Casual is not a bad show. I need to get that out of the way because a lot of what I say next is going to make it sound like it is. And it really isn’t. It’s smart and funny and nuanced. But it also feels like it’s been done before, and, without some sort of novelty, the stellar performances will be wasted on an “also ran” show.
Michaela Watkins is Valerie, a recently divorced therapist who, in the hopes of getting her life together, has moved herself and her daughter in with her younger brother Alex (Tommy Dewey aka the douchey, coke addict, cheater boyfriend on The Mindy Project). Dewey puts as much into Alex as possible. Alex knows he’s the kind of guy who would cheat on his girlfriend and then become a coke addict. Or, say, use the dating website he created in order to engineer dates for himself and his sister. It’s hard to find a performance where the character is simultaneously completely at ease with and totally repelled by what he knows of himself. There are some hints at Alex’s deeper, darker past, but so far it’s mostly been him navigating between being a great brother and a terrible man.
Tara Lynn Barr plays Valerie’s daughter Laura doing her best impression of the girl Tom Petty sang about in “Free Fallin.’” She’s detached, acting out sexually, has inappropriate boundaries with both her mom and uncle, and too smart to be behaving the way she is. It’s not actually a bad performance, it just doesn’t seem like it’s started yet. Being a cliche isn’t actually character development even if it fully informs your back story. Without any substantive plot lines, it’s hard to tell if Barr is failing at emoting or really nailing the sarcastic, disaffected teen thing.
But really the show belongs to Watkins. If the rest of the show were garbage (which again, it is not), it would still be worth it to watch her as Valerie. She plays the tough/ vulnerable coin in a way that’s rarely seen. She doesn’t swing from one extreme to the other (your Sydney Bristows, your Black Widows, your Annalise Keatings), but rather she holds both sides in the same moment. Valerie is fearlessly terrified. Consistently unflappable as she teeters on the edge of a nervous break down. You cannot shock her into emotion because she is feeling all of the emotions all of the time. And Watkin’s small, solid performance of that character makes you question, just a little bit, why she was wasting her time with comedy.
Which is really why I wish the show would give her more to work with. Casual is going to draw a lot of comparisons to Transparent, to Casual’s detriment. Both shows are bittersweet family dramas, funny but not necessarily comedies, and drenched in the New Hippie ethos (upper class, white families living in vaguely California-ish settings who are overly in touch with their feelings to the point of inappropriate boundaries including sexual explicitness with family members. Or “The anti- Irish Catholic Model.”) Even the soundtracks sound similar. But where Transparent has an elderly trans-woman transitioning and her family’s reaction to that, Casual doesn’t. And in at least the first two episodes, they haven’t filled that hole with anything else.
Again, none of this is to say that the show isn’t worth watching. The performances and chemistry have so far been enough to make up for the lack of new material. It’s still possible that they can write the same material in a way to make it fresh. If this show with this cast and Jason Reitman behind it had been made few years ago, it would have been automatically groundbreaking. Hopefully they’ll figure out a way to make sure this series still ends up there.
If nothing else, there’s always the credits.