Nyasha Hatendi, Tommey Dewey (Hulu)

Well, where the hell do we go from there?

In the final episode of its first season, Casual mostly fires on all cylinders—that is, until it totally misfires. It would have been nice to bid a temporary farewell to a freshman show by glowing about its many strengths. Make no mistake, both “Dave” and Casual have strengths aplenty, and season two can’t get here soon enough for my liking. That doesn’t change the fact that the last five minutes rushed through all the moments that have made the rest of the season so lovely. Those moments—Emmy and Alex watching Finding Nemo, Valerie laughing in the elevator, Laura hugging her grandmother, Leon chatting with the dancer—exist in the cracks, the tiny breaths that occur between choices and actions. It’s where life actually happens.

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Not so in “Dave.” All the elements of the formula are still there, from the terrific cast—and not just Watkins, Dewey, and Barr, but reliable supporting players like Julie Berman and Nyasha Hatendi—to the subtle but effective score. But the episode ends in a manner that’s not unlike Alex when he drives straight at that wall. It races by recklessly, but somehow still creeps to a halt. The end of the season is its automatic sensor, and while we might be glad it didn’t crash, it doesn’t make it any less anticlimactic.

Make no mistake—a crash would not have been better, necessarily. The odd, intervention-like scene in which the whole troupe gathers around to unpack the hot mess they’ve jointly made feels utterly implausible. This isn’t life, it’s television, so the suspension of disbelief is the price we pay to watch, but for a series so grounded in emotional truth, such a bizarre approach rings even less true than it otherwise might. It isn’t just the idea that all those people would stay in that room. It’s that Valerie somehow seems to stumble into the confession that she slept with Emmy to break up Alex’s relationship, less than 24 hours after it occurred. Granted, she had what seems a very helpful conversation with Leia (Berman), but the speed with which that realization takes place doesn’t seem to come from Valerie. Instead, it feels as though writer/creator Zander Lehmann knew he had to wrap things up, so he moved it right along. Nothing more to see here. Get them to the church on time.

So that’s it. Exit Emmy, stage left.

It’s not the only bow placed on the end of the season that’s hard to believe. Laura’s short-lived homecoming, truncated by overhearing her mother’s argument with Emmy about Alex, sends her spinning even more out of orbit, straight to a pier and Dave, the guy from whom the episode takes its title. Laura’s obviously very seriously distressed, and people—not just teenagers—can make seriously bad decisions when in such a state, so her impulsive trip to Mexico with Dave isn’t totally out of the realm of possibility. Nor does it seem unlikely that her mother’s tremulous admission (“I don’t know what’s wrong with me”) would have such an impact that all that anger would evaporate. But moving from there to hand-holding in church? That’s a little convenient. Casual has shown to restraint in letting its viewers sit and linger in the small, painful moments its characters face. Why the last five minutes mostly abandon that strength is the biggest disappointment of both the episode and the season.

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The old Casual still peeks out there and there. There’s more heartache in Valerie’s hesitance to take Alex’s hand than in any other moment of the episode, rivaled only by Dewey’s spot-on delivery of “Carl’s dead,” which manages to be both funny and just a little bit devastating, all at once. Lehmann still has a knack for letting little things speak volumes—Dave might not be that interesting a character, but he matters to “Dave” because he doesn’t care, and they do; the wedding is staged in a manner almost identical to the funeral dream from the pilot, first lines included (Aunt Eva sure loves an ugly hat.) It’s not all bad. It’s just that Casual can be so, so much better.

And the rest of the episode would otherwise be one of the series’ strongest, thanks in no small part to Dewey and Hatendi’s terrific arc. Grading “Dave” was tricky—how do you rate something you loved that nevertheless feels like an utter disappointment? If you separate those final two scenes, things become a little more clear. Dewey and Hatendi do really remarkable work together, nailing that blend of hopelessness and hopefulness, of dark humor and sunshine that have so defined Casual’s best moments. Going back to Carl was quite a surprise, and the fact that the show was willing to kill off that cute dog, and use that as the thing that pushes Alex so completely over the edge, is every bit as daring as it is effective. Watkins gets the lion’s share of praise when it comes to this cast, and all of it is well-deserved but those two deserve much more love than they’re getting—Dewey in particular.

While it would be very easy to focus on his moments in that car—the look on his face as he drives toward that wall, and the bizarre blend of shock, relief, and humor when the sensor kicks in—the moment that hits hardest occurs several scenes earlier. “I’m just the asshole who shows up when he needs something,” Alex tells Leon. “You’re just too nice to tell me to leave.” It’s a testament to the strength of the writing this season that Leon sticking with him isn’t one of the moments that rings false in “Dave.” It’s so sad, and yet so hopeful. Alex might be one of the loneliest people on television (right up there with The Doctor, if you ask me) but now he’s got someone besides his sister.

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There’s no joy in ending a season’s-worth of reviews on a sour note, and so, let’s not. “Dave” did so many of the things that made this series easily one of the year’s best new shows: it surprised, it was awkward, it hurt, it was hopeful, and it looked like a million bucks. Casual is a beautiful, funny, ugly, wonderful thing. Missteps happen, and it does almost no damage to the glittering whole. Still, it would have been nice for this particular misstep to happen at some other time.

Stray observations

  • Thanks for reading this season. Disappointment in the finale aside, I unabashedly love Casual, and the performances given by its very fine cast in particular. I can’t wait until it’s back.
  • I’ve watched Dewey blurt out “Carl’s dead” several times at this point. It just gets better and sadder. I recommend it. RIP Carl.
  • Seriously, someone call Hulu and get a Nyasha Hatendi spinoff in the works. I would watch him do his laundry. Leon forever!

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