'Casual': Sad, Rich, White, And Whiny In L.A.
Casual is the kind of show that makes your hand fold reflexively into a fist because you want to punch it in the neck so bad. A self-satisfied smirk stretched out into 30-minute installments, the Hulu series hides its lack of profundity and originality behind a faux-edginess as desperate and phony as the first season’s snarkfest between high schooler Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) and her mom Valerie (Michaela Watkins) about dick size. It mistakes flamboyant cynicism for humor: Don’t expect any funny quips here, or more than three jokes per episode. And yes, it’s another entrant in the “Sad Rich White People in L.A.” genre — a polarizing category of shows that, despite exceptions like Transparent and You’re the Worst, tends to peddle more self-pity than insight or entertainment.
I freely grant that I’m in the critical minority with Casual; Zander Lehmann’s comedy has been a hit with reviewers and received a Golden Globe nomination for its first year. It returns for its 13-episode follow-up season today with two installments, and it’s just as gratingly smug, facile, and uneventful the second time around. Presumably about love and sex and alienation and unhappiness, Casual makes these capacious, complicated topics as deep and as interesting as a yoga mat.
Season 1 was built on a neat dichotomy: Silver Laker Alex (Tommy Dewey), the founder (and later endangerer) of a dating website, had too much meaningless sex, while his newly divorced sister Valerie had too little. After Valerie and Laura moved in with Alex, the siblings rubbed off on one another (pun intended) until Valerie hooked up with her brother’s girlfriend. The second season premiere opens several weeks after that boundary-crossing night, with Alex on a self-improvement kick and Valerie in search of a friend. (Anyone could see that what Valerie needed most last year was a gal pal, not random dick, but the show was too committed to its “Dates! They are so hard!” plots to give her one.)
Casual is honest about the difficulty of making friends as adults, but the stakes are too low to undergo the process with Valerie. Her story lines revolve around not knowing how to use Instagram, the awkwardness of board-game night, and a passive-aggressive tussle over the building bathroom key with the office next door. She later does forge a tentative bond with a fellow therapist (Katie Aselton), but the fragile loveliness of that plot is folded into another search for a dude.
Alex’s struggles should be more involving, as they concern his life’s work. A VC vulture (Vincent Kartheiser, playing a modern-day Pete Campbell without any of the preening menace) threatens to render Alex’s website even sleazier than it already is. But Alex’s promising battles with his new investor/boss are quickly subsumed by a romantic rivalry that’s even more nonsensical than the “experimental goat cheese” that’s supposed to be helping Alex become a better person (#HipsterLogic).
The first chapter of Season 2 focuses on Casual’s worst character, Laura, a mutant whose powers of precocity are decidedly used for evil. Imagine a Juno drained of every last drop of teenage vulnerability, who offhandedly asks her mom how sex was last night. (Not coincidentally, Juno director Jason Reitman is an executive producer and helms several episodes here.) Casual is occasionally capable of the smart observations of daily life that are supposed to be the show’s hook. While Valerie’s ex-husband (Zak Orth) plans for another child with his new girlfriend, the divorcée is told that her reproductive days are basically over. But Laura, who talks like a saltily bitter 45-year-old, proves that the show is much more invested in its own inauthentic, self-conscious pseudo-cleverness than anything resembling real life. Valerie and Alex’s rejection of a perfectly fine-looking public school for Laura in their wealthy neighborhood is yet another example of its obliviousness. “This is depressing. We can’t send her here,” Alex says on campus in front of the people who work there in a line reading so risible it makes you wonder if the show is only meant to be watched by millionaires. Sure, Alex is supposed to be a sharp-tongued jerk, but he’s not supposed to be an animated pile of sewer detritus in a goatee. The fact that the show can’t tell the difference is telling.
“Nothing’s ever as good as you think it’s gonna be,” sighs Valerie in what passes for enlightenment on this show. But Casual’s Season 2 is definitely as awful as I thought it was gonna be.