There’s something that’s difficult to pin down about Casual. It’s beautifully shot, has a great cast, and possesses a sort of straightforward weariness that suggests great feeling might lurk beneath the surface. It doesn’t feel like much else out there. But what it feels like isn’t always the best indicator of what it is, and so far, Casual seems to be beautifully shot, well acted, and completely average television.

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That isn’t to say that “Friends” isn’t enjoyable, or that something that’s pretty to look at and engaging to watch isn’t enough all by itself. But it’s a confusing experience. Casual practically screams ‘prestige TV,’ and not just because of the names involved, impressive though they may be. So far, though, there doesn’t seem to be much to back that up. There’s not much there there.

The second episode picks up a few sleepless hours after the first left off, with Valerie (Michaela Watkins, still amazing) and Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, also pretty great) curled up in Valerie’s bed, covered in a blanket of awkwardness thicker than any bedding. After Leon’s hope of a covert exit is thwarted by Alex (Tommy Dewey) , things get still more awkward, setting up a barrier of self-consciousness, miscommunication, and fear that Valerie, Alex, Laura, and Leon all have to fight past in order to make any sort of connection. That, or they choose not to put up any sort of a fight at all.

Tommy Dewey, Nyasha Hatendi

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The person who seems the least daunted is Alex, though he’s got a separate barrier all his own. Last week, Tommy Dewey’s performance felt like the odd one out—somehow more sitcom-friendly and less grounded than the rest—but with “Friends,” the pieces start to fall into place. It’s easier for him to connect with the people in his life, whether strangers, family members, or former hookups, because it’s not much of a connection. Alex’s conversation with Skye (Brianne Davis), a previous romantic partner, really knocks this home: he remembers details from a family dispute she was mired in over a year ago, but when she calls him on cutting her out of his life after talking to him about it, he’s completely unaffected. He doesn’t even make the faintest attempt at feigning regret, and he certainly doesn’t try to make a convincing excuse. “Yeah, it’s tough around the holidays,” he says, without even a hint of irony. “So many distractions.”

It’s a great moment, one of several centered on Dewey in this episode. Whether he’s bucking up his niece or trying to buy cocaine, you get the sense that he’s really, really good at going through the motions. It doesn’t mean he isn’t well-intentioned, and it occasionally even seems genuine, but there’s a remoteness and distance present that permeates each and every of his scenes. It’s great work, and suggests a lot of promising stuff for Alex (and Dewey) down the line.

In contrast, Valerie does nothing but try to connect, and for the most part, she seems to do pretty well. One scene in particular sticks out: when one of Leia’s 20-something friends asks her how she got where she is, she first assumes it’s a question about her relationship—“A long chain of self-destructive choices that led to the dissolution of a loveless marriage”—but when the young woman clarifies that she’s actually asking about her career, it’s as though a tiny light goes on inside Valerie. Watkins quietly glows, making Valerie’s pleasure at being admired evident, and from there until almost the end of the episode, she moves with more confidence. This is a woman determined to reclaim her own life, on her own terms, and while she might not feel well-equipped to do such a thing, she’s going to do it anyway. Watkins’s performance remains the single best reason to invest in Casual.

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If everyone involved was operating at that level, what a show this would be. But while there aren’t obvious weak points, per se, there’s something about the whole that feels too easy. This was most evident in Laura’s storyline this week, a pretty average trip to a pretty average high school party where, of course, the cops show up and Laura gets arrested. It isn’t clear, from the writing or from Tara Lynne Barr’s performance, why Laura felt she needed to go to a party she obviously doesn’t want to attend, or why she so easily walks away from her boyfriend Emile (Crooks) after telling him not to leave her side. Perhaps, as with Dewey’s performance, the point is that Laura is detached from her life and the people in it, but even that doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like they took the least surprising path to the least surprising ending—Laura and Alex side-by-side in the police station—without taking in the scenery along the way. Fine is fine, even if it doesn’t mean much, but when you’re aiming to be more, it makes what’s merely average that much more disappointing.

Stray Observations

  • Buttermilk is disgusting.
  • Nyasha Hatendi was a real standout. His slow peek into the frame in that long, quiet car ride at the end of the episode was bliss, and his scene with Dewey after that terrible breakfast was similarly delightful.
  • Every time I look at Emile, I can’t help but see Zoey Barlet’s terrible boyfriend Jean-Paul on The West Wing, and it just makes me want to get every girl in that party scene away from him and check all their drinks for drugs before they get kidnapped and cause a national security crisis that will prompt the President to temporarily hand over his powers to Speaker of the House John Goodman, and be right back, gotta go watch that episode.
  • “I have a plaid skirt in my closet.”
  • “And he sucks at guitar.” “I know, right?!”

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