Hulu’s Casual just wrapped up another strong season, and I have thoughts on both the finale and season three as a whole coming up just as soon as I buy a ticket to see Meet Joe Black just so I can watch The Phantom Menace trailer…
The smallness of Casual can be both blessing and curse. This is such a compact story about an unconventional family unit and all the dysfunction they’ve accumulated over a lifetime together, and that focus allows the writers and Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, and Tara Lynne Barr to do some really precise character work, where something as seemingly minor as the destruction of Alex’s waffle iron can feel like a bomb has been dropped on him. But because the focus is generally so tight on the central trio — even if season three devoted an entertaining chunk of time to Leon and Leah falling in love and getting engaged — and on the difficulty each one has on breaking their self-destructive patterns, there’s always the danger of the show becoming a well-made, well-acted Moebius strip, revisiting the same basic ideas — Val sleeps with a younger guy, Laura falls too deeply and quickly for an attractive newcomer, Alex makes a pretense of wanting a real relationship before reverting to his narcissistic ways — season after season, until Hulu decides it’s time to move on.
But among the smartest things season three did — besides crafting some terrific standalone episodes (more on those in a bit) to break up the serialized mumblecore of it all — was to interrogate and then try to break those patterns. It helps that Val and Alex are physically apart for so much of the season — first with Val and Laura living elsewhere, then with their estrangement after he tries to bigfoot in on her half-brother search — so we can see the damage each is capable of when their default co-dependency isn’t a huge factor. But we also see them making different decisions than they have in the past, essentially swapping roles: Alex makes a genuine go at responsibility with both his job and the relationship with Judy, while Val gets back together with Jack because the news of his sex addiction because, as she put it in last week’s episode, “I thought we could be fuckups together.” As it turns out, both relationships are exactly the same: divorced women looking for casual sex from likely suspects, only to be surprised (or, in Val’s case, disappointed) to learn that each manchild seems genuinely interested in growing up and taking things seriously. It’s amazing: even when they’re apart, Val and Alex are somehow on the verge of dating one another.
Laura’s fixation with her boss seemed to be treading familiar ground a bit more than the other two character arcs, but because she gets closer and closer to true adulthood with each season, the usual beats play out differently each time. She has less and less of a margin for error, and each misadventure seems to be pulling her further out onto a ledge and away from her mom or her uncle, here resulting in her deciding to stay with Grandma for a while. (This also creates a plausible scenario where Val has to interact with her mom, when by all rights the funeral would have been the last time she ever wanted to be in a room with that selfish monster.)
And though the show can at times default to 6.5-hour movie mode, where some episodes simply depict whatever’s happening next for our heroes, season three had an almost uncanny sense of exactly when to throw in a distinct half-hour to break things up, like Val and Alex spending an evening revisiting all their old haunts, Val and Jack’s unfortunate trip to Sacramento to meet her half-brother, last week’s flashback to Val’s pregnancy(*), or, especially, “The Rat King,” which put most of the major characters together in Alex’s house for a night of games, revelations, and awkward encounters. I’m admittedly a sucker for this particular type of bottle episode, but this was a really fun and smart example of it.
(*) “99” took the Quantum Leap approach to the twentysomething versions of Val and Alex, with Watkins and Dewey playing them most of the time — her looking slightly less ridiculous than him, but neither of them winking at the audience — with occasional glimpses of younger actors suggesting what these scenes actually would have looked like in the prior century.
And the finale suggests a fourth season would be even more of a departure from routine than this one was. Laura’s living with her grandmother, and while Val decides she wants to move back in with Alex, Alex has already moved on, attempting to turn Rae’s accidental pregnancy into an actual relationship to replace the one Judy deprived him off. This will surely be a disaster, but Alex only seems capable of learning from impacts against rock bottom. And even if it works, it’ll be something new.
This is a wonderful show, and one that’s unfortunately been overshadowed by a lot of similar ones in the Peak TV universe. Hulu has yet to order a fourth season, perhaps deciding that the success of Handmaid’s Tale means execs don’t need to keep pouring money into a show that never fulfilled whatever awards expectations Hulu had for it. But Watkins and company are too good to go away before the story’s done, and where each of the previous season finales would have worked well enough as a conclusion, this one presents so many new possibilities and directions that it would feel almost cruel to end things now.
Hulu has a smaller slate of originals than its streaming competitors, but it’s canceled good shows before (I was fond of the animated superhero comedy The Awesomes). Maybe Handmaid’s has raised the bar so that there’s no longer room for such a small — if often terrific — series. That would be a shame. The design of Casual suggests a show that shouldn’t run forever, but after this season and this finale, I’d be very disappointed if I couldn’t see what comes next.
What did everybody else think?