tv review

Casual Flashes Forward for Its Great Final Season

Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, and Tara Lynne Barr, keeping it Casual. Photo: Greg Lewis/Hulu

Some shows are the middle children of the TV landscape: They’re consistently great at hitting their marks and achieving their goals without making a big fuss about it, but they don’t get the attention they deserve. Casual, the excellent Hulu series about the challenges of building connections in modern, digitally driven society, is a middle child. It doesn’t have robots like Westworld or dragons like Game of Thrones, though it does have a weird brother-sister relationship, which is kinda like Game of Thrones. But still, it isn’t a big, high-concept drama or a buzzy comedy or an FX dramedy from the mind of the artist also known as Childish Gambino. It came along in 2015 right as the Sad in Silver Lake TV mini-genre was ascendant, but never got the kind of Emmy or media attention that Transparent did. Now, as that mini-genre begins to fade — Netflix’s Love already ended its run, You’re the Worst will do the same in the coming months, and Transparent is never going to be the show it once was, for obvious reasons — Casual is calling it quits too.

It does so with an eight-episode final season, streaming in its entirety starting Tuesday on Hulu, that brings the series to a low-key but fitting close that looks to the future while incorporating multiple nods to the show’s and characters’ past. The good news is that if you’ve overlooked Casual, you can still go back and discover it at any time with the knowledge that the conclusion it reaches will satisfy.

While Casual may have arrived in the same era as other sadcoms, its closest cousin, in my mind, has always been Six Feet Under. Perhaps I associate the two because Frances Conroy plays the family matriarch in both shows, or because the first episode of Casual opened with a dream sequence set at a funeral, a moment that earns a callback in the last episode. But I think they overlap in my TV Venn diagram because they share a similar sensibility. Both are about members of a family that cling to their dysfunctional bonds and make repeated mistakes in their private and professional lives. Like the central figures in Alan Ball’s funeral-home saga, Valerie (Michaela Watkins), her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), and Valerie’s daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) are the kind of judgmental, self-involved people that would probably irritate the hell out of you in real life. But with the benefit of nuanced character development and affable, skilled actors playing their parts, you grow to love them because you can tell that, for all their flaws, they’re still trying to become better people.

When season four of Casual begins, it’s clear immediately that the timeline has jumped a few years since the events of last season — when, among other things, Alex found out that his Airbnb tenant/one-time hookup, Rae (Maya Erskine), was pregnant with his child. During the initial episodes, it’s unclear exactly how much time has passed, but the age of Rae’s and Alex’s young daughter, Carrie, a preschooler, suggests it’s been four or five.

In that time, things have changed for our three principals: Laura has just returned to L.A. after spending two years abroad and has a new, serious girlfriend; Alex has matured into a solid father, though one with currents of narcissism still coursing through his veins; and Val, an empty nester, is on the verge of leaving her longtime therapy practice so she can open her own wine shop. It’s an impulsive decision, and one that she obviously she hasn’t thought through from a logistics standpoint. Her fixation on the the specific pink paint she wants for the walls suggests that Val may actually want to open a Pinterest page dedicated to wine shops, as opposed to an actual shop that sells wine.

As per usual, all three have romantic obstacles to overcome and a host of other neuroses to confront, which is why that time jump is a particularly savvy move. Listening to financially comfortable Angelenos complain about their problems has the potential to be off-putting under any circumstance, but now, when it’s so blatantly obvious that there are more important things going on in the world, there’s a higher risk of seeming tone-deaf. By shifting the setting forward chronologically, series creator Zander Lehmann and his fellow writers imply that the current political turbulence won’t last forever — at one point, Scott Pruitt is mentioned (“Remember that guy?”) after news breaks that he’s been shot in the Ukraine — which makes it more understandable for people in this future California to be so more focused about personal matters. Of course, doing so also suggests that in a few years, a certain swath of progressive, privileged Americans will go back to being complacent and internally focused, which is discouraging and also pretty believable. On the other hand, it’s a reminder that all things pass and situations evolve, which is the same truth that these characters ultimately accept and embrace.

