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Honest, unselfconscious moments fill a tremendous episode of Casual

Frances Conroy
Frances Conroy
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Last week’s headline: “Stop what you’re doing and start watching Casual.” This week: I can’t recycle that one, and it’s too damn bad.

In “Dick Pic,” people expose themselves. They open themselves up to pain, frustration, connection, rejection, and yes, at least one of them takes pictures of their junk. But this isn’t a story about exhibitionism, it’s about vulnerability, and by allowing the hurts and fears of the family to grow naturally—though not necessarily slowly—Casual turns in an episode that’s staggeringly simple, honest, and affecting.

It’s also damn funny. One of my favorite aspects of Zander Lehmann’s writing thus far—not to mention the performances and direction that bring those words to life—has been the terrific knack he has for letting the humor arise from what’s going on in the lives of his characters. Sheila Callaghan, this episode’s writer, more than ably continues this trend. Jokes and punchlines rarely feel shoehorned in—in fact, most of the time it doesn’t actually feel like there are jokes or punchlines—and instead grow out of the mechanics of each scene. Whether it’s Valerie leaving a panicked voicemail for Alex while that infernal iPhone ellipses lingers on a text message (as it did in the frustratingly-titled “…”) or this week’s painful massage scene, the show’s funniest moments feel totally organic (and yes, honest), and this week was no exception.

It helps when you throw a live grenade in the mix. The explosion in the middle of “Dick Pic” comes courtesy of Frances Conroy. One of the most reliable actors working on television, Conroy is unsurprisingly great here. As Dawn, her distinctive voice is set somewhere between a whisper and a coo, a light hum that should be gentle and soothing but isn’t, somehow. She’s infuriatingly calm, frustratingly tranquil, like a big glass of red wine in which you dip a paper-cut. And her entrance—excusing last week’s brief tease—pushes all three of the primary performers to some of the best work they’ve done so far.

That applies to no one better than Tommy Dewey, who turns in a fantastic performance. Week by week, his self-selected detachment and general nastiness has seemed more and more like a protective (and unsatisfying) shell, and that shell is starting to crack. Juxtaposed with his performance last week, “Dick Pic” makes that defense mechanism even more clear—all of his scenes in the strip club show a person who’s deliberately and actively attempting to be as callous and distant as possible, in contrast with Leon, who is anything but—and when the pieces finally start to fall away, it’s startlingly painful and raw. His brief, explosive scene with Conroy is one of the highlights of the series thus far, a fast, hot flare that throws every previous episode into a stark new light.

His moment of connection, however brief, is nearly as affecting. After getting smacked down by a dancer in the club for being an asshole—seriously, such an asshole—and attempting to have it out with Mom, he checks that honest Snooger profile one more time. Hitting refresh has never been quite so thrilling, and even his terrible behavior in this episode didn’t make that one little match any less satisfying. Just because no one has loved you doesn’t mean you’re unloveable.


As good as Dewey is, he’s far from the only one. Michaela Watkins continues to be, like Clint Eastwood’s best movie, a revelation. The aforementioned massage scene was so bizarrely and unexpectedly funny, and Conroy’s sudden bathtub fact attack deeply painful. The scene that was both, however, and also a series highlight, was her confrontation with the man attached to the penis from which the episode takes its name. Perhaps at this point I shouldn’t be surprised when Casual takes the least expected path, but of all the results I imagined when Valerie stormed out of her house and off to meet Randy (the terrific Chris McGarry), an honest conversation about her divorce and her hesitation to move on wasn’t one of them. Such a thing would feel forced and precious on a lesser show and in lesser hands. Here, it just worked. It stung, and left a mark. It was unspeakably lovely, and three viewings later, I still can’t shake it. It’s an encounter that may not have had the effervescence of her hookup with James the bartender, but it was no less impactful—or casual, for that matter.

Illustration for article titled Honest, unselfconscious moments fill a tremendous episode of Casual

Most surprising, but no less welcome, was the continued evolution of Laura’s relationship with homeroom teacher Michael (Patrick Heusinger). Who knows where we’re headed with this next—I’m still hoping it isn’t an affair—but in “Dick Pic,” Laura found a connection that was satisfying in a completely different way. He taught her, as a teacher should do, and when the seemingly unflappable young woman found herself confronted with her father’s own “honest, unselfconscious moment”at the gas station, she was able to reach out, however briefly, and acknowledge the pain of her own experience. Valerie and Laura both, in ways big and small, confronted the lingering pain of the dissolution of their previous family unit, and did so quietly, and simply, and with incredible grace.

Normally I’d jump in here with some things that didn’t work. Maybe there were things. Maybe others will feel differently. But sometimes when things resonate with you in such a pure, unaffected way, it’s best to just welcome that resonance. Every performance was great. It was funny, and charming, and painful, and packed with a stillness that feels totally earned. It was a window much, much longer than 40 seconds, and I’m just going to be glad that it happened.


Stray Observations

  • Casual has been great with the little details thus far, but my favorite to this point has to be when Valerie spotted the crystal before she spotted her mother but knew exactly what it meant.
  • That massage. Seriously.
  • “This one’s wearing a kerchief.” “A kerchief? Like a bib?”
  • “Where Carl?” “Carl?” “Your dog.”
  • Hey-it’s-that-guy watch: Chris McGarry! He’s done a bunch of stuff—seriously, he’s got one of those IMDb pages that lists half of all the televisions shows ever—and is also an accomplished stage actor. The role that jumped out at me, however, was Jack Hammond, the Advertising Age reporter with the wooden leg in Mad Men’s Public Relations.”
  • Also great: Jennifer Daley as Dana, the dancer who “took care” of Leon. Of course Leon ended up chatting in the dressing room. Also nice to see that Casual made her Dana a real person, not a plot device.
  • “Thanks, divorce.”
  • This is my first A, guys. I feel weird about it. It’s just sitting up there, challenging me to add a minus to it. But I won’t, dammit!