Tuesday, July 31, 2018

REVIEW: Hulu's 'Casual' - Season 4

Hulu's Casual returned for its 8-episode fourth and final season on Tuesday, July 31. This post will feature brief reviews of each episode of the season.

The comedy stars Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, Tara Lynne Barr, Nyasha Hatendi and Julie Berman.

401. "Carrie"
Written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Gillian Robespierre

Casual jumps ahead a couple of years in time for its final season. It's surprising to watch because it means that technology is slightly different and Alex is co-parenting a toddler with Rae. It shows some of the consequences that result from the decisions made at the end of the third season. Alex was ready to take on this commitment with Rae while Laura just wanted to escape from her life and family in Los Angeles. And now, it's clear that things are still in flux and complicated for the family. Their lives haven't drastically improved in the subsequent years. In fact, it may have just been more of the same for them. Valerie has been searching for a hobby but she just hasn't found anything that has given her joy in her life. She has lived without seeing her daughter for two years. After reconnecting with her, she returns home to discover that her neighbor has passed away. That appears to be the sad trajectory for her life as well because it doesn't seem like she has anything going for her. Everything is still basically the same even though the rest of the characters have changed lives now. Of course, Alex is still very dysfunctional. He wants to believe his arrangement with Rae where they live and parent together but are free to date other people at night is working. But he's also incredibly jealous once he actually meets Rae's serious boyfriend, Jeff. He wants to be seen as the protector of this family. He cares about the palm branch bursting through the window more than anyone else. He's a very concerned and protective father. But it's also forging on too much as well. He's not actively listening to the world around him. Meanwhile, Laura seems to be in a really healthy place with her life. She has returned to the states with a renewed sense of energy and a new girlfriend in Tathiana. But even that seems defined by distance in the end with Laura not being able to go to a party with Tathiana because she has to work in the morning. She's growing up and dealing with the realities of the world on her own. That's startling for her even though she's prepared for the challenge. Meanwhile, Leon and Leia are happy together as a couple even though Leon feels stuck in his life and angry with customs enforcement for stealing his anticipated gift from his mother. A-

402. "The Missing Piece"
Written by Cara DiPaolo and directed by Gillian Robespierre

Valerie has been chasing joy over the course of the entire series. She's been searching for that thing that is going to make her happy again. A lot of it has been told through her trying to get her romantic life together. But the show has also put in the work to show that she's just no longer fulfilled as a therapist. She is bored and tired by the menial problems of her clients. She isn't passionate about helping them find the solutions to their minor problems like Leia is. And now, it's just so purely exciting to see Valerie find something that immediately makes her feel joyful. She is bursting with pride and excitement over the idea of opening up a wine business. It's so in keeping with the character as well. This is something she has long been searching for. And now, the inspiration has finally struck. She is finally the family member who seems like her life is coming together. Yes, it could be tumultuous to start a new business. But she doesn't care. She's just happy that she has this direction and that Laura is moving back in with her. Of course, she doesn't care to ask why Laura and Tathiana are no longer living together. Laura also has a moment of pure passion where it feels like she has found a place to belong. Being in a restaurant could easily lead to the same amount of inspiration and excitement for her. But right now, she's in the headspace that she needs to be happy, satisfied and needed in a romantic context. She is moving too quickly with Tathiana and potentially ruining their bond very soon in their relationship. Tathiana only wants to hit pause for a little bit to slow down. But to Laura, that could signal the beginning of the end. And finally, Alex wants to believe that everyone in the world is looking for love and a lasting relationship. But he's so prone to self-sabotage as well. He ruins this connection that he has where he is content having sex with a woman a couple nights a week. Then, he also makes things awkward with Jeff by letting it be known that he does have love for Rae even though their relationship is so completely platonic. That appears to be the relationship he is chasing though because he has grown quite happy with their little family unit. He's just devastated because it seems like Rae has found that feeling elsewhere with Jeff which also makes Alex incredibly petty. B+

403. "Virtual Reality"
Written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Hannah Fidell

