Alex, the man-child in the supremely dysfunctional family triangle in Hulu’s “Casual,” runs into Beth after a yoga session. She tells him she’s thinking of going for food and maybe a movie. Would he want to meet up?
“Oh, man,” he says haltingly. “You know, I would, but you’re actually a real person and the thought of intimacy, or, really, anything beyond a night of meaningless sex, is totally crushing.
“On an existential level,“ he adds.
Transcribing those lines, I can’t help wondering how the hell anyone could craft such elaborate dialogue and not only make it completely believable when it’s spoken, but fall-on-your-butt hilarious at the same time.
That is just part of the genius that creator Zander Lehmann and director Jason Reitman bring to this almost unnervingly great comic meditation on contemporary alienation, which returns for its second season on Tuesday.
Michaela Watkins stars as Valerie, a 39-year-old shrink who is still shell-shocked that her bearded Pillsbury Doughboy of a husband, Drew (Zak Orth), dumped her for a younger woman. Valerie’s job may be to help people sort out their lives, but she’s incapable of sorting out her own, so she and her teenaged, terminally blase, sexually active daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) have moved in with her bachelor brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), who co-created a dating Web site that enabled him to goof off for a while but is now losing money.
“Casual“ may seem like another snarky commentary on modern romance, but its dirty little secret, and the reason it more than sustains itself in a second season (and, Hulu willing, many more to come), is that the main characters quixotically believe they can fix themselves. They think the world is crazy, that no one has any real values anymore, that communication has devolved to smartphone IM’s. And yet, they still believe that if they dress right, if they watch their behavior, if they put themselves out there, there still is hope for a foundation of happiness.
In Valerie’s case, that means realizing she spent so long within the twin cocoons of marriage and career that she’s neglected to make any real flesh-and-blood friends. She uses a new Instagram account to reach out to an old friend, who follows her back. But then Valerie calls her, on an actual telephone, the woman is flummoxed. Who ever heard of “friends,“ as we define them on social media, actually speaking.
Nothing comes easily to the misbegotten family trio because they overthink everything trying to be perfect. Valerie’s office neighbor is having very noisy renovation work done, resulting in Valerie and her patients having to climb over furniture every morning to get to her office. Valerie hates the previously unseen office neighbor until they meet and then, of course, Valerie likes her and thinks they can be friends.
Again, if only Valerie can keep her real personality in check.
Laura has stopped going to school altogether and a private school is no longer within Valerie’s budget, so mother, daughter and Uncle Alex pay a visit to a public school. It’s clearly not a good fit.
The average class size? “39,” they’re told.
“Couldn’t get to 40, huh?” Alex says to their guide.
“Wonder which child got left behind,“ Laura mutters.
It won’t do, of course.
They finally settle on a home-schooling collective, comprising parents who are trying way too hard to indulge their kids, who, in turn, are making the most of their parents’ stupidity.
The overarching theme of “Casual,“ and the foundation for both its extraordinary humor and poignancy, is that contemporary life is increasingly challenging. Relationships have clearly become the banana peel of modern life, and watching others slip can be hilarious, until your own feet go out from under you.
All of a sudden, the joke’s on you.