Thursday, October 8, 2015

REVIEW: 'Casual' - Valerie Does Her Best to Move On In a World That is Slightly Uncomfortable to Her in 'Pilot'

Hulu's Casual - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Recently divorced Valerie and her 16-year-old daughter Laura have just moved in with Valerie's brother, Alex. An eternal bachelor and master of casual dating, Alex sets Valerie up on a date via his popular dating site.

Casual feels both wonderfully refreshing and tiredly familiar. It is the latest iteration of the new modern family - a brother-sister team are raising her daughter after her marriage fell apart. And yet, the show is doing interesting work in tone and pacing. This isn't an incredibly upbeat show but sadness isn't completely overwhelming either. It's mournful and bracing of a reality that isn't what was expected but is happening nevertheless. It's a fascinating place to center a show around. This opening episode thrives in the little details of its characters. Their relationships feel fully realized and lived in already. The individual character work can at times go a little broad but when the characters are together intriguing stuff happens that pulls out compelling performances.

Michaela Watkins is fantastic as Valerie from the very first moment she appears on screen. These characters all understand each other in a way that the rest of the world just doesn't immediately get. Valerie is somewhat in a state of limbo and uncertain with her life right now. She's moved in with her brother after getting a divorce from her husband. And yet, she still hasn't unpacked her suitcases. She sits on her bed unsure if she wants to get up and face the challenges of the day or just continue to sit there and do nothing. She is exhausted by her life just as much as she is consistently confused by the world around her. She wants to give her daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), freedom. Valerie believes she's looking after her daughter simply by putting her on the pill and buying her condoms. This family is uncomfortably close to one another. But that's also the strength of the show in this opening episode.

Valerie's exasperation spreads itself into all aspects of her life. Her brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey), is encouraging her to use online dating just like everyone else. As the creator of his own site, he can hook her up much more quickly than the average person. It's not even a question of whether or not Valerie is ready to be intimate with another guy again. She's just uncertain about her whole life; what she needs to do as individual as well as a parent. She needed this little push by her brother to try something different. She needed to step up and take a chance on something new. And yet, that pursuit wasn't completely comfortable for her either. The only time she is really comfortable is when she is talking with Alex. The rest of the time she seems fragile and uneasy - as if the rest of the world and her outer appearance just don't fit right. It's not surprising that this first date doesn't go well. But it's also because of her not feeling right about the whole evening - and not because the date is a horrible person.

Casual is a fascinating character study - when it comes to Valerie. Watkins' subtle reactions to various things inform the character a great deal more than the other two lead characters. She nails the quiet moments so well as Valerie is trying to figure out her life. But she is still surprised by the bluntness of her assistant telling her that she would fuck her if no one else would. She has given Laura freedom to make adult choices but it's still slightly startling to see her half naked with a guy. Laura even makes a joke about Valerie needing to borrow one of her condoms that certainly throws Valerie for a loop - even though she largely keeps that contained. This world is just slightly off to her. She may not be comfortable in the outfit she walks out of the house with in the end. But she is able to go out and get the thing that her brother was pushing for her to find - a casual relationship. That won't completely solve her psychological problems right now. This episode introduces a complex and complicated woman. But she is able to find sex just like the other two members of her family.

Alex and Laura's stories aren't as nuanced or compelling as Valerie's. Laura is basically the latest version of an over-sexed teenager who got that way because her parents tried giving her freedom. It's not an entirely bad thing. It does great things when she plays off of Valerie. But it's also incredibly familiar. Similarly, Alex is at his best and most natural when he is just lying on that couch with Valerie. His date in the middle of the episode is so much worse than Valerie's. And yet, they are both horrible people defined in the broadest ways. Alex is simply the confident and blunt playboy who created one dating site and enjoys the perks that come from that. Yes, him dreaming about his father's funeral and how he, Valerie and Laura are reacting to all of it is an amusing start to the episode. It also hints that the season will explore how the parents to these siblings affected their dynamic and personalities. That's intriguing for the future - even though it doesn't create much substance for the present. Still, this world is a fascinating exploration of these characters. It should be fun to watch as the show peels back the layers of who these people are.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Jason Reitman.
  • That last sequence of Valerie's hookup, Leon, going to the kitchen and running into a completely naked Alex was absolutely beautiful. Jason Reitman has such a strong and distinct command of the look and feel of this show.
  • Valerie and Alex's parents are played by Fred Melamed and Frances Conroy. Based on what little is said about them here, the dad is perpetually dating younger woman while the mom can barely even work up the courage to say goodbye to him.
  • Valerie's husband who left her for a younger woman is played by Zak Orth. They are still very angrily trying to determine who gets what in the divorce.
  • The show thought it needed to include the joke about strap ons and scissoring in order to feel relevant. It was somewhat startling - and not in a good way. But the way that Julie Berman delivers those lines almost makes it worth it.
  • The second episode of Casual's first season is also available to watch on Hulu right now. Expect a review of that sometime tomorrow. The rest of the 10-episode season will debut weekly on Wednesdays. This could be fun to discuss on an episodic basis.