Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Casual

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

New episodes premiere every Wednesday on Hulu

In case you haven't heard (or seen), we are in the age of "Peak TV."  There are so many new shows pouring out of every crack and corner that it can be overwhelming, but this expansion of the industry has allowed spaces to be carved out for shows that would have no place in the TV landscape five to ten years ago.  And that has never been more pronounced than in the influx of "indie movie TV shows," those low-key, natural, often hookless series that feel like a film festival entry stretched out to ten episodes.  In the past two years, we've seen Sundance types like Jill Soloway and the Duplass Brothers move over to television with Transparent and Togetherness, respectively.  Get ready to welcome a new member to the fold in Casual, Hulu's latest series, directed and produced by Jason Reitman.

Reitman may be a bigger name than Soloway and the Duplasses, but he brings the same small scale to Casual that they bring to their shows.  The series revolves around the lives of Valerie (Michaela Watkins), a recently divorced psychiatrist; her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), the co-founder of a popular dating website; and her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), who is sarcastic and into photography (because aren't they all?).  This is usually the first part of a premise, the setup for the thing that pulls everything together and gives the viewer an undeniable way into the show.  With Casual, this is the premise in its entirety.  Sure, there's the fact that they all live together and as a result are a little too close, but mostly this show is depicts them going about their normal lives, dating and floundering and getting into uncomfortable situations.

Television is still so dominated by high-concept, high-drama shows that series like Casual continue to feel like a welcome change of pace, but so far the show lacks any qualities that make it as essential as some of its peers.  It has neither gentle amiability of Togetherness nor the unique perspective of Transparent.  And yet the two episodes that Hulu released this past week have a shaggy, sleepy quality that's oddly compelling.  There are many aspects of these initial half-hours that grate, like the forced rawness of some of the dialogue, or the artsy teen cliches that construct Laura's character, but the chemistry between the leads goes a long way in smoothing out those bumps.  Critics who have seen the whole season seem a little more positive, so let's hope the show finds another gear.

Pilot: B
Second episode: B-

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