Casual doesn’t shy away from its theme in its third episode. From the episode’s title and in nearly every scene, it rings that bell pretty damn loud: We are animals. We act by instinct. We’re primal. There’s a risk to being so on-the-nose, but when the execution is as solid as it is here, sometimes it’s best to just give in and follow the pack.
To date, Michaela Watkins’s Valerie has been the center of the story, as well as the greatest strength of the series. The characters that surround her have not felt as fully formed, but with “Animals,” nearly every character emerges fully formed. Even Drew, Valerie’s ex-husband (or soon-to-be ex) who previously felt like a sort of blandly nasty and bitter man, suddenly has soft edges and subtle shading. But the two most welcome examples of this new nuance are the two whose broadness was mostly holding Casual back.
While “Animals” covers a lot of ground, Tommy Dewey’s Alex takes most of the focus. His realization that Valerie and Laura might not be living with him permanently—and that is own bad habits may be forcing the issue—gets him up off of the couch and into some actual, non-pajama pants. Dewey does great work in the episode, never quite relinquishing the lazy charm that seems to be his armor, but with an almost-invisible undercurrent of panic that propels him through his slovenly apartment with a trash bag and then into the city on the hunt for the perfect insurance policy: a pet. (And kudos to the person responsible for animal casting, because that is a seriously cute puppy.)
Once Alex has the dog, the episode really takes off. On a lesser (or at least less thoughtful) show, the next steps would be obvious: the callous bachelor finds himself caring for this cute little bundle of fur, and against his will, finds a new way to love and connect. There’d be a scene where the dog gets sick and the bachelor would have to race to an all-night vet (or love interest) in a panic. It would be all about learning and personal growth. That dog would make everything better.
Casual is not even remotely that kind of show. The episode never even suggests that Alex has any business owning a dog, and while all of the elements of the more predictable story are there, the closest that Alex gets to growth is when he takes little Carl back to the store. But that’s not nothing. “Everybody deserves to be loved,” April (Diora Baird) tells him. By the end of the episode, Alex seems to at least believe that Carl deserves, if not love, at least somebody better than him.
“Sometimes you want something so bad, you construct this fantasy that it’s all gonna work out,” Alex tells Laura. “And it never does.” He’s wrong, at least in this episode—Valerie’s plans to move fall through—but it’s an attitude that betrays his dissatisfaction with the world that surrounds him, and hints at the cause of the veins of sadness and fear that run through Dewey’s casual performance. He isn’t the only one fantasizing, however. Laura’s got some hopes and dreams of her own, and while hers don’t go anywhere, they seem to be picking up steam.
To this point, Tara Lynne Barr’s Laura has seemed like little more than a sketch, a wise-beyond-her-years teenager who is all too obviously being played by a grown (if young) woman. In this episode, however, some of the painful pangs of adolescence pierce the veil, and they’re mostly focused on her erstwhile boyfriend Emile (Evan Crooks, perfectly petulant) and her homeroom and photography teacher (Patrick Heusinger of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce). Laura’s fascination with Michael (first name basis not optional) seems to be growing exponentially, culminating in a beautifully shot darkroom fantasy that’s interrupted by her mother’s knock at the door. As she rejects Emile’s halfhearted attempts to reconcile, it’s obvious that this girl wants a man, not a boy. Given the eyes that the teacher shot her mother during a parent-teacher conference, getting at least that particular man is probably going to be difficult.
Valerie, too, follows her instincts and ends up with what she wants, although not in the way she intended. For a show at least somewhat about casual sex, there’s been a surprising lack of sex of any kind, but “Animals” makes up for lost time, and while all three of the central characters spend some time recreating elements of Dr. Tran’s human sexuality lecture, it’s Valerie who gets the episode’s only really satisfying encounter. Watkins’s tremulous delivery lends a lot of weight to Valerie’s quiet insistence that she needs control of something in her life, and though the failure to get a place of her own threatens to make things worse, she does get control of something: her own body. It’s a brief, but tremendous, scene, and Watkins’s elated face shows a spark of joy that’s about a lot more than an orgasm.
Thus far, each episode of Zander Lehmann’s series has projected a quiet confidence, though it has sometimes felt that the show was aiming for greatness, rather than actually being great. But with “Animals,” it feels like what the series is has finally caught up to what it wants to be. More, please.
- I love Nyasha Hatendi’s performance as Leon. TEAM LEON.
- That human sexuality lecture may have been pretty on the nose, but Dr. Tran’s response to the “from behind” question was an unexpected delight, and Tara Lynne Barr’s bewildered performance made it that much more effective. What a solid scene.
- Seriously, that’s a cute puppy. I’m really glad the story went the way it did—I’d have been really disappointed if Casual was so obvious—but maybe Carl can have a spin-off?
- Second season incoming. I guess Valerie and Laura aren’t moving anytime soon.