Apparently I was too casual about watching the second season of Casual, after a very enjoyable but also thematically familiar first season. Dysfunctional white people in California with few sexual boundaries and high-class problems? Where have I seen some version of that before (Transparent, Togetherness, Six Feet Under, Parenthood, You’re the Worst, Enlightened)? I took my time to get to the second season, which started streaming on Hulu in June. With so many other programs on the agenda, Casual just didn’t feel pressing or vital enough to jump to the top of my to-do list. Apparently I had my priorities all wrong.
It turns out that Casual season two is a more nuanced, funnier examination of contemporary relationships than it was in its first season and a can’t-miss series for anyone who appreciates rom-coms that are deeply infused with indie sensibilities. Yes, every time I watch an episode, I’m still convinced that Michaela Watkins’s sturdy but scattered Valerie will turn an L.A. corner and bump into a Duplass brother. But Casual also feels more like its own distinct entity within the Funny-Yet-Sad California TV universe; it’s one of the summer’s finest shows, both breezy and contemplative at once.
Given Casual’s setup — Valerie, a freshly divorced therapist (Watkins) and her artistic, angsty teen daughter, Laura, (Tara Lynne Barr) live with Valerie’s slacker brother and dating site founder, Alex (Tommy Dewey) — the first season focused heavily on fractured family dynamics and misguided attempts by all three characters to pursue romance. This season still offers plenty of sex scenes and clumsy attempts at dating. But these days Casual is more interested in the fragility inherent in all human connection, including connections that have nothing to do with the libido.
“Why is it so hard to make friends after college?” asks Valerie in episode three, the first of two delightful back-to-back installments directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) that address that question head-on. Valerie, Alex, and Laura, who joins a home-school co-op and quickly meets a fellow Enid Coleslaw (Dylan Gelula of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), are each attempting to fit in with new crowds this season, in ways that remind us that, no matter how old you get, life will still make you feel like you’re searching for a seat in a crowded cafeteria that smells vaguely of burnt tater tots.
“Big Green Egg,” season two’s fourth episode, captures that truth beautifully when Valerie goes to a game night, hoping to impress her new friend, a fellow therapist in her building named Jennifer (Katie Aselton of, among other things, yes, Togetherness). Another woman, Allie (Christine Corpuz), has tagged along as the date of one of the game-night regulars and doesn’t know anyone there, either. She’s also, unlike Val, absolutely terrible at the sport of choice, a Head’s Up–style guessing game. (“Book person!” Allie helplessly blurts out during one particularly pathetic attempt to provide a clue. “You mean like an author?” one of her teammates asks incredulously.) During a break from the festivities, Valerie finds Allie sitting alone on the stairs, nearly in tears. “These people,” she tells Val. “The more I feel them judging me, the more I clamp up.” “I totally know how you feel,” Valerie replies. It’s a small moment, but one that’s indicative of what Casual does at its best: capturing the tiny heartbreaks that accompany the act of trying to find your people as a 21st-century adult.
The use of technology is so ever present on Casual that it’s practically a separate character. The inhabitants of this particular version of L.A., like many of us, communicate through texted emojis and Instagram photos almost as often as they speak. Creator Zander Lehmann and the show’s writers and directors — including executive producer Jason Reitman, who has made more than one film about the dangers of the digital revolution —both acknowledge the device-driven reality of life in America and also use it to underline the confusion about how hard it is to know when true soulmates have been discovered. The wonderful sequence that opens episode 11, which starts streaming next Tuesday, illustrates that by tracing, in miniature, a relationship that doesn’t end well for Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), the unwitting friend of Alex. As directed by TV veteran Michael Weavers, the whole scene plays like the Casual, tablet-spying version of the famous montage from Up.
The story lines that surround the acquisition of Alex’s unfortunately named company, Snooger, serve as yet another commentary on the falseness of seeking human connection via the one provided by Wi-Fi. (In a masterstroke of casting, Vincent Kartheiser has a recurring role as the business whiz responsible for that acquisition and a man who becomes Alex’s chief rival thanks to his plans to marry Alex’s ex-girlfriend. Because really: Who better to spar with than Pete Campbell?)
Casual doesn’t take every step this season with the same level of assurance. A subplot about a threesome involving Laura and her two best home-school friends feels forced and a little gross, especially since the two girls decide to give the threesome to their cancer-stricken male buddy as a “gift.” It’s one of those moments that feels like it could only happen to teenagers in the land of California TV. (If threesomes are now considered a common rite of high-school passage, please don’t tell me. As a mother, I don’t want to know.)
Still, there’s so much else to recommend about Casual — including a sublime lead performance from Watkins that feels more revelatory with each passing episode — that I feel obliged to insist that you report to Hulu at once so you can catch up with the season two episodes you may have missed. (Don’t worry about season one; there’s a “previously on Casual” summary at the beginning of this season that tells you pretty much all you need to know.)
In one of the highlights of this week’s episode, Valerie and a new lover (Kyle Bornheimer) crash a high-school reunion, a moment that feels gleefully inspired by a similar scene from Reitman’s Up in the Air. After assessing the crowd, Valerie concludes: “It’s like a John Hughes movie but everybody is bald and sad.” Minus the baldness, that’s a pretty accurate description of Casual, a show that excels at showing us exactly how demented and sad it can get when you’re trying to be social in the year 2016.