Review: Michaela Watkins shines in Hulu’s ‘Casual’

“It's hard for me to describe,” a therapy patient tells Val of his latest problem. “It's something kind of f–ked up.”

“Good,” she replies. “That's my specialty.”

Val, played wonderfully by Michaela Watkins, is the heroine of “Casual,” a smart and often moving new dramedy debuting tomorrow on Hulu. She's 39, recently separated from her cheating husband, and she and teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) are living with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), cynical co-founder of an online dating service that's starting to blow up.

“Casual” was created by Zander Lehmann, and executive produced by Jason Reitman. While the use of Alex's website as a central plot device, as well as the very active nature of Laura's sex life, could make this seem like a TV series version of Reitman's critically-savaged “Men, Women & Children,” Lehmann, Reitman and company are telling a much more specific story here, about three people damaged in a particular way, due to a very particular past. As a result, it's much more effective, and interesting, than if it were attempting to pass larger judgment on the intersection between sex and computers.

Throughout the 10-episode first season, outside characters keep observing how odd it is that Alex and Val are so close, and that Val treats Laura more like a protege or friend than a daughter, in a kind of dark mirror version of “Gilmore Girls.”

“I've had her on the pill since she was 12,” Val says of Laura at one point. “I buy her condoms.”(*)

(*) If you don't pay for ad-free Hulu, this will be among the more sexually frank series to ever run with commercial interruptions. 

Again and again, they shrug off these suggestions that there's something wrong with how they relate to each other, because this is how Val and Alex learned to play the hand that life dealt them in the pair of libertines (played by Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed) who raised them when it was convenient.

That aspect of the story takes a while to reveal itself, and it's the main reason Hulu is probably doing “Casual” a disservice by releasing most of the episodes weekly (two debut tomorrow, then one a week for the next couple of months).

Not every show is built for a binge, and Hulu's being smart in scheduling most of its original series as if they were on a traditional TV channel. “The Mindy Project” can be fun as a double feature, but more than that in one sitting can start to wear thin. And in theory by doing this, Hulu keeps the conversation going longer on its shows, whereas most Netflix and Amazon viewers seem to race through a season within a week or two at most before moving their attention to something else.

But a small, intimate series like “Casual” benefits from being consumed in a short burst. It becomes easier to appreciate the nuances of the three central performances – particularly by Watkins, who shines in a more down to earth and complicated character than she's best known for playing – and to identify patterns in the characters' behavior before they grow introspective enough to notice it themselves.

It also helps enormously with Alex, who in many of the early episodes comes across as an oblivious dude-bro, there only to do and say the most obnoxious things, while causing trouble for Val and for the soft-spoken Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), a one-night stand of Val's who somehow, to his own constant befuddlement, becomes Alex's best friend. Watched weekly, I could imagine losing enough patience with Alex to drop the series altogether, but Watkins was so great, and the command of tone by Reitman and the other directors (including Max Winkler and Fred Savage) so strong and inviting, that I kept going long enough for his behavior to become more complex and human, if not always likable.

In that way, it's very much like fellow streaming indie dramedy “Transparent,” where viewers get to marathon from the start, and thus get to quickly ride the wave from irritation to understanding.

Now, just as Netflix and Amazon insist their viewers can watch their shows at whatever rate they prefer, Hulu will have the whole “Casual” season available by early December. The season as a whole is terrific, and comes very satisfyingly full circle with all of its stories, but you might want to give the first two episodes a try tomorrow and then loop back later to watch the rest in a smaller window.

Near the end of the season, Val confesses, “I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me.” By that point, thanks to sharp writing, directing, and, especially, acting, you'll have a better idea than Val herself does.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at