After Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up In The Air, Jason Reitman was one of the most in-demand directors of the ’00s. Some accused him of being a little too precious and twee, but it was tough to deny the sincerity of his vision. Reitman was interested in telling stories about connection: people who want it, people who lose it, and what happens when people don’t have it. Whether it was a spin doctor coming to terms with raising a decent son or a teenage hipster with a hamburger phone, Reitman has always been dedicated to telling human stories. However, his most-recent films, Labor Day and Men, Women & Children, were a bit too hamfisted in their message to be truly effective. His characterization went from flesh-and-blood to cartoons, and it wasn’t clear that Reitman would be able to find his way back to what made him great.
It looks like Hulu’s new show, Casual, could be a step in the right direction. Reitman directed the first two episodes and serves as executive producer, and his fingerprints are all over the project. Valerie (Michaela Watkins) is 39, freshly divorced, and trying to raise her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynn Barr). Her brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey), is in his mid-30s, aimless, and using a dating app that he created to sleep his way through as many women as possible. Both feeling rootless, they’ve moved in together to make their current situations a bit more bearable.
Watkins, who has long been the best part of any ensemble that she’s in (R.I.P. Trophy Wife), is finally given the leading role that she deserves. As the fragile Valerie, Watkins is excellent in any situation that the show throws her into. As a therapist, Valerie is required to put aside her own issues and help her patients, and her cool and collected response to her patient’s nightmares shows her deep grasp of her character’s inner life. Her facade goes up again when dealing with her soon to be ex-husband (Zak Orth). He lashes out at her over their belongings, their daughter, and what’s left of their former life together, but Valerie never loses her nerve. It is only when she’s alone with Alex that she can really be herself and lay her vulnerability bare. They may be very different people, but the relationship between Alex and Valerie is nuanced and sincere. Dewey is a bit hammy in some bits of the pilot episode, but that more sitcommy style gives way to a more measured persona as the episode progresses. I don’t doubt that he’ll be able to meet Watkins in the middle in later episodes.
Like all Reitman projects, it all comes back to the desire for connection on Casual. Whether it’s simply a warm body to share your bed with or honest, genuine intimacy, everyone is looking for someone who makes them feel a little less alone. When they go on a weird sort-of double date with people they met online, it soon becomes clear that both Valerie and Alex are going to self-sabotage. In their defense, both of their dates are boring and awful, but the sh*t talking in the bathroom, while very funny, edges on cruel. Both siblings are ultimately driven by fear: her, a fear of starting over, and him, a fear of starting at all.
However, the connection in Casual isn’t limited to sex. The complex relationships between parents and children come into play as well. Valerie struggles between treating her daughter like an adult and being overly permissive. While the teenage storyline is usually the weakest elements of shows with multiple generations, the interactions between mother and daughter look likely to bear fruit later in the season. The desire to please parents, especially fathers, becomes another theme in the pilot episode. One of Valerie’s patients is having disturbing nightmares stemming from a complex relationship with his father, while Alex also has a strange dream influenced by his own fraught interactions with his lecherous father (Fred Melamed).
Hulu is really starting to step it up in the original content department, and if Casual continues on its current track of sharp writing and believable characters, it’s one to watch. Reitman’s emphasis on connection is back in focus, and this could be his return to form. The sex may be Casual, but the relationships certainly are not.