Michaela Watkins

The best thing I saw on television this week, or last week, or this month, or last month, took all of 40 seconds and only one word.

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If you’re on the fence about starting Casual, consider this an official plea: just jump in. It’s not in danger of cancellation—Hulu already announced a second season—but it’s also not generating the sort of energy one might expect from a show this good. Part of it may be the sleepy start, because while both of its first two episodes were solid (and beautiful to look at), this seems to be a show that needs time to grow on you. It’s certainly grown on me. And if you’ve only got 40 seconds in which you can be convinced, then “…” has the scene for you.

“…”—yes, that’s the title—is all about expectations: the expectations of the people we date, the expectations we have for ourselves, the twinges of hope and fear that drive us to do what we do. All three points of this weird family triangle come face to face with these things, and each of them winds up hurt. This is Casual’s funniest episode yet, but it’s also the saddest, and nowhere is it sadder than the 40 seconds Valerie spends in an elevator.

A challenge: try to pinpoint the exact moment that Michaela Watkins’s laughter becomes tears (remember that little ditty from the pilot?). I couldn’t. It’s a remarkable, simple, honest piece of acting, encompassing much more than the sting of suddenly feeling unwanted by a person whose bed you were in just that morning. It’s about way more than the spoons. She laughs, and then cries, and it encompasses the failure of a marriage, aging, fear, foolishness. Then the doors open, and she pulls herself together, and mutters “hey” to the bewildered couple waiting to enter. It’s perfect. It’s vast, and still tiny. And yeah, it’s also about spoons.

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It would be easy to write another 300 words about those 40 seconds, but all 26 minutes were great, so we’ll move on. Valerie’s big moment was the highlight of the week, and her voicemail to Alex was the funniest, but the most surprising was Alex’s sweet, sad comeuppance. It was obvious from the moment that Monica (the terrific Stefanie Black) said “can I use it on my blog?” that Alex was in trouble, but the inevitable crash didn’t make the fall any less awful and delightful, all at once.

With every episode, Tommy Dewey has peeled back more and more layers of Alex’s callous, distant exterior, and Monica’s one-two punch—first startling him into some real emotion and a seemingly honest connection, then revealing some of his worst habits and traits to the world—gives him the chance to turn in a performance that rivals the best work Watkins has done thus far. The world outside his odd little family unit seems to keep finding ways to tell Alex that he’s worthless, from the company he founded showing signs of pushing him out the door to the disdainful stare of a pet store employee. So Dewey imbues Alex with a sort of anchorless exhaustion, as though he’s been going through the motions for a long, long time, and doesn’t really know how to stop.

Not that Dewey should get all the credit. Creator Zander Lehmann’s beautiful script accomplished so much in its brief 26 minutes that it’s staggering, and that’s due in no small part to the ways he chooses to spend those minutes. In Monica and Alex’s sex scene, softly lit and unexpectedly romantic, the camera seems to linger as though it’s hesitant to turn away. Contrast that with the businesslike and awkward encounter with April in “Animals”. Like the elevator scene, it’s wordless, but reveals a great deal about what, exactly makes Alex so lonely. He feels something for this woman, based on her personality alone, and he’s so startled. What a sad thing, to have connection be so unfamiliar.

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It’s just the runner-up in the race for Alex’s biggest moment of sad, though. The winner, of course, is his second Snooger profile. Lehmann gives Valerie some hope—there are more than 4,000 fish in her sea of casual partners, and they all want to talk to her right now—but there’s no such optimism for Alex. That simple, resigned click of the match button on his honest profile was never going to turn up any results. The algorithm’s not perfect yet.

Laura’s story was the weakest of the three this week. Tara Lynne Barr gets better and better, but fantasizing about a teacher and not knowing what to do about it is way more interesting to me than an affair with said teacher, which is where the show looks to be heading. But any reservations given by that turn of events were more than balanced out by the always welcome appearance of Frances Conroy. Casual was promising from the start, but with the inclusion of such a great performer and the streak of two excellent episodes in a row, expectations are soaring.

Stray Observations

  • “She was like the Michael Jordan of casual sex. You just try to be Ron Harper.”
  • “Hey, it’s that guy!” watch: Stefanie Black, who was one of the only good parts of a seriously lousy subplot on Scandal before biting the dust. Also Andy Buckley, who plays Paul, has been in just about everything, but might be best known as David “Suck It” Wallace, CEO of Dunder Mifflin.
  • I really wish that I hadn’t known that Ruth Fisher/Myrtle Snow/Loretta Stinson was going to show up. What a great surprise that would have been.
  • “Every time we fuck it’s like a struggle to survive.”
  • The youngest Laura has ever looked was when she showed up to that lunch and realized it was a photography club meeting. I’m not sure if that was great acting, great direction, or just a viewer’s bias, but she really looked 16 for the first time in the whole series.
  • Sorry that we’re just now caught up! There’s a long story but the short one is that I’m an idiot. The next review will be up Wednesday.
  • Seriously, “…” is a great title in theory but a total pain in the ass in practice. I suppose that’s appropriate, as it was every bit as frustrating as it is when someone is sending a text for a million years.

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