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Casual: Season One
Executive produced by Jason Reitman and his producing partner Helen Estabrook, "Casual" strikes an interesting balance between