[This is a review of Casual season 2 premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last year, Hulu premiered Casual, an original half-hour dramedy boasting the involvement of Canada's favorite son Jason Reitman, who was on board to direct the first two episodes of the series and returns to do the same with season 2. As the title implies, it revolves around the world of relationships, one that, thanks to the advent of internet dating sites, has been made easier but also more complex – especially when it comes to asking the question what types of relationships do most people want? Casual carries echoes of Reitman's 2014 Adam Sandler drama Men, Women & Children, but forgoes the techno-angst of that misfire to explore some more and less conventional avenues of modern relationships through the eyes of its three primary characters, each bearing the scars of past love from some point in their lives.
The series hails from creator Zander Lehmann – who writes the vast majority of each season's episodes – and is, at its heart, a light, charming, sometimes insightful story about emotionally damaged middle-aged siblings Valerie (Michaela Watkins) and Alex (Tommy Dewey), who find themselves living with one another and Valerie's 16-year-old daughter Laura, following Valerie's sudden divorce from her philandering husband Drew (Zak Orth). The first season was a charming, low-key effort from the streaming service that made good use of Hulu's weekly release platform, building interest in the lives of its characters through half-hour installments that, for the most part, played like an actual television episode. In other words: each episode had a distinct beginning, middle, and end, making them fulfilling enough to tune in again the following week.
This method paid off, as Casual improved as the season went on – earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process – moving from an often-funny drama about upper-class white Californian ennui to something that revealed itself to have stronger connective tissue than just bearing a slight resemblance to shows like FXX's You're the Worst, HBO's now-canceled Togetherness, Netflix's Flaked and Love, and Amazon's phenomenal Transparent. But unlike Transparent, the characters in Casual are usually not difficult to like. While that works well for Jill Soloway's characters – and speaks to the more socially relevant core of that series – Lehmann demonstrates an ability to make the mild, sometimes surface-level plight of Valerie, Alex, and Laura seem entertaining and significant within the confines of the narrative. For example, season 1 contained a thread about Alex using the website dating algorithm he created to try and make a meaningful, long-lasting connection with a woman. The twist came when it was revealed he exploited his own code to get the most hits with one profile and kept a second one that was far more representative of the person he actually is. As you may have guessed, Alex's bed was rarely empty but that didn't quell his desire for something more akin to a steady, monogamous relationship.
That is the basic premise to many a romantic comedy, but where Casual stands out is in how it questions the importance of such a relationship in today's society. As the season progressed, the show seemed to ponder just how realistic long-term, committed relationships are as a romantic standard. The show doesn't purport to have an answer, but by taking the audience through Alex, Valerie, and even Laura's romantic lives, both past and present, the question looms over various scenarios and becomes the unlikely foundation that makes the admittedly small-scale, low-concept series occasionally more than an enjoyable hangout watch. The season 2 premiere 'Phase 3' picks up right where season 1 left off – with Alex recovering from a break-up with Eliza Coupe's (Happy Endings) polyamorous Emmy, Valerie attempting to establish a post-marriage identity, and Laura looking to hit the reset button after a high school sex scandal – making for an easy reintegration into the storyline for non-casual Casual viewers, while the benefit of Hulu offering the complete first season may now be even more attractive to those who maybe didn't get around to the show the first time.
While it is surprising the amount of serialization going on within the series, the story never wants for something to do, even in the dreaded middle-patch that befalls most streaming series. There isn't much in terms of an overarching plot, which takes a considerable amount of pressure off the series to do more than simply be in and experience the emotion of the moment. Things as simple worrying about how to make friends with new people after getting to a certain age in life make for tender moments shrouded in loneliness that feel relatable and honest, especially where the terrific Michaela Watkins is concerned.
For part of season 1, Casual seemed to flirt with the idea that Alex and his idle rich lifestyle might be the driving force of the series. But Watkins' Valerie proved to be such a compelling presence that season 2 continues to push her into exploring the nature of relationships and what she wants from them, while Alex is given over more to a fear that what he's built – and subsequently ignored – might be taken away from him. To begin with an episode titled 'Phase 3' is fitting, as season 2 makes a concerted effort to push its characters into a distinct and new phase of their lives, demonstrating how the things we think we want are the last thing we need, and often come at the expense of meaningful connections with the people around us.
As it did in its first season Casual makes great use of its fantastic leading cast, but also finds room for supporting characters like Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed (as Alex and Valerie's… uh, free-spirited and experimental parents), Nyasha Hatendi as Alex's unlikely and often put-upon friend Leon, and the aforementioned Coupe, whose character served to humanize and give a face to one of the show's core ideas. This time around, the series welcomes former Pete Campbell Vincent Kartheiser, The League's Katie Aselton, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's Dylan Gelula, as well as Man Seeking Woman's Britt Lower and Britt Robertson from Tomorrowland.
The additions to the season all service specific needs of each character's individual arcs. This, in turn, gives Alex, Valerie, and Laura a stronger sense of character, as they investigate the meaningfulness of their various desires and how they can go about achieving them. Where Casual excels is in making the steps toward personal growth feel as real and meaningful as the setbacks, even though they unfold within the heightened world of a television dramedy. Like most of Hulu's early original offerings (The Path, 11.22.63), Casual exhibits a lot of promise that it can one day make the streaming service known more for its in-house programs than the various other TV series and movies available to its subscribers. It's not quite there yet, but that doesn't stop Casual from being an entertaining viewing experience.
Casual continues next Tuesday with 'Trivial Pursuit' on Hulu.