Review: Hulu’s smart ‘Casual’ takes its family comedy seriously
Amid panicked rumors that television has peaked, the new shows this fall are chockablock with Look-At-Me twists, from super-mind-power film-franchise adjacency to a naked tattooed woman.
All Hulu’s new half-hour comedy “Casual” has going for it, promo wise, is executive producer and director Jason Reitman, he of “Juno” and “Up in the Air.”
Oh, and the fact that it’s smart, funny, disarmingly sincere and sneakily self-aware.
Viewed at a certain level, “Casual” is a work of objet trouve, constructed from a mélange of currently popular TV tropes down to Silver Lake as the new Brooklyn. In the first five of the 10 episodes — two will be available on Wednesday after which new episodes will join them each week — top notes include “About a Boy” “You’re the Worst” “Ben and Kate,” “Trophy Wife” and even “Transparent.”
Yet “Casual” is very much its own show. Much of this is due, initially, to the always-welcome presence of Michaela Watkins, here relieved of the high dosage wackiness she was prescribed as ex-wife No. 3 in “Trophy Wife.”
As Valerie, she is once again an ex-wife, a state of affairs so new that she and her 16-year-old daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) have moved in, “temporarily,” with Valerie’s younger brother Alex (Tommy Dewey). Though tightly wound and understandably bitter (her husband has, we are told repeatedly, left her for a 20-year-old), Valerie is also a competent professional, a therapist, in fact, which creator Zander Lehmann mercifully does not play for cheap laughs: Valerie may be a personal mess, but she appears to be a pretty good therapist.
Her brother is more of a stereotype, the attractive man-child, here so emotionally stunted that he must rig the coding on the singles website he co-founded to find a match.
“Casual” refers to the type of sexual relationships all three of the main characters claim to pursue: Valerie because she needs to get over her heartbreak, Laura because she is 16 and Max because he cannot sustain any other kind.
It’s an old device: Valerie needs to unclench and have fun, Alex needs to straighten out and grow up, while Laura, the teen, often seems more together than either of them. As in most of Reitman’s films, there is much amusing banter, delivered with brisk comedic timing and tricked out with pop culture references including to waxing, helicopter parents, mid-life texting and the habits of online dating.
Born to “free spirit” parents, Alex and Valerie raised themselves. It’s a fact initially used to explain why Valerie is still clinging to a marriage that never made her happy and why Alex remains a sophomoric jerk who considers any woman weighing more than 98 pounds a “4.”
Then Frances Conroy shows up in Episode 4 and things get a bit more complicated. “We spend our lives waiting for our parents to apologize,” Valerie is told a few episodes in by the most unlikely sage imaginable. “They spend theirs waiting for a thank you.”
That kind of thinking, and writing, is what turns “Casual” from a pastiche of familiar themes into a rueful examination of them.
This being a streaming service rather than a broadcast network, sex occurs regularly and the talk can get raunchy; “Casual” is for “mature audiences.” But the “mature” also refers to show’s ability to be ruthless, but not brutal, humane but not sentimental.
Valerie and Alex are both oblivious and self-involved, but they also love each other, and Watkins and Dewey save them from stereotype with strong sibling chemistry and a surprisingly natural inclination for truth.
This emerges slowly, in bits and pieces, often camouflaged by one-liners and set pieces (adjacent blind dates! the first one-night stand! Mom comes to town!), but it is truth nonetheless, hilarious, heartbreaking and miraculously resilient.
When: Anytime starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17, with advisories for coarse language and sex)
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