It's not really abundantly clear what year this season is exactly set in. It's just important that it's a couple years after the third season and not the present day for those watching when the season debuts. The show has been vague with a couple of the pop culture references and the updates to technology. But those influences have still been apparent as the show tries to depict a near future. That quality is most explicitly felt here. Alex explores the world of virtual dating. All of the themes are very familiar of online dating with the fear that a person is one step away from being catfished or having their identity stolen. It's just much more real because the two individuals are interacting in the virtual space. Of course, the story never loses the perception that it is all going to end in tragedy somehow. That appears to be Alex's story in this final season. He's really struggling to figure out what he wants. He wants a lasting connection but is no longer young enough to really be dating the way he has been for the entire series. Too much time has gone by and changed him. This new technology affords him new opportunities but it just ends with him getting his information stolen. Elsewhere, Laura is having too big of a reaction to the fight she is currently in with Tathiana. Her girlfriend only said that she didn't want to live together just yet. But Laura took that as a breakup. She's really struggling at the moment because she has no idea what to do with her life while also trying to improve on the mistakes of her past. She is reminded of her past relationships when she attempts to go over and talk with Tathiana again. That moment is a little too vague though as it forces the audience to be aware that these relationships ended because Laura still burned too hot too quickly with them. She fears she's falling into the same patterns here but that is only leading to more inaction on her part. Moreover, this episode serves as introductions for Timm Sharp as John and Molly Ephraim as Jess. Those characters help fill out the world of Laura's new job while also giving Valerie a resource to help her with her new wine business. She's going on in on that endeavor. She's splitting with all of her patients but also dumping most of them onto Leia who sees why Valerie was tired of the grind after awhile. But it's also exciting to see her formulating her new vision even though she doesn't have all of the answers right away. She is just exploring to see what she likes and how to make a business from that. B

404. "Dreams Stay With You"
Written by Harris Danow and directed by Hannah Fidell

With this final season only being eight episodes, there is the possible fear of things happening a little too quickly. This season has been introducing a fair amount of new stories for the characters. But Valerie and John are already confessing to liking each other and wanting to date. Alex is telling Rae that he is in love with her. Laura is quitting her job to become a more relatable personality online. And Leia learns that she isn't pregnant and doesn't even want to have a baby with Leon. These are all important plot points that all just happen to occur in the same episode. It makes this a very pivotal episode for the show. It also brings back two characters from the past who help inform where Valerie and Alex are in their current arcs. Fred Melamed shows up as a hallucination of Charles that appears in a drug-induced journey by Alex. Chace Crawford returns as Byron who is still clearly in love with Valerie. Both appearances are funny and amusing in their own way. Of course, Alex commenting that it's a cliche to see his father in a moment like this doesn't lesson the fact that it is a cliche the show is using. Meanwhile, Byron mostly pops up in order to get Valerie and John together. But there's nothing wrong with either of those developments either. Alex needs to learn to appreciate what's actually in front of him even though it's awkward to return home to tell Rae - who is happy with her new boyfriend - that he wants more from their relationship. And Valerie should feel excited and confident about the work she is doing with her wine store even though she only makes a few connections at this event. And yet, it will be most fascinating to see what happens to Leia and Leon next following the conversation they have here. Those two were such an unexpected pairing last season that really worked well. And now, the show is putting them through the emotional ringer by saying they want two completely different things. The show set up the expectation for them to grow closer only to pull the rug out from underneath them an episode later. Of course, that could be annoying. But it all depends on what happens next in this particular story and whether or not they can continue to make things work. B

405. "The Last Super Bowl"
Written by Rosa Handelman and directed by Zander Lehmann

