Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
In many ways, Casual, which returns to Hulu for its second season on June 7, is the quintessential modern television show. It’s a comedy void of any real punchlines, straddling genre in a manner that’s sure to baffle Emmy voters. Its talented cast makes the most of characters who are boldly unlikeable without having any real reason to be. And, it celebrates its distance from the traditional network model with all the swearing and foursomes one has come to expect from streaming television. While these factors made Casual a challenge to root for, a shift in focus allows the show to find its footing in season 2 without making any significant changes to its DNA.
Casual’s second season picks up a few months after its first run left off, with our core group trying to reassemble pieces of the relationships they shattered just weeks before. Alex (Tommy Dewey) is deep into the “experimental goat cheese” stage of his break-up with Emmy (Eliza Coupe), striving to make himself a better person one hot-yoga session at a time. Valerie (Michaela Watkins) is trying to get her relationship with Alex back to its usual state of comfortable co-dependence after sleeping with Emmy in an MDMA-fueled haze. Meanwhile, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) continues to prove that she is literally too cool for high school by refusing to go back to her cushy private academy after publicizing her own sex tape in an attempt to woo her photography teacher.
The series’ first season blatantly lived up to its title with Alex, Valerie and Laura each navigating the waters of casual sex, Valerie and Laura for the purposes of experimentation (one a repressed divorcee, the other a privileged teen flirting with rebellion) and Alex, because, well, it’s the only way he can experience anything resembling love.
However, this season-long plight felt largely unsatisfying, probably because the show never made it clear why we should care that these people are putting most of their energy into finding partners for low-key sexual encounters — something that none of them have a particularly difficult time doing. Yes, Alex is searching for True Love within the confines of the dating app he created, but he’s still a womanizing asshole. He’s Charlie Sheen in Two and a Half Men, just with Duplass lighting.
With season 2, Casual steers away from romantic encounters and into the uncharted territory of friendship. Making new friends as an adult is a tricky task and one that television shows often skip over in favor of establishing an immediate camaraderie between characters that is perfect for storytelling, but not necessarily realistic.
Instead of glazing over the awkwardness of a first friend-date, Casual makes a temporary home in this space. While Valerie realizes that her couple-friends have replaced her post-divorce, Laura finds a kindred spirit who is just as irritated by their homeschool collective’s obsession with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as she is. With Alex turning his company into his latest distraction, he’s forced to realize that his self-deprecating charm, which made dating a breeze, doesn’t translate into the workplace.
But it’s not just that the quest for finding real friendships feels fresher than characters looking for sex — it’s a premise that simply works better for the show, allowing Alex, Valerie and Laura to be the underdogs they never really were in their sexual relationships. For characters that are brittle, hopelessly dependent on one another, and unfailingly self-involved, it’s natural that forging friendships with those outside of their family unit would be a challenge.
Despite the shift, Casual hasn’t softened. Alex, Valerie and Laura still smart enough to psychoanalyze their faults and flawed motives and too stubborn to change. In a way, this makes them perfect sitcom characters: they can declare their selfishness so that the audience doesn’t have to, but never reach a point of true enlightenment. They can learn their lessons just to make the same mistakes in the next episode.
It’s a testament to the acting chops of Watkins, Dewey, and Barr that this pattern does not become tired. Watkins continues to shine as the carefully vulnerable Valerie, whose inability to understand Instagram feels relatable without being overly hacky. Similarly, if it weren’t for Barr’s ability to artfully capture the ego of a teenager who’s never really had to deal with a real-life problem, Laura would be insufferable.
This season also brings in a refreshing wave of engaging guest stars, including Katie Aselton (The League) as Valerie’s breezy work-neighbor, Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) as Alex’s new foe, who just happens to be dating a woman from his past, and Dylan Gelula (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Xanthippe) as Laura’s grounded school pal. Meanwhile returning favorite, Nyasha Hatendi, continues to supply laughs and heart as Alex’s dorky fixer-upper Leon.
All in all, Casual’s thematic restart is one that broadens the show in the best of ways. It allows the characters to wade in interesting new waters, without skimping on the bad behavior and quips about Treme that attracted audiences to the show’s first season. It may be a bit of a slow start — the season premiere is by far the weakest episode in the bunch — but stick with it. Much like its title characters, Casual is still inconsistent and a little arrogant — but certainly worth getting to know.
By shifting the focus from sex to friendships, Casual is able to find its stride as in season 2 without making significant changes to its DNA.