Wednesday, June 8, 2016

REVIEW: 'Casual' - Alex Tries to Improve His Life After His Break Up While Laura Looks for a New School in 'Phase 3'

Hulu's Casual - Episode 2.01 "Phase 3"

Alex's troubling new obsession leads Valerie to take matters into her own hands. Laura investigates switching high schools.

"Phase 3" is a smooth and easy return to the world of Casual. It definitely takes things slow for the audience to re-embrace this universe and its characters. It's not making any big moves with the plot. There is still some forward momentum. But a lot of the story of this season premiere focuses on the characters doing or avoiding what happened between them during the conclusion of the first season. So much has happened that has threatened the bonds of this family. And yet, Valerie, Alex and Laura are all still living in the same house having seemingly forgiven each other for their betrayals of last season. All of them are essentially bottling things up and choosing to avoid dealing with any real emotions between them. They are concerned about one another but they aren't lashing out at each other either. They are simply existing in the same space together. That's a fascinating place to find the characters at the start of the season - even though it doesn't particularly make for an exciting season premiere.

Alex is easily the one avoiding his feelings and emotions the most in "Phase 3." The episode gets its title from him trying to move on from his relationship with Emmy - after it imploded when she slept with Valerie. Phase 1 was drowning his sorrows in alcohol and meaningless sex and Phase 2 was depression. And now, Phase 3 is self-improvement. Phase 1 is a lifestyle that he has always been very comfortable in. That's almost normal operating procedure for him. That's the area of life where he has always succeeded. That's where he is comfortable. But more importantly, that's where Valerie is most comfortable with him. She sees that as a reality that really suits him. It's a lifestyle where she doesn't have to worry about him. In these other phases, she does worry. She spends this entire episode worrying that his new self-improvement phase is only going to end disastrously. And that's not something she can afford to have in her life right now because she needs to be focusing on herself and Laura. But it's exactly where she finds herself nevertheless. She had no issue with Alex's handling of his breakup with Emmy when it came to Phases 1 and 2. But now, she's worried about him because he's changing while she is still stuck in the same pattern of needing to look after everyone else while she's about to turn 40. This is not where she expected to be at this point in her life and that's slightly terrifying for her - though it's not affecting her too much in this opening episode (but probably will as the season goes along).

So much of Alex's story is told through Valerie's reaction to his new self-improvement lifestyle. Its disrupting her life in ways she doesn't want to deal with right now. It's not as if she was getting meaningful sleep anyway though because birds were chirping outside her window. But Alex still made his presence known at that early hour by needing to make a smoothie. He wants to better himself so that he can move forward in his life without making the same mistakes he has always made. He had something real with Emmy. Of course, it was never going to be enough for him because Emmy came with her own complications - largely an open relationship. But it was still real and more meaningful than any of his previous relationships. The breakup should have a lasting effect on him. He shouldn't just fall back into familial patterns again by going out with whomever he finds attractive on his dating site. He genuinely wants to be a better person. It should be interesting to see how long that will last - especially considering he doesn't want to deal with any of the honest and raw emotions he is feeling about this situation.

Valerie intervenes in Alex's life by telling Leon he should reach out and get him to revert back to his playboy ways. It's twisted that that's the life Valerie wants for her brother right now following the events of the first season. But again, it's a familiar quantity in a world that is changing - with more struggles at work and Laura transferring schools. Leon wants to help as well. He's unsure of how to react to Alex in the wake of his breakup. At times, he believes Alex is suicidal. So he's willing to do whatever the man asks of him. It's gotten to the point where Alex throws out all of Leon's food - even though he doesn't do the same for Valerie or Laura. So, Leon does his best to reach out to Alex on a genuine level. It provides a window into Leon's own personal life and his struggles with a relationship that ended abruptly. In so many of his interactions with other characters, it's about them and not him. He was there as a one-night stand for Valerie and then Alex kept inserting himself into his life. He's now a regular presence in their worlds. But it's also refreshing to get some insight into his past as well. His wife cheated on him and then left. He didn't get to confront her and get the closure he needed to move on. When he shares this, Alex latches on to in order to give Leon the closure he desperately needs. It's not what Leon intended but it seems it's done some good for Alex anyway. Leon doesn't want to say anything to Maya when the duo show up on her doorstep. Alex does most of the talking but he is finally able to express how distraught he has been by the person he loves the most betraying him. It should be interesting to see how much of that makes much of a difference moving forward.

By the end of the premiere, it does seem like Alex is in a much better place after letting out some of his feelings. But he's still choosing to latch onto other things instead of really dealing with his own problems. He is really there for Laura. It's refreshing to see the two of them bond throughout this episode. He's very frank about what public school would be like should she decide to go there. That's not an environment she enjoys when she visits. But the family is running out of options for her as well. She needs to get an education but that has gotten so complicated because of the messy family dynamics. Laura no longer wants to attend the school she went to last season because of her sex scandal and the embarrassment of her teacher crush sleeping with her mother. She wants something different. But she doesn't know what that is. Valerie wants to be supportive. She doesn't want to push her daughter away again. But she has opinions too. She doesn't like public school. She needs Laura to agree with her but she doesn't want to push for it either. It's a weird dynamic. The family does have meaningful interactions with each other. But there's still a divide between them. They are still unhealthily close with one another. But it's not as simple or easy as it once was. And that's only going to get more complicated because Alex wants to home school Laura. He wants to believe that he can do that. But it too feels like his latest project for him to take on. And now, it's about Laura's future and not just his own. He and Laura are excited about it while Valerie has her reservations. It could be a good thing in the moment but just how seriously will everyone continue to take this after a couple months of classes? That's uncertain while leaving things very open for yet another dynamic season of the show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Phase 3" was written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Jason Reitman.
  • Leon did what Valerie wanted him to do. He got Alex to express himself in a way that he hadn't post-breakup. And yet, she still awoke to the birds outside her window and Alex making a noise downstairs with his new obsession.
  • It also seems like there will be increased focus on Valerie's job this season as well. That could be a welcome change. Julie Berman was quite the scene stealer last season as Leia. And now, she has been promoted to series regular. So, that will be a lot of fun.
  • But there's drama at the office because Valerie is now sharing the space with someone new named Jennifer who has decided to disrupt the place by renovating. That creates conflict immediately even though Jennifer is nowhere to be seen.
  • In addition to eating healthier foods, Alex has also started doing hot yoga. It's an experience that he shares with Laura. But it's more significant that he turns down an invitation to get a drink with a woman. It's an awkward scene where Alex really doesn't express himself well. But it's still important because it shows he wants to change from the ways of his past.
  • Laura has hardly had the typical high school experience. It's different than what her mother went through during those years. But she too had her own struggles with needing to take care of Alex and not really being able to fit in anywhere.
  • As Alex points out to Laura, the only benefit of going to public school is one day being able to tell people as an adult that you survived public school.