'Casual' cleverly illuminates the struggle in learning how to balance two aspects of human connection, the traditional meet and greet with the instant gratification available now.
BY HUGH ELLIOTT
We hear a lot about what the media has dubbed “hook-up culture.” It’s an endless source of fascination for think pieces and magazine articles. From the way people go on about it, you’d think no one was interested in getting laid before the invention of computers and iPhones.
Needless to say, we were sexual beings prior to the ’90s, but we didn’t have all the apps and websites that now allow us to pursue this basic human desire 24/7. Along with these new technologies emerged a different way of communicating, one less dependent on visual cues we rely on in a face-to-face meeting and more adaptable to a four-word text message. Sending a “What you up to?” text at 2 a.m. only means one thing.
One of the underlying themes of the new Hulu series “Casual” is this acclimation to hook-up culture and how we learn its language. The series’ protagonist, Valerie (Michaela Watkins), is a therapist and newly divorced mother. At the end of a 17-year marriage, Valerie strikes out on her own by moving herself and her teenage daughter in with her perpetually single, tech-savvy brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey). Alex is one of the creators of an online dating site, and he embodies this new genre of hook-up culture and communication.
Meanwhile, Valerie has been out of the loop but suddenly finds herself learning the ins and outs of how people hook up today. This setup initially resembles a TV scenario we’ve seen innumerable times: two siblings forced by circumstance to merge their divergent lifestyles as wacky hijinks ensue.
It’s a basic comedic premise, and in many ways, “Casual” confronts the stereotype head on. But “Casual” isn’t exactly a comedy. It’s brought to us by actor, producer and Academy Award-nominated director Jason Reitman, who directed Diablo Cody’s breakout film “Juno.”
Like “Juno,” “Casual’s” humor lies in nuanced clashes between personalities. The funny here is not bombastic or bawdy but rather wry and subtle, like other currently lauded shows such as Amazon’s “Transparent” or HBO’s “Togetherness.” There are some hilarious scenes, but there’s also an underlying feeling of wistfulness and regret, of realizing the absurdity of how helpless we are when dealing with our own lives.
I’ve been a big fan of Michaela Watkins since seeing her on “New Adventures of Old Christine,” another show about siblings living together and how they relate. Watkins’ strong facial features endow her with an atypical beauty, a look that often gets an actor relegated to BFF or quirky girlfriend roles. It’s satisfying to see her finally land a well-deserved lead such as Valerie, and she brings the perfect mix of vulnerability and anxiety to the performance.
As a therapist, Valerie is naturally skeptical of situations and overanalyzes everything, including her one-night stands. That way of thinking is rarely a good fit with the spontaneity and compulsiveness that hook-up culture embraces. Watkins perfectly portrays Valerie’s frustration and exasperation over this new methodology and her yearning to connect with others, even if merely sexually. It’s a smart, engaging performance.
Her brother, Alex, is similarly frustrated and exasperated, but he has chosen to mask his feelings with a snarky facade and a “bro” attitude toward women. He uses his own dating site as a personal Tinder, gaming the algorithms to provide himself with hook-ups without putting any effort in to getting to know the women he beds.
Alex is proud of himself for “bedding a ‘4’ because of her personality,” and we wince at his misogyny. Tommy Dewey is a typically handsome actor but underneath his good looks, his Alex character also yearns for meaningful connection. Alex starts out as an LA stereotype-caricature, but as the series progresses, hints reveal how emotionally fragile he really is.
Moving in with Alex, Valerie is naturally wary of exposing her smart, no-nonsense daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), to old family dynamics, but Alex enthusiastically enjoys a renewed sense of connection with his sister. His bachelor life is listless and unfocused, and there are hints at past mental issues and psych meds he takes.
Establishing a home with his sister is a way to reclaim the bond they had as kids. He cooks breakfast every morning. He buys a dog. He does the sorts of things you do when you’re part of an ideal family, even as he questions his own life.
“Casual” cleverly illuminates the struggle in learning how to balance these two aspects of human connection, the traditional meet and greet with the instant gratification available now. On the outside, Alex is cool and collected, like a 5-star online profile. Valerie wistfully struggles with projecting that same level of self-confidence and autonomy — suppressing the neediness that’s her norm — as she explores new dating frontiers and learns how to survive within hook-up culture. Maybe her brother has it right: Hide your problems, don’t mention your faults, and just be smooth, cool and casual.
Hugh Elliott is an artist and writer living in California. Find him on Twitter @wehogayman.