Comedy writers have been railing against the influence of technology on intimate relationships since the days of CompuServe trial software, and the rise of dating apps like Tinder has brought with it a stampede of hobby horses. Meanwhile, the advent of the premium-cable dramedy has granted writers the latitude to depict their frustrations with the decline of face-to-face interaction in dark stories that flout sitcom conventions. Because shows like Girls and Togetherness exist at the intersection of these two phenomena, Casual, Hulu’s new dark comedy series, is driving directly into a traffic jam. Riffs on the inhumanity of app-based dating have become as common as dating apps themselves, and like the software it’s skewering, Casual is slightly different than its competitors, but not different enough to justify its familiarity.
Casual’s biggest selling point is Michaela Watkins, the excellent improv actress who has long-deserved a project worthy of her talents and has had a career mottled with woefully brief projects. She landed a slot on Saturday Night Live, but was lost in Lorne Michaels’ summer culling after one year as a featured player. She joined the cast of ABC’s underappreciated Trophy Wife, which was canceled after a single season, as was USA’s Benched, the uneven but promising legal comedy she co-created. Casual affords Watkins the opportunity to try her hand in a more dramatic role, and like most great comedians, there’s a sad clown barely beneath the surface of her madcap exterior.
Watkins plays Valerie, an energy-depleted divorcee who moves, along with her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), into the home of her rude, rakish brother Alex (Tommy Dewey). Alex is the human embodiment of what women hate about Tinder. A vain computer programmer, his contribution to the planet is helping to found a dating site called Snooger, and he’s entirely too proud of helping people more efficiently dismiss each other based on physical appearance. But at least Snooger provides Casual a natural path into its “online dating, amirite?” subject matter. When Alex encourages Valerie to get back onto the new-fangled dating scene, as loved ones of television divorcees so often do, he has legitimate character motivations.
The pilot is a sad, delicate, pretty little thing, observantly written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Jason Reitman, the two-time Academy Award-nominated director who chose Casual as his first formal foray into series television (outside of a few Office episodes). Reitman is intimately familiar with the show’s themes, having adapted 2014’s Men, Women & Children from the technophobic novel of the same name. Reitman is a get for a project like Casual, but his presence only serves to bolster the nagging feeling that Casual might have worked better as a movie-length project. The show evokes both the tone and the format dysmorphia of Togetherness, which also sprang from the mind of acclaimed filmmakers (Mark and Jay Duplass) and depicts Los Angeles’ idiosyncratic Silver Lake neighborhood as a microcosm of the city.
Casual is similarly formless, and with little focus on plot development to pull the audience through the bouts of despair, it’s essentially a hang-out comedy for people who want to hang out with a weepy single mother and her douchebag brother. Lehmann’s dialogue is often appealing, as when Valerie goes out for drinks with a crew of much younger women, and one of them asks her how she got to where she is in life. “Well, through a long chain of self-destructive choices that led to the dissolution of a loveless marriage,” says Valerie. It’s a zesty line, but no different than so much dialogue in so many similar projects.
Alex is arrogant and emotional obtuse in all the obvious ways, and Laura is a typically too-precocious high schooler who’s caught having sex with her boyfriend in a hot tub before the pilot is even half over. Barr is a talented actress, but also a bit of a casting miscue. Her actual twentysomething self doesn’t look or sound like a 16-year-old girl, and it’s easy to forget Laura is supposed to be in high school until she physically appears in one.
Had Casual beat most of HBO and Showtime’s half-hour genre-bending shows to air, it would be undeniably fresh and winning. Arriving when it does, Casual seems like an abrupt contribution to a conversation everyone mutually decided to stop participating in three years ago.
In theory, every not-quite-right project gets Watkins ever closer to the exactly right one, so Casual is to be appreciated for that reason alone. Not since Anna Faris has a comedic actress been so improbably underappreciated for so long. But Casual isn’t a match, and it’s pretty obvious why Lehmann seems so anxious about the influence of dating apps on the way humans evaluate prospects. Casual is the show you reflexively swipe left for—not because it isn’t cute in its own way, but because it looks identical to so much that came before it.