It’s the time of year when TV shows all seem to bust out their holiday episodes, and it seems that even Casual isn’t immune. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—such occasions often draw families together, for better or worse, and the pressure surrounding the—but in a show that’s succeed in being so utterly itself throughout its first season, the familiarity of the setting doesn’t quite jive. Still, a lukewarm hour of Casual is still an hour of Casual, and any time spent with one of the season’s most pleasant (sad, funny, and often uncomfortable) surprises is time well-spent.
So, it’s time for Thanksgiving with Valerie, Alex, and Laura. What could possibly go wrong?
First, the good. Both the writing (Harris Danow and Zander Lehmann) and direction (Tricia Brock, who also directed “Home”) succeed in doing something that only last week’s outing had done thus far: they made Laura seem like a teenager. If “Home” gave Tara Lynne Barr her biggest moment of the season to date, “Bottles” gives her a chance to delve into some subtle, thoughtful stuff. Her petulant near-glee at blowing up the family Thanksgiving, first by inviting Mae-Yi (Nikki SooHoo) and then by including her grandmother and grandma’s “boyfriend,” doesn’t last for long. One can almost see Laura struggling to hold on to the self-satisfaction she felt by being such a shit, but once the exact reach and nature of the damage becomes clear, she can’t feel anything but shame and remorse. It’s terrific stuff, and the development of Laura’s character and growth of the performance has been once of the most lovely things about the back half of the season.
Barr’s, as always, isn’t the only standout performance. Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey continue to do excellent work, flipping back and forth between acerbic banter (how about that Titanic stuff, huh?) and palpable pain and discomfort. Dewey, in particular, stands out, particularly in his late scenes with Barr (“She betrayed me.” “No, she didn’t.”) and with Eliza Coupe (still a welcome addition). But it’s the scene from which the episode takes its name that really shows his tremendous range and ability. Listening to his parents chuckle about what are, obviously, some very painful memories, Alex just sits there. He’s perfectly still. It’s the mark of a great actor when they don’t need to do a thing to convey all that’s happening beneath the surface—and it helps when the writing so effectively tells the story.
While Watkins has proven she has a similar ability in previous episodes, her best moments this week were much, much bigger (which, since it’s Casual, are still pretty small). Uncontrollable laughter when faced with a big, ugly emotion seems to be Valerie’s thing. It was perhaps that sequence, in which no humor was to be found, that gave both Barr and Watkins their most vulnerable moments, and the buildup made Valerie’s small rebellion—flipping the mashed potatoes off the table, a gesture designed to both insult her parents and show support to her brother—all the more resonant.
Still, not everything worked. It’s odd to describe something one enjoyed as much as I did this episode—and believe me, I did—as being somewhat weak, but there it is. The biggest issue was in the appearance of patriarch Charles Cole (Fred Melamed, previously only seen in that coffin in the pilot). Melamed’s performance, and the writing for the character, were both nearly sublime in the way they made him so, so terrible. Nearly as soon as he walked in the door, it was clear that Charles was going to make Dawn look like a walk in the park (though he seemed to bring out the worst in her). It’s all so ostentatiously rotten, so perfectly tone-deaf and deliciously insensitive. It’s highly entertaining, and feels completely and utterly wrong for the show.
One of the wonderful things about Dawn’s portrayal to date is that one can easily see both why her children might despise her and her granddaughter might find her compelling and admirable. Such is the blessing and the curse of family—flaws can overwhelm strengths, and old wounds can overpower even the best of intentions. That’s not the case with Charles. That’s not to say that the character needs to be sympathetic or likable, but in a show where Valerie managed to connect with the dick pic guy and where one of the most touching performances has been turned in by failed hookup Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, sadly not present in this episode), it feels very much out of place. He can be terrible, but does he really need to be that terrible?
Unfortunately, the little cringe-worthy moments (walking into the bedroom and sitting on the bed; carving the turkey) are so uncomfortable that they wring some of the strength out of moments that would otherwise pack a great deal more punch. The brief mention of a suicide attempt in Alex’s past and Charles’s callous response to it (“Phones weren’t part of the equation”) loses some of its sting in the overall wash of rotten, as does the story of the night bottles. Melamed will be back for each of the season’s remaining episodes, and with luck the writers and performer will ease up on the throttle a bit—it’s much easier to see the damage done to a life by such a harmful presence when it’s not thrust quite so earnestly in one’s face.
Still, even when the show steps off its precarious tightrope of excellence, I’m thankful for Casual. In an episode that felt the most conventional and unsubtle of any outing thus far, there’s still much to be admired, and a great deal of feeling and thought. If nothing else, there’s one big thing to be thankful for as we stare down the barrel of the last two episodes: season two.
- Thanks to all of you who pointed out that this review wasn’t live. Remember when I was an idiot a few weeks back? I’m even more of one this week. Thanks for reaching out, because I’m an idiot. (Such an idiot.)
- “It was a team effort.”
- Those cake pops look delicious.
- I completely understand Alex’s particular adverse reaction to mashed potatoes, and I love mac and cheese as much as the next person, but a Thanksgiving without potatoes is no kind of Thanksgiving at all.
- The gradual table-setting was a a nice touch, particularly when they had to bust out the one napkin that didn’t match.
- Drew is the worst. “Fucking is fucking”? Um, no.
- “He’s stronger than ever. I think he’s been feeding on livestock.”