A bit of time passes between episodes here. So now, Valerie and John are officially dating, Rae has moved out, Laura and Camila are working and sleeping together, and Leia and Leon are in a weird holding pattern because of their differences. This episode highlights how things are allowed to continue changing for the characters but they need to remain ever present and mindful of the conversations they are having and what they are doing next. Even though the season is set in the future and has the fantastical premise here of the last Super Bowl, it's still very relatable with the story because it is fundamentally about our selfish natures as human beings. The story is pointing out that doing something ironically is still ultimately beneficial to that thing. Alex wants to mark this momentous occasion and cheer the social ramifications. But the show ultimately gets the last laugh in always having the television buffering and the guests always wanting to leave. It shows that people are inherently more interested in their lives than the world around them. And yet, that's always tricky to navigate. Valerie is happy with John. But it also seems like he forces her to completely redesign the wine bar instead of going for her original concept. Alex was proud to tell Rae that he loved her. It took this time apart for him to talk about how much he needs her in his life and that they need to be okay. Him actually being able to put that into words allows the two of them to then address their feelings. It's such a strong, sweeping romantic moment too. Meanwhile, Laura has to reckon with the fact that she is profiting off of her grief from breaking up with Tathiana even though she was the one truly to blame for their relationship falling apart. She has to actually run into her again and be called out on her actions for her to see the error of her ways. But she is still choosing to act impulsively as well. She doesn't want to be defined as one thing even though that's the hook that has led to her success. And finally, it's so heartbreaking to see Leia and Leon drift apart like this. They are being put through the ringer because they have different opinions on having kids. It's an issue where they can't find a compromise either. No matter how much Valerie tries to help them, they still ultimately come down on opposite sides. There is still so much love present between them. But they are realizing that they will have to move on because they don't want to compromise on the lives they want. They just also fear that they will never have anything as good as this either. A-

406. "Faultless Bodies and Blameless Minds"
Written by Tess Morris and directed by Helen Estabrook

The characters have evolved across four seasons. And yet, they still have moments where they break down and regress to their roots because it's just much simpler for them. This is a family that has always been too incredibly close but still struggle to actually communicate with one another. Valerie would rather see Alex's problems as the latest way he has messed up his life than in trying to hope for the best. Laura is so used to being ignored by her mother that she is fine just taking the little moments of connection even though she's faced with some severe existential questions. But now, the show is heading into its home stretch. There are only two episodes left. As such, it's clear that the show is moving the characters to their specific endings. This season has been about them trying to get their individual happinesses and find the place where they belong. It's been a difficult journey. And now, the road is still plagued with obstacles. This road trip is nothing more than a bottle episode for the three main members of the family. They don't even reach their ultimate destination of seeing Dawn. It's still a fitting episode because it forces the characters to make decisions about their lives. Alex gets exactly what he deserves in believing the world is trying to punish him through temptation now that he wants to get serious with Rae. The stranger was definitely in the right for calling him out as a stalker. Meanwhile, Valerie gets such a rewarding victory in being able to steal John's van back after the mechanic wants to charge her for repairs that aren't necessary. She is able to come to that conclusion herself and actually make the choices to get what's hers. Again, that can't be good foreshadowing for the future of her relationship with John because it seems like he is forcing her to change her wine store to his idea. But it's empowering in the moment. And finally, it's so special and ethereal to watch as Laura wanders into this dance at the back of the bar. It's a complete fantasy sequence courtesy of her hangover. And yet, it also highlights how she wants to feel needed in this world. She loves the thrill of being able to move with a group of people and know that there will be someone there to catch her. It's so agonizing when she realizes that she's all alone and can't escape. She will forever be trapped in a box if she doesn't talk about her feelings too. And so, she's willing to take that step with her mother in the hopes of making things work. If not, then she can at least say that she tried because she recognizes the importance of that now. A

