‘Casual’ Creator Zander Lehmann On Giving The Show’s Characters A Proper Sendoff In Its Final Season

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Casual, one of Hulu’s first originals, has always been an overlooked television show — despite its critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination. It’s a quiet comedy featuring a small word and a simple premise: Newly-divorced Valerie (Michaela Watkins) and her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) move in with Valerie’s younger brother (Tommy Dewey). Each of them casually dates people, largely unsuccessfully. But it’s also a deeply heartfelt and well-written show, with superb acting throughout. It took popular topics (dating, restarting your life, growing up) and found new ways to consider them, buoyed by characters that we quickly grew to love.

The fourth season — which Hulu is dropping today in its entirety — is also Casual‘s last. It’s a show I’m sad to see go, but fortunately, the writers knew ahead of time and they effortlessly stick the landing (which is hardly surprising, especially in the wake of the show’s terrific third season).

Ahead of the premiere, Uproxx had a spoiler-filled chat with creator Zander Lehmann about the final season, major changes for all the characters, and a future without the NFL.

(Warning: there are spoilers for all of ‘Casual’ season four ahead.)

Going into the season four, you knew it was going to be the last. What were your goals with ending it on your own terms?

Showing that the characters had grown some was important to us. In the first couple of seasons they oscillate between growth and no-growth, and I wanted to send them off properly where they seemed like they were in a better place, and good with each other. And, honestly, I wanted kind of a happy ending. The end of season three is not so happy and I felt like we could do a service to these characters by sending them off properly and giving them something to look forward to. That was the main goal with it. And also, just to feel like satisfied — that the audience felt like they had seen a full arc, that they’d seen characters become something. They saw them sort of grow.

The season starts with a time jump so we see everyone in different stages. Alex is now a father, Valerie is starting a new career, Laura is returning from abroad. What’s behind this decision?

We felt like we only had eight episodes to tell what we hoped would be a satisfying final story and we didn’t want to spend time building to a place. Essentially, we didn’t want to have to sit and watch these characters suffer with each other and try to repair a lot of the problems they had made in season three. In reality, this is something that happens: time passes and time heals some wounds and some wounds go untreated. It was a real thing that these characters all moved on with their lives in a way, separating from each other. Laura’s out in the world, Alex is raising his kid, Val is trying to figure it out.

Also, we wanted to explore some fun near-future stuff that I don’t think we’ve ever really seen in this sort of [show]. The thought of doing, “What does the world look like in four years? How do [our characters] struggle in it? How do they have fun with it?” That was all really exciting for us.

You also get to create almost an alternate universe where NFL football is ending.

Yeah. Football is very complicated: It’s a complicated sport, the NFL is a complicated organization. I am both a fan of football and also really dislike football, and it’s a relationship that I’m coming to terms with. For the most part, we all know that the NFL and football is maybe not the best sports league and maybe not the best sport for people to play. I think we’re starting to realize that and kids are playing less football. But I don’t think we had seen, on-screen, any sort of real condemnation or analysis of what the sport really is. I remember hearing that there was a Black-ish episode about football that never saw the air, and the NFL is obviously super diligent about controlling their image and making sure stuff doesn’t come out against them that’s negative. But it felt like maybe we’re moving towards a world where [we’re learning that] these sort of sports that kill people and lead to these brain injuries are not the best thing to send our kids into. It felt like a nice way to comment on something that is going on in our world today.

I don’t think football is going away in four years — that would be a pretty accelerated timeline — but I think the league is seeing real issues with fan engagement and they’re going to face a lot of lawsuits for the injuries their players have had. I could see a world in the future where we’re looking at a football-less or at least an NFL-less sports landscape.

Leon and Leia continue to have bigger roles in this season, and there’s also the return of Valerie’s ex Byron (Chace Crawford). Were there any other characters you toyed with bringing back?

We talked about it. Having eight episodes and trying to end the series was such a daunting task in and of itself. I would’ve loved to have Judy Greer come back — or Katie Aselton or Britt Lower or Rhenzy [Feliz]. All these actors who are amazing to work with … I would’ve loved to see where they ended up in 2022. But ultimately, you have to tell a streamlined version of the narrative if you only have eight episodes and you’re building towards a finale. We got one episode with Frances Conroy. We got to bring back Fred Melamed for an episode. Obviously, having Chace [Crawford] was super fun. We tried to pepper in some of the older cast members that we all love.

Anytime you bring in another old cast member, you’re taking screen time away, potentially, from some of your core people. And I think we felt like we owed it to Leon and Lia and Alex and Val and Laura to just tell their stories and tell them right.

Let’s talk about Laura’s evolution because she has some of the most drastic changes, but we don’t see those in-between years.

Laura was always this voice of skepticism. In the first couple season, she’s a 16 or 17-year-old girl. She doesn’t feel like she’s really capable of giving herself to a relationship. She’s come up in a world where there’s a lot of mixed messaging (about sex and relationships) and she doesn’t know exactly how to approach these things. I don’t think she is confident enough in who she is to actually have a real relationship.

We pick up and she’s 21 or 22 in this season. I think that is one of those periods of time where you undergo your biggest changes and you start to realize some of the things you’re doing are not the best for you in the long run. Her journey in this season, which speaks to her overall evolution as a character, is to come to terms with the fact that she can have a relationship, she can give herself to someone, she can believe in love or whatever that is. She finds a version of that and I think she ended the series probably in one of the healthier places of any of our characters. She’s grown enough to be able to accept, “Okay. I don’t have all the answers. It’s going to be a challenge. Relationships are work but I’m willing to do it.” The old Laura would’ve just run away.

Yet at the end, she winds up in a relationship while Alex and Val are still single. Did you always have an idea of where you wanted everyone to be by the end?

Yeah. It was tough. With Alex’s character, he’s so good with Maya Erskine who plays Rae — there was a concern that their chemistry would be so strong the audience would hate us for not having them end up in a traditional romantic relationship. But it just felt like that was kind of the easy, obvious way out. It’s more interesting for him to have to deal with a woman that he loves and who’s the mother of his child but isn’t the person that he’s going to be with forever in that way. I like sending him off with some uncertainty there, but at least with the knowledge that he and Rae are good and they’ve got their kid to raise.

With Val, I pushed really hard for her not to end up defining herself through her relationship with a boyfriend or a husband. I actually think there’s something really nice about her evolution, realizing by the end of this series that she is happy, at times, being alone. Happy being with a random partner, happy being in a relationship. She gives this speech in episode eight, talking about where she is in her own dating life and I think there’s something really affirming about the fact that she doesn’t consider herself a failure because she’s not in a traditional monogamous longterm partnership.

Valerie doesn’t focus so much on men this season but is instead trying to jumpstart an entirely new career.

For Valerie this season, it’s about falling back in love with herself and realizing the things that she wanted to do in her life that she didn’t get to do (maybe [things] she had put on hold in service of her marriage or her role as a mother). Now, she doesn’t have to do that; she can focus on the things that make her happy. Ultimately, it’s changing careers and reconnecting with her daughter and being okay with Alex. She has this relationship that, obviously, turns very sour. She realizes [he] was not right for her, but I think that realization is important. It’s like, “I don’t need this. I can be whoever I want to be. I can go on a random online date. I can be alone. I can find another boyfriend. Whatever it is.” We thought that was a nice place to leave her.

The fourth season of ‘Casual’ is currently streaming on Hulu.