Four episodes were provided for review.
As Hulu continues to expand its creative horizons, it’s all the more refreshing to return to Casual. The charming, laid-back, frank talking party uncle of a television series is witty, funny, heartfelt, reserved and generally amusing in almost stark contrast to the streaming service’s other, bleaker original content, but that’s not to suggest that it doesn’t deal with its own fair share of emotional conflict. The darkly comedic drama series is melancholy, mournful and somber-eyed in its own ways, especially in its more downbeat, if still entirely delectable, third season, which finds engrossing, often touching and sometimes surprising ways to keep its low-key format fresh just as it’s on the verge of becoming formulaic. The result is another cuddly, but not as warm, season that proves showrunner Zander Lehmann knows exactly what he’s doing with characters who have no clue where they’re going.
Following the assisted suicide of their mostly-absent father, Charles Cole (the wonderfully baritone Fred Melamed), single mom therapist Valerie (Michaela Watkins), recently unemployed website creator Alex Cole (Tommy Dewey) and perpetually aimless teenager Laura Meyers (Tara Lynne Barr) all continue to remain at a standstill in their wandering lives, only now they must figure out how to dispose of these ashes. For the time being, they remain inside Alex’s recently vacated house, where he now lives alone as Valerie and Laura adjust to living on their own again — if not without their fair share of conflict, notably from their lazy, sun-loving Valley Girl landlord Tina (an underused Jamie Chung). Meanwhile, Tommy continues to have trouble inviting new people into his life, which is extenuated with his newfound roommate situation, where multiple tenants struggle to adjust to Alex’s needy, overcompensating, overly-evasive lifestyle.
And that’s without delving into Laura’s problems, which largely revolve around her unfortunate emoji-filled shoulder tattoo, which she wants to get removed as soon as possible. The procedure would cost somewhere in the ballpark of four thousand dollars, and her bearded father Drew (Zak Orth) will pay for half if Laura finds a summer job. But she, of course, has ideas of her own. They backfire though, as teenager plans typically do, and she’s left to fend for the money herself through a local petition position (which is a fun couple of words to say). And if that weren’t enough problems to deal with, especially amid their other issues, they’re left with a legit bombshell from their mother Dawn (Frances Conroy) that changes their already-unsteady dynamic.
Lehmann’s enjoyably prickly streaming original is more brittle and bruised than before, yet it still communicates an emotionally radiant honesty and likably open-minded sense of self that continuously makes it easy to digest. The central dynamic between the main characters is still accepting in its fractured pathos, yet Casual is less afraid to showcase their insecurities, along with their ongoing worries and trepidations, without making his series, on the whole, any less enjoyable or uninvolving.
On the contrary, Casual is perhaps more involved and deeply felt than ever, and the quiet tenderness that radiates throughout these first four episodes is stark but impacting. All the performances, though most notably Dewey’s more remorseful, alienated Alex, are all-the-more honed and mindful, and there’s an engrossing ongoing liberation that’s perfectly invigorating for a series that’s otherwise endearingly simple and loose-fitting. Casual continues to keep things pretty, you know, casual, and yet the impact is all the most stirring and immensely moving. It’s mesmerizing at its best.
It helps that Casual season three is almost exclusively written and directed by women, at least at this point. Lynn Shelton, Lake Bell and Portlandia‘s Carrie Brownstein (!) helm the first few episodes, and there’s a greater sense of inclusiveness and sensitivity to these characters and their feelings that richly impacts these new episodes, notably during an emotionally-charged second installment, which focuses exclusively on Valarie and Alex wondering around town, trying to re-engage all while trying to dispose of some lingering baggage, both literally and figuratively. It will be the episode to beat this season. That’s for certain. And considering how Casual oftentimes tends to get even better and richer as it etches towards its yearly finales, that’s an excellent sign for what’s to come.
After an appealing, if tonally uneven, first season and its quietly powerful second season, Casual season 3 channels the best of both seasons and promises to become its strongest and most invigorating outing to date. Lehmann’s undemanding but nevertheless searching dramedy is at its finest in its littlest moments, and thankfully, this season is compromised almost entirely of little moments, ones that amuse us, hurt us, surprise us and keep us gripped. Like the characters at the forefront, it’s hard to tell what the endgame is for Lehmann’s series, though I know it’s best not to doubt him at this point. He commands his show with fragile assurance and bleeding open-heartedness, and I can’t wait to see where things go next.
Hulu's Casual is continuously winning and open-hearted in its more intimate, melancholy third season.