407. "All About You"
Written by Nick Jones, Jr. and directed by Michael Weaver

There have been expectations on this final season in regards to the romantic pairings. It has certainly felt as if the couples were pairing off to be together in that way for the closing of the series. Valerie had John, Alex had Rae, Laura had Tathiana, and Leia and Leon had each other. But it's so fascinating and emotionally resonant that the show is choosing to explore the value in understanding friendships over relationships. Laura understands that she was immature when she was dating Tathiana earlier this season. She has acted impulsively ever since. But now, she does have the clarity to understand that Tathiana is someone who belongs in her life. She wants her even if it's just as a friend. She doesn't want to cycle through her like she has done for so much of her life. She wants to break that pattern and this relationship means something even if it never becomes sexual again. That is perfectly fine for her as well. Meanwhile, it's so moving to watch Alex actually experience and express empathy when it comes to Rae's difficult situation. She is in love with Jeff and only slept with Alex because they were in a fight. She loves the romance of the date that Alex had planned. It's the two of them exploring a connection they never thought would occur. And yet, Rae still loves Jeff. She wants to explore what life could be like with him in Houston. It's so devastating to her because she doesn't want to destroy their family. She wants Alex and Kerry in her life. She sees the value in maintaining these bonds. They are so crucial to her because they've allowed her to grow so much. She has more opportunities because her life is so fulfilled. And Alex doesn't want to be the reason why she is forced to hold back. Yes, it means another episode where he is assaulted because he believes he is special in some way. He once again deserves that punch to the face. But it's also a punch that comes with clarity over his situation. He does it so that this family has the potential of being happy even though the current state of things are in flux because of the potential move. Meanwhile, it's so rousing to watch Leia plead with Leon to take things one day at a time to see how things evolve in their relationship. She wants to give him everything that she deserves. She doesn't know how she'll feel in the future. But she wants to explore that future with him. All of these stories are very emotional and grounded. And then, there is Valerie having to laugh at John after he makes such a big deal out of his brief brush with death. It seems so silly to her that he would be trying to attach some higher meaning to this accident which she also believes is partly his fault because he was running at night. It's the moment that is the clear destruction of their relationship without ever having to be said. John wants empathy even though that's a silly demand on his part. Valerie should feel empowered to leave him behind and explore bigger and better things with her business. A

408. "Finale"
Written by Zander Lehmann and directed by Michael Weaver

This was a beautiful finale for a strong final season. Everything comes together in a way that mirrors the series premiere. That's a narrative trick commonly used but still has immense value to it. The audience remembers that moment where Valerie, Alex and Laura were sitting in the church at a parent's funeral making fun of everyone who attended. It ultimately was revealed to be nothing more than a dream as it is here. But there is also a strong sense of finality throughout this episode. That had to be the case. But it's fitting as well because it showcases how the characters have evolved even though they may still be chasing after the same things that they were at the start of the series. Alex and Valerie don't walk away with some grand romantic closure. In fact, they have a farewell that serves as a tribute to their mother. They go out on a double date just like they did in the first episode. They team up together in order to help each other out. They still have that connection and the desire to help. This time they just happen to be called out for making their dates uncomfortable. That doesn't derail the night though. In fact, they are all able to have a great time. It feels like such a burden has been lifted off of the characters as well. There is no reason for them to feel anxious or worried about what they are doing. They are just able to live their lives how they want to. Yes, they will burst into laughter at all of the performative elements of their mother's funeral. But they are more than fine having sex with strangers not knowing what may happen next. Alex's future is already clear in that he is leaving for Austin in order to be with his family. It's a move he is willing to make to support Rae and Kerry. There is still the fear that he is giving up one life for something that he doesn't know will work out. He is afraid of life without his sister and would love to return to the basic comforts of living together. But the situation can't be as simple as that. The show has long outgrown the two of them needing to live in the same house. But there is still value in making it a real aspiration in this moment as well. It comforts them. It makes them feel safe and secure. That's what all of the characters want in their relationships. Laura, Leia and Leon do ultimately end the series happy. Things do become romantic between Laura and Tathiana again. Plus, Laura is learning how to be more present in her friendships and at work. That's significant progress that also highlights how she is willing to settle down with these choices for now. Meanwhile, it's freeing for Valerie to have her options open. Plus, the wine store is completely her own now. She is able to return to her original ideas and it seems more refreshing than the take John wanted it to become. She had a rocky start to this business. But now, she is genuinely happy. This episode highlights how the future can be scary. These family relationships mean so much to the characters. But time has built trust that will hopefully maintain and strengthen no matter what happens next. And that is a wonderful note to end the series on. A