to his daughter — one physical connection is preserved, while another is severed.
“The heartbreaking line for me is when he says, ‘I don’t want to go somewhere you’re not,'” Dewey said, remembering the last scene Alex and Valerie have together. “That’s just… [Dewey lets out a painful ‘oof’]. I think I was surprised that they moved apart. Not that it was totally crazy, but like, ‘Wow, they made the choice to totally separate them.’ But I found it really fulfilling. It brings home the idea that these two siblings are so dependent but kind of growing up. I don’t think Alex is going to have it easy, but he’s got his daughter to help smooth the transition.”
“You look at this character who’s kind of a cad for a lot of the first three years, and you see someone who’s willing to sacrifice a lot of his own comfort and happiness for his kid, for the future of his child and his family,” Lehmann said. “I think it’s a hopeful, sort of bittersweet ending for him, in that I think he could go off and find happiness in another way outside of his sister and his city and his house and all those things that tied him to L.A., but it’s not like it’s all rosy and good because that’s not the show.”
As far as Valerie’s ending goes, Watkins appreciated the character’s simple transition toward happiness. She made a choice, and she learned to stick with it.
“I was really pleased with that part of the script when I got to it, because that’s something we rarely get to see in television: just growth for our characters,” Watkins said. “To keep seasons going, characters can be falsely stunted wherever they are to keep generating jokes and stories, but what I loved about that was that I felt it was growth. It’s so hard and so interesting to me that the difference between happiness, or at least tranquility, and imbalance or disruption is something so simple like perspective.”
But that last scene was still powerful for the actress.
“I felt like the series wrapped up in the most moving way,” Watkins said. “This brother and sister come to peace with themselves, where they’re going to break the bonds of codependence. And it’s hard, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s sad, and it was certainly sad when we did it — not a dry eye at the table read. I read the scripts before the table reads, and I was sobbing. When we shot it we were sobbing, and it was just a big blubbery mess. But it was so meta because the show was ending. On a personal, me-level, I knew I was saying goodbye to these guys.”
Greg Lewis / Hulu
Dewey said what’s on screen in the finale shows the actors “really processing some [real] stuff in real time” because that was the last scene they shot. Because Alex is moving, his house — which was their core set for four seasons — was stripped bare for the last day of shooting.
“I hated seeing that house [empty],” Dewey said. “I loved that house and hanging out in the house and shooting in the house. Seeing that empty and thinking Alex has to go on never living in that house again — everything else was bittersweet, but that one just hurt.”
“In shooting it, it was really emotional,” Lehmann said. “They both were crying for many of the scenes. It was hard to pick our favorite takes. […] It was really sweet and surreal. You could tell our crew really liked working with each other. It was the same crew, basically, for like four years. It was a send-off for the show beyond just the characters. It was sort of for all of us, too.”
The reasons for all the tears are natural, but not coincidental. Lehmann’s final season implemented innovative new ideas to elevate the series’ send-off and still managed to keep events grounded in the overall journey. Just look at how the final episode connects to the pilot.
“They’re really like parallel episodes to each another,” Lehmann said. “You have the funeral dream, then you have this double date, then you have them on this weird double date together, except in the finale it sort of ends more happily. In the pilot episode, they go on a double date that ends disastrously and talk about how their lives are wandering and they’re lost and they don’t know how to connect with people. Then, in this finale, they go on the date and it’s great and they connect with these two strangers and they have this crazy night together, but then they have to say goodbye. Basically, you could take the first episode and adjust how that went in the middle and it would adjust the entire arc of the show.”
Whether the predictions in Season 4 come true or not, “Casual” secured its legacy with an ending as prescient as it is personal. Under-appreciated in its time, Lehmann’s series managed to comment on a culture without losing its human tether; the finale is devastating and hopeful — an ideal contradiction for a show that shouldn’t be able to pull off as much as it does, as well as it does. It’s fitting then, that “Casual” formed a connection with its viewers as insightful and intimate as anything else on TV; it was anything but casual, and those bonds will never be overlooked.
“Casual” is streaming now on Hulu.