Recently there has been a trend on TV of what I like to think of as “small” shows. And I mean no disrespect by that moniker. I love small things. I love things with compact, precise focus. Grand things aren’t usually my style. These small shows are generally half-an-hour long but aren’t sitcoms in the traditional sense. They are shows that walk the line between comedy and drama and their focus is usually relationships on a micro level. I can think of a handful of shows like this that I watch and enjoy (You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, Transparent, Red Oaks). These shows all air on smaller networks or streaming services (FXX, Amazon, Hulu) – another trend that is allowing for more of relatively inexpensive content to be created. These shows look and feel different from brightly lit network sitcoms. They remind me of indie films in the late 90s – more raw, a little less polished, dimly lit, taking place in houses that don’t have matching furniture – but, aside from the astonishing Transparent, not about anything particularly groundbreaking. These shows are immediately familiar, if a little bit odd.
Casual fits right into this mould. The show airs on the streaming service Hulu and was created by Jason Reitman. Casual stars the exceptional Michaela Watkins as, Valerie, a recently divorced woman who moves in with her brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey), with her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), in tow. The focus on Casual, at least in the early going, is how the various members of this particular family navigate the dating world and how those romantic relationships affect the familial ones going on within Tommy’s house. So, yes, the scope is extremely small. And the stories are small too. In the four episodes that have aired thus far we’ve seen both Alex and Valerie have one-night stands that could result in longer relationships. We’ve seen Valerie have a brief fling with someone much younger than her. We’ve seen Alex have a fling with someone that doesn’t meet his physical ideal. And we’ve seen Laura attempt to start a relationship with her hot, older photography teacher.
It is safe to say that the relationships that Valerie, Tommy and Laura have outside the confines of the house are not the show’s most interesting because, yes, they are casual. Where Casual comes closest to hitting its stride is when Valerie and Tommy are at home talking about what happened the night before – cringing because of the awkwardness of it all, being open about what they want or trying to parse out what maybe they didn’t know they wanted. You see, Valerie is a therapist and Alex, well, he co-founded a dating site called “Snooger”. These are the kinds of people who should be in successful relationships, but they’re not! Because, you know, they’re human.
And Laura? Well, Laura was dating a hunk named Emile, seemingly just for his body, and has now moved on to the aforementioned photography teacher. Casual has a number of problems but to my mind the biggest one is Laura, not only because of the clichéd storyline she gets saddled with. Barr doesn’t look much like a teenager but more than that though, she doesn’t feel like a teenager. We are told that she’s a teenager, she goes to a high school, she wears the clothes that a teenager might wear and she has teenage friends – but she is just so adult, everything that oozes out of her pores is maturity. And I understand that this is probably exactly why Barr was cast in the role. We need Laura to remind us of the state of arrested development that the other characters are in – Laura seems older, uncle Alex seems younger, Valerie has gone back in time. The character is supposed to be mature beyond her years. But it just doesn’t work. Every time there is a scene between Barr and Watkins I have to strain to believe that they are mother and daughter and not sisters or best friends (it doesn’t help that they look nothing alike). Valerie and Laura seem very much equals, Valerie has no authority over her daughter and I guess we are meant to see that this is what can happen when you create an open, sex-positive world for your kid with few boundaries. Moreover, the world of this girl, who radiates brains, is all about boys. There is something missing from what we know of the character, how the actor plays the character and how she is written. She doesn’t add up and I’m just not buying it. At least not yet.
What I do buy to a greater degree is Alex, even though and probably because he’s harder to read. Alex is a complete mess – a guy who made enough money that he doesn’t really need to do anything aside from sit on his couch in his underwear all day. A guy whose greatest achievement of the day, maybe the week, is making waffles for breakfast. A guy who gets a puppy for the sole purpose of meeting women and then realizes that he has to actually take care of the darn thing so instead of learning how to do that he returns it to the pet store. A guy who lies to every question on his dating profile on the dating site that he created to make himself more appealing to women – his real, honest profile yielding no matches. Alex is not a likeable guy. He seems antsy for something to exciting happen to him while not having any interest in making that something happen for himself. Dewey plays Alex with a sprite-like twinkle, there’s a lightness to the guy. But there are also moments when a sad tinge of boredom creeps in on Alex, as though he’s living in a drop-in prison of his own making, the exit sign clearly marked but the act of walking out too difficult. Alex is blunt, with no sense of tact and attractive enough to get away with it for a while. He’s also remote and distant and seemingly incapable of empathetically seeing the world from another person’s perspective. He’s like an alien trying to understand foreign human emotions. He knows that he is screwed up and not like other people but can’t stop being himself. He’s also somebody who wants the people he loves to be happy.
And most of his love is directed towards Valerie. Valerie is the heart of the show and Watkins plays her as sad and tired and also warily excited about a new life, even if this life wasn’t what she imagined for herself. There is a lovely moment in the show’s fourth episode, “…”, after Valerie pays another visit to the young bartender that she slept with on a whim. The visit does not go well. Valerie realizes that not only is the guy a kid, living with roommates, unable to fold his own clothes or purchase new cutlery, but that he also doesn’t like her very much. Valerie, in the elevator on the way down from leaving his apartment, vacillates between laughing and crying until she arrives on the main floor, greeted on the other side of the elevator doors by two stunned strangers. We’ve seen this moment before, the scene where someone goes from laughing to crying to laughing again, but the noise that Watkins makes when she sees these people, knowing what they’ve witnessed, is half greeting, half admission, half sob, half sigh of relief. Valerie – the new Valerie and the old Valerie – is all there in that moment. The pain, the joy, the shame, the excitement.
But there’s still something separating me from loving Valerie the way I want to. And there is something separating me from loving this show the way I’d hoped, too. I want more of the small moments above, moments that tell me infinitely more about the characters than pithy dialogue, on a show like this. The show is small and quiet and restrained, but it isn’t intimate in a way that is immediately inviting. Maybe I want smaller still.