Tony Black on why you should be watching Casual…
Be honest, you’ve done online dating, haven’t you? I bet you have. I certainly have, infact I was lucky enough to meet the woman I’ve been with for over a year and will likely spend the rest of my life with via online dating. I bet most of you have tried it, or at least considered trying it, but how many of you were truly honest in your profile? How many of you are looking for friends with benefits or no strings attached? Or how many of you, secretly, are after that special someone to watch Netflix with and chill? That, simply, is the premise behind Casual, from writer Zander Lehmann, now midway through its second season on Hulu and already picked up for a third.
Inheriting from the late, lamented Californication, the mantle of dysfunctional, nihilistic comedy with more than a dose of modern sexuality, Casual revolves around siblings Alex (Tommy Dewey) & Valerie (Michaela Watkins), who find themselves cohabiting after the latter’s bitter divorce from her husband of over fifteen years, and seek to find solace through Alex’s online dating app, Snooger.com, which he created and uses for his own sexual thrills. That’s the set up for a quite brilliantly observed ‘dramedy’ about family, relationships and modern-day online sexual mores.
Lehmann’s piece benefits from not just razor sharp writing, which always has one foot to the comfortable left of sentimentality, but also pitch perfect casting of a group of complex main players. Alex & Valerie are very different, and ultimately end up not just learning to a degree from each other across the first season, but changing and modifying their behaviour. When we begin, Alex should be a lot more unlikeable than he actually is; emotionally shut down, narcissistic to a degree, caring nothing for the women he meets on Snooger through a fake dating profile he has worked out is a perfect algorithm for hook ups, living inside a stunning home off the riches from creating a successful dating platform, and yet… he’s funny, honest and acerbic with the same kind of charm his spiritual brother Hank Moody had in Californication, and Dewey plays the role with such recalcitrant humour you find yourselves enjoying Alex’s put downs or blunt truths or moments that otherwise would make him unsavoury.
There’s also no doubt he loves his sister & her daughter, and his interactions with Valerie across the first season stretch from the emotionally frustrated to the emotional crutch all the way to emotionally heartbroken, and if Alex begins to steadily undergo the most satisfying journey, it’s Valerie who is the most complex and fascinating character. Watkins is superb in a difficult role; Valerie is, despite being a qualified therapist, quite an emotionally shattered woman, having left a loveless marriage of many years and while still attractive & on the right side of 40, she has no idea how to function in a dating world that she has no real conception of, the dating world men like Alex have created.
Valerie is a mess, hence her strained & slightly off-kilter relationship with teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), a girl who you almost feel has grown up way too fast. The first season explores her burgeoning sexuality through the prism of a growing obsession with her photography teacher, and while she is on the face of it quite surly & shrill, unemotional, she too is the product of a deeply dysfunctional family unit with roots that go back to the older generation before them. They’re just three hugely interesting, brilliantly written and often perfectly observed central characters.
This all does make Casual sound a lot darker and less comical than it actually is, which is selling it a little short. Lehmann & his writing staff frequently pepper the scripts with enough laugh out loud moments that, despite being as much as drama as an outright comedy, would put many straight out sitcoms to shame. Episodes often feature enjoyable sub-plot elements, usually framed around Alex, such as his ill-fated attempts to bond with a dog, or befriending the mild-mannered, good natured British guy Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), after Valerie picks him up for an awkward one night stand, which invariably sees Leon being dragged to strip clubs or into foursomes, usually making him uncomfortable if it’s never quite against his will. Theirs turns out to be one of the most enjoyable elements of Casual, actually, their chalk & cheese byplay, and it allows for plenty of comic scenes without the show ever falling prey to more obvious attempts at humour, or slapstick.
Lehmann’s piece is a black comic character drama at heart, with a certain inherent nihilistic perspective while retaining a level of warmth which engenders these complex and not always likeable characters to us. Through them, Lehmann & his writers also have the facility to explore a range of topics concerning modern sexuality and how men & women engage with each other on the casual dating scene (hence the show’s name). Alex & Valerie meet people who are polyamorous, loose with their sexual politics, and very much get caught up in the emotional minefield that is casual sex, and casual approaches to relationships. Alex begins the series comfortable in that emotionally closed off bubble, exploiting his own creation, while Valerie is traumatised by a marriage which didn’t work & her dynamic with a confused, yet on the face of it self-assured daughter who sees her more as a best friend than a mother. How they end season one, well… you deserve to get their yourselves, but in the vein of all strong drama their characters evolve and they grow, while they still maintain the same tropes that make them so engaging in the dispassionate, analytical, intelligent manner in which they approach the people around them.
Season Two is currently airing on Amazon Prime in the UK, where all of season one is available, so it’s the perfect time to really catch up on and explore Casual. It’s flown under the radar so far but in many respects it’s an American answer to Catastrophe (probably the best comedy currently airing in the UK), with its adult content, carefully observed characters, modern and raw themes about sexuality and relationships, and a blunt, nihilistic sense of truth in the comedy which makes the script stand out, and the performances shine. If you’re looking for an intelligent, genuinely funny piece of television which feels current and relatable to many twenty or thirtysomethings, you need to give this a look.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.