Tara Lynne Barr, Tommy Dewey, Michaela Watkins

Casual begins with a funeral and ends in the dark. As bookends, they’re appropriate. While the pilot doesn’t brood or rend its garments—it’s not that grim—there’s no effervescence or sunshine to be found. It’s like a washcloth so wrung out that it can’t really be called damp anymore. It feels the way a bad breakup feels once about a week has gone by. It seems, like its central figure, just plain tired.

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That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Written by creator Zander Lehmann and gracefully directed by Jason Reitman, Casual’s first outing is bracingly forlorn, a not-quite-mournful bitter pill as quiet as a whispered joke at a funeral. Huddled at its core sits Valerie, somehow played with both restraint and considerable gusto by Michaela Watkins. While we spend time with the show’s other ostensible leads, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) and Alex (Tommy Dewey), the episode belongs to her. It’s a rare thing, to make exhaustion seem so compelling.

In her first non-dream sequence, Valerie perches on the edge of her bed, surrounded by the luggage she hasn’t yet unpacked, caught between sighing and holding her breath. It feels intrusive, a covert glimpse of someone as they summon the will to get the hell out of bed when they would really, really rather not. It’s that sensation that Watkins laces throughout her performance, a tremulous, fragile thing that’s equally weary and high-strung. She’s perfectly not at ease, in moments both big—though, in a Game of Thrones world, little here could really be described as big—and small.

It’s the small moments that resonate: nervously chewing her lips in the car on the way to a bad date, tottering in heels that maybe don’t quite fit, a flash of dismay that flits across her face when her daughter swipes at her with a barb about condoms. They’re moments that leap out because, for the most part, the canvas on which they’re painted is so stark. Similarly, so do the moments when she’s at ease, all of which take place in the scenes with her brother. It’s almost impossible to imagine the woman who sprawls on the couch beside Alex being the same woman whose reserved blankness is barely even broken by a conversation about scissoring, but it feels utterly honest and painful and funny. It’s a great part, and a great performer, and what works here largely works because of her.

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Tiredness cuts both ways, however. With Valerie, both the writing and the performance feel bold in their simplicity, but the same can’t be said of Alex. Tommy Dewey is an actor of significant charm, but little about the character or the performance feels nuanced. It’s commendable for an actor to really dig into the things that make a character unappealing—particularly when that character isn’t a villain—but when there’s so little to go on, the effect is cartoonish, at best. In his date with the master fitness instructor—another character painted in the broadest of broad brushstrokes—he seemed every inch the bad date in someone else’s montage, just another lousy guy in a series that you bypass on your way to Mr. Right. Moments of promise can be found, with the aforementioned scene on the couch proving a particular highlight, but the overall impression isn’t of still waters, it’s of a shallow pool. Whatever runs there doesn’t run deep—at least not yet—and it certainly doesn’t feel original.

The same can be said of elements of Lehmann’s script. While the frankness with which sex is handled might have seemed fresh a few years ago, now it feels more like just another item on the prestige television checklist. Strap-on reference? Check. Lack of parent-child boundaries? Check. Dick jokes? Check. Obviously such things can work—and given the quality of talent involved, they probably will eventually—but here it felt like it was something that had to be done, rather than something that grew organically from the story being told. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it didn’t feel casual, and amidst so many moments of simplicity and stillness, anything forced sticks out like a pair of copulating teenagers in a hot tub.

Still, Casual’s start is a promising one. Even if Watkins’s performance was the only reason to tune in, it would be reason enough—but any show willing to pull back on the throttle and get a little weary deserves a shot. This isn’t Modern Family, no matter how modern the family may be.

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Stray Observations

  • While Hulu made all 10 episodes of Casual available to critics, I’ve only seen the pilot, so this review doesn’t take anything that happens in episode two (currently available) into account.
  • “See, that seems inappropriate, even for us.”
  • I may not have liked the scissoring/strap-on conversation, but Julie Berman (playing Leia, the assistant) sold the hell out of it.
  • Great credits music alert: “After Laughter Comes Tears” by Wendy Rene. Love.
  • Leon (Nyasha Hatendi) opening the fridge to reveal Alex in his altogether was one of several gorgeous shots. That Reitman sure knows his way around a camera, huh? I bet he’s got a career in the pictures ahead of him.

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