The most entertaining and clever aspect of the time jump is the way it’s conveyed through everyday technology, which has advanced just enough to seem a little wild, but still bears passing resemblance to the presence. Instead of speaking to Siri or Alexa, people now talk to Ova, the virtual assistant embedded in an egg-shaped device that’s a slightly more impressive version of the Amazon Echo. Restaurant workers use facial recognition to clock into their shifts. People use virtual-reality goggle to go on VR dates. Car services are now the exclusive domain of driverless vehicles, which isn’t sci-fi-ish as much as it is sobering. It looks both normal and terribly lonesome to see Val sitting in a backseat, heading to her empty home in an automobile steered by no one. Given the show’s initial focus on Alex’s role in developing a Tinder-esque dating app, it’s fascinating to see how once unimaginable technology continues to infiltrate daily life.

Casual gets extra credit for exploring all that, as well as other cultural changes — FYI: the NFL is on the verge of dissolving — without ever being flashy or silly about it. Like everything in this series, each new device or development is presented as something completely organic to the world in which these people live, just another no-big-deal detail that stands out as another symbol of transformation.

Which makes sense, since lack of change was always the joke at the center of Casual. Alex and Val, co-dependent siblings who will never find friends or partners who understand them the way they understand each other, have always been presented as two people who will stay exactly who they are. But in the last season, we finally believe that these characters are capable of evolving. You know how when you gain or lose weight, you don’t notice it day-to-day, but someone who hasn’t seen you in a few months will register the change immediately? That’s what it’s like to see who these people have turned into, not after a little time between seasons, but several years. It also helps that the actors are so dialed into how their evolutions would manifest.

As always, Watkins is quick to deliver a cutting remark, but she plays Val with more softness than she’s exhibited in previous seasons. She also gives really smart, more compassionate advice to everyone around her, which is funny: Only when she stops working as a therapist and being forced to offer counsel for a living does she reveal that she’s actually the best therapist ever.

Alex, the more reckless and irresponsible of the two, is still inclined to use sarcasm as his first line of defense against genuine emotion. That’s a good thing since Dewey is so deft with a dry remark. (He’s also a top-notch expresser of exasperation. His reaction to repeatedly hearing the song “In a Big Country” on a camping trip is priceless.) But as Alex, Dewey also stands up a little straighter, especially in the presence of his daughter, and he sticks his heart on his sleeve much more often. There are a couple scenes in the final episode between Dewey and Watkins that are really raw and beautiful and exemplify why they worked so well as a brother-sister team. The two of them make you believe they mean every word in every fight, and also every expression of support for one another.

Barr, who started out in early seasons as your classic alterna-liberal rebellious L.A. teen, also unearths newfound reserves of maturity in Laura, particularly in the way she relates to her mother. There’s a tentative politeness between the characters in the early episodes of season four that morphs into respect for each other’s space and, eventually, gentle friendship between them. The two actors dance that slow waltz just right. Even the supporting characters of Casual have been fully realized, especially Leia (Julie Berman), Val’s former assistant who’s now a therapist in her own right, and Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), Alex’s pushover of a best friend. These two side players spontaneously fell in love and got married last season, which could have just been a goofy B-story line. But this season, they turn out to be such a charming couple who deal with such a relatable marital conflict, that you root harder for them than anyone else in this show to stay together and make it work.

There’s a great line in the movie Up in the Air, which was written and directed by Casual executive producer Jason Reitman. It’s delivered by Vera Farmiga when she tells George Clooney’s character that their romance was never meant to be serious. “You’re a break from our normal lives,” she says. “You’re a parenthesis.”

Right up to the end, Casual excels at showing us what’s in parentheses. Even as it depicts big issues like death and divorce and parent-child conflict, it excels the most at showing us the less momentous elements of daily life: the bad dates you won’t remember years from now, the game nights that go awry, the road trips where someone puts the wrong type of fuel in the tank and ruins everything. If you’ve been alive long enough, you’ve probably figured out that the stuff in parenthesis is the best part. It’s where the tiny pieces that add up to a life are found.

Casual Flashes Forward for Its Great Final Season