The first season finale of Casual left the Meyers/Cole clan in relative shambles. Alex (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie (Michaela Watkins) are working their way back to their uniquely close sibling relationship after the implosion of their family unit. After their negligent parents (Fred Melamed and Frances Conroy) get married at their children’s emotional and financial expense, Valerie, who had been seeking emotional and sexual freedom since her divorce, sleeps with Alex’s girlfriend, Emmy (Eliza Coupe), proving that the journey to self discovery can have repercussions. Between that and the fallout from Laura’s (Tara Lynne Barr) self-publicized sex tape, this dysfunctional family left quite a wake.
Despite all of the pain in that final episode, they seem to be taking steps toward healing in season two. Alex is in the making terrible smoothies and doing hot yoga phase of his healing process following his break up with Emmy, and Laura, who hasn’t been able to bring herself to return to her old private school, tags along to avoid the crushing boredom of a listless life. Valerie is still striving to make things right with Alex; despite living under the same roof and being surface level cordial, the pain of her betrayal is still relatively fresh. However, Alex and Laura both find a little meaning when it’s decided that Laura will finish her high school education through homeschooling. (As someone who has experience with that form of education, something tells me that this is going to end badly, despite their good intentions.)
While these characters may be shifting a bit into a different phase of life than last season, the core reasons fans and critics alike responded to this show is still there. These are deeply flawed people who genuinely want to do better. It’s easy to blame their dysfunction on their deeply inept and selfish parents, but to err is human either way. The show doesn’t excuse their bad behavior on their upbringing. They hurt each other because they’re selfish. They want to do right by one another because they’re family. Sometimes, it really is as straightforward as that. As they look to rebuild, the humanity and deepness of feeling is what draws viewers in. We root for these characters to succeed because they feel like people who we know — or even people we are.
Still, what makes Casual so watchable is the performances. Watkins brings a world of weariness to the role of Valerie that deserves more recognition. The fact that we can still root for Valerie to find some peace and fulfillment after betraying her brother so deeply is a real testament to her abilities as an actress. Valerie may have played fast and loose with the emotions of those closest to her in her quest to find meaning, but Watkins imbues her with a hidden strength that should have earned more awards consideration.
Dewey’s Alex is the yin to her yang as a man who is beginning to realize that his laissez-faire approach to life isn’t quite as charming as he thought. This season looks to continue his evolution into a real adult, starting with his rejection of casual sex as part of his quest to find a real relationship. This is a small step, but it’s significant. Alex thought he had found the real deal, and while that may have crashed and burned, a real relationship is what he wants. It’s an admirable goal, and one that will be interesting to see. Barr’s Laura is a little harder to swallow. Her performance is good, but it takes the world-wise teen to unbelievable levels. It’s one thing to be hardened by divorce and all of the stress of being a teenager. It’s another completely to shed any vestiges of normal adolescent behavior.
Despite the show’s title, it looks like everyone is looking for something beyond casual this season. Jason Reitman continues to craft a show that deftly walks the line between comedy and drama — yes, the show is technically a sitcom, but there is a distinct lack of punchlines in its humor. Preferring the more observational form of comedy, Casual isn’t laugh out loud funny. Instead, it’s endlessly humane. Jokes aren’t made at the expense of these characters or the individuals they interact with. Everyone is just trying (and failing) to do their best, and that’s something that everyone can relate to. Anyone looking for easy laughs, look elsewhere. But you would be hard pressed to find a comedy with more substance than Casual.