Casual, Season 1

I am in love with this show. Or, the first two-thirds of it, anyway.

Casual, found on that Hulu thing we all have, is worth watching despite its shortcomings, because the list of ’em is relatively just that — short. Let me get to the good stuff first, though. At the top of that list is Michaela Watkins, just the loveliest person to watch on screen. She has such a dead-on “fed-up” face, one that evokes sympathy that you’ve actually felt for a real person, because everyone she portrays feels real precisely because she is playing them. (I loved her on Trophy Wife, too. And the new Wet Hot episodes. And everything else I should have seen her in by now but haven’t.) Her Val has this probably too-close relationship with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), but it’s so enviable and honest to watch that you push aside anything that seems gross about it for the sake of enjoying it more. They operate on cynicism and oversharing, but not in a petty way. They’re not only casual about dating (as the title refers to) but also casual about life. They complain, but only when they really need to. They judge, but they recognize the futility of it. They take themselves zero percent seriously, and for that reason, they’re not bad people at all. They — and the whole show, really — also know when to be silent. The patter is quick, but natural, too. Dewey’s portrayal of Alex is wonderful, too, especially because he’s an outwardly functional depressed person. That doesn’t happen often on TV, and it should. It’s not only more fascinating and better television, but it’s important for the sake of erasing stigmas and building awareness of depression, even in fiction.

The rest of the slate is solid, too — Frances Conroy as their mother is genius casting, of course, especially considering the resemblance between her and Watkins. Fred Melamed steals every scene as their father with his basso profundo. Nyasha Hatendi as Leon is… frankly, just better seen than explained. Eliza Coupe as Emmy, Alex’s love interest, oozes the same casual as he and Val, which makes her blend in perfectly. And Tara Lynne Barr as Laura, Val’s daughter, reminds me of a less vain version of Haley on Modern Family. She makes dumb teenage mistakes, but she’s a hell of a lot wiser than she acts.

However, Laura is the jumping-off point for the one-third of the show that I didn’t love. See, all the while, we follow these folks in their complicated lives, and they return to each other with their issues and sort them out (or not), but they all consider each other safe havens, especially Val, Laura and Alex, because they live under one roof. They’re united against Val and Alex’s parents, at least for a time, and they have each other’s backs. But when a love triangle emerges between Val, Laura and Laura’s teacher, it shatters the show’s already-fledgling sweetness. Yes, it’s a disruptive plot point, but it’s a cliche, unnecessary and unbelievable one. Val is a therapist, for shit’s sake, and she may not have it together enough to know how to date, but she sure as sheep should know to stay away from her daughter’s teacher no matter what. The show exacerbates the situation by having Val sleep with Emmy, too. By the end of the season’s run, I ended up hating Val and loving Alex — the reverse of the start — and felt let down by its promise. The point of it is their special sibling equilibrium, and without it, Casual becomes just like every other half-hour sitcom — predictable.

I’m curious to see how the writers will dig themselves out of the first season’s hole, but I’m also confident that they’ll be able to do it, because the first chunk is so strong and unique and likable. Let’s hope they downplay the drama and get back to the title again.

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