Hulu's 'Casual' season 1 in review
Before "Casual" debuted a couple of months ago, Hulu very smartly made the entire season available to critics, and I watched all 10 episodes of the Michaela Watkins-fronted dramedy within the space of a couple of days. This was a very good thing, because had only 2 or 3 been available, I might have noted the strong command of tone and Watkins' excellent, extremely natural performance in the lead role, but dismissed it overall because certain other aspects — particularly Alex (Tommy Dewey), the brother of Watkins' Val, seemed a collection of TV manchild tics — were bothering me. But with all 10 there, the short length of each episode, and the quality of Watkins' performance were enough to keep me going long enough for the series to better contextualize Alex and everyone else, and made me realize that not only was "Casual" terrific, but that it was ironically better-suited for binge viewing while debuting on the one major streaming service that releases its shows weekly.
So when I wrote my initial review of the series, I suggested that people might be better off waiting until the finale debuted in early December. Well, that happened yesterday, and now I have a few more specific and spoiler-filled thoughts on the season as a whole, coming up just as soon as I befriend the stripper you hired for me...
As I said, a lot of the early Alex stuff was hard to get through, and I was on the verge of flinging my TV off the desk when I got to the scene where he started inadvertently fat-shaming the bartender in episode 4. But the series was, of course, playing a long game with that character — with all three of the leads, in fact — and as we got to know Alex and Val's parents (played with such oily smugness by Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed), and hear more about their childhoods, everything clicked into place about how damaged they all were by the past, and how much it informs their present behavior. By the end, I actually found the Alex scenes — listening to his father tell the night bottles story as a joke, or trying to deal with Emmy (Eliza Coupe, wonderful as she is everywhere) having another boyfriend, or having another failed suicide attempt — to be among the season's most compelling material. Dewey was great.
Which isn't to slight Watkins, whose work is what kept me going long enough for the rest of the series to reveal its true form. That scene in the elevator after her disastrous visit to her young sex buddy's apartment, where about 17 different emotions — including both shame and amusement — wash over her face? That's some masterclass level acting, folks. And the show kept putting her into these surprising and bracingly real moments, like when she goes to confront the guy who kept sending her dick pics, and they wind up having an honest conversation about their lives before she storms out on him. There's also an interesting role reversal later in the season: at the start, Val seems like the responsible one and Alex the selfish narcissist, but he starts to understand and even anticipate the consequences of his actions, while she goes and has sex with her brother's girlfriend.
The Laura stuff was in some ways the darkest of the three intertwined character arcs — and thus the most difficult to watch at times — because she's at least as damaged as her mother and uncle, but much more vulnerable at her age.
When we see the trio of them heckling the funeral in the dream sequence that opened the series, it's played for laughs. When the season comes full circle with them being in that church for real for the wedding of mom and dad, it becomes clear how much of this is a defense mechanism. The three of them spend a lot of the season defending the healthiness of their living arrangement and the blurring of sibling and parental lines between them — in much the same way that Val and Alex's parents surely defended their swinging behavior back in the day — even as their actions over these 10 episodes show how precarious and at times ugly this situation is. As Emmy observes, "I mean, you do see how dysfunctional this is, right?"
This was ultimately more of a half-hour drama with occasional dry humor (everything with Leon was gold), but when the performances and writing are this strong and specific, that can work just fine.
What did everybody else think?