The last time we left off on the Hulu original series “Casual,” things ended on a seemingly light but deeply tense note.
The show’s protagonist, Valerie (Michaela Watkins, “Transparent”), gets caught in a whirlwind of emotional dysfunction after recklessly sleeping with both her brother’s girlfriend, Emmy (Eliza Coupe, “Happy Endings”), and her daughter’s photography teacher, Michael (Patrick Heusinger, “Frances Ha”). Reeling from this crippling truth, Valerie’s brother Alex (Tommy Dewey, “17 Again”) decides to end his relationship with Emmy. After a period of bitterness and distance, Valerie’s precocious teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr, “God Bless America”), decides to forgive her mother for her actions. What “Casual” essentially teaches is no matter how chaotic things get, family is the only thing that stands above everything else. That may sound clichéd, but “Casual” depicts that lesson with a sharp grittiness that’s uncommon in most TV shows about dysfunctional families.
After its impressive first season, “Casual” returned to the drawing board with exciting new developments and a shift in its thematic focus — while still retaining its deliberate, low-key execution. Coupled with its dark, deadpan humor and tender heart, the second season of “Casual” continues to showcase a refreshing, authentic take on familial and relationship dynamics.
Even with some positive changes on “Casual,” Valerie, Alex and Laura are still dealing with problems beyond their control. In the season opener “Phase 3,” Valerie can’t seem to evade everyday nuisances, whether it’s early morning noise from a throng of loudly chirping birds or the construction next to her office. Simultaneously, Alex attempts to exercise and do yoga in hopes of turning a new leaf from his hedonistic lifestyle. Anxious about going back to school after the events from season one, Laura looks for a new place to learn, reluctantly checking out the district’s public school.
Despite trying to make healthier life choices, the three central characters of “Casual” are completely drained, knowing that they can’t fix the huge messes they’ve made all at once. Fortunately, by helping one another, they seem to deal with their issues much more easily and directly. After making his timid friend Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, “The Ghost Writer”) stand up to Leon’s ex-fiancée, Mara (Karishma Ahluwalia, “Savages”), Alex realizes that he must also face his personal, repressed demons with his relationship to Valerie. “Tell [Mara] how it feels to be betrayed by the person you love most in the world,” Alex says to Leon in front of Mara, signifying his own inner turmoil over Valerie’s betrayal against Alex for sleeping with Emmy. This situation prompts Alex to take matters into his own hands and decides to make the healthiest choice not for himself, but for his niece Laura; he home-schools her, much to Valerie’s chagrin. “You can teach psych,” Alex smugly tells Valerie, who is a licensed therapist.
Like last season, Watkins, Dewey and Barr’s individual performances are still deserving of praise, balancing their roles with edginess and gentleness. Through show creator Zander Lehmann’s acerbic writing and executive producer Jason Reitman’s noteworthy direction, “Casual” continues to build these inherently unlikable people into three-dimensional characters and mundane scenarios into interesting plot set-ups.
The season’s second episode, “Trivial Pursuit,” is also another admirable effort from the producers, writers and actors, as it highlights the second season’s central focus on friendship in the digital age. Valerie is still tackling big life obstacles, both literal — trying to climb over a couch in the middle of her office hallway — and metaphorical — experiencing the effects of the muddled divorce from her ex-husband Drew (Zak Orth, “Wet Hot American Summer”). Alex grows frustrated at Laura’s disinterest in homeschooling and seeks to ignite her academic curiosity through a game of pop culture trivia at a college bar. Of course, things don’t go as planned, which the show spotlights through the hilarious nature of awkward, uncomfortable situations.
Yearning for some connection, Valerie appears unannounced to a birthday party hosted by estranged high school friend Karen (Pell James, “Zodiac”). It’s also where Drew happens to be, causing a series of cringe worthy (and darkly funny) moments once Valerie shows up unannounced. Meanwhile, Laura doesn’t want Alex to force a heavy-handed education on her, but rather to have her stick to a curriculum that’s easiest for her. However, these events eventually fall into place for the three characters, with Alex accepting Laura’s wishes and Valerie meeting a friendly new office neighbor (Katie Aselton, “The League”).
“Casual” makes it hard for these characters to live happy, functional lives, but ultimately satisfies by showing how Valerie, Alex and Laura don’t let their love for one another get in the way of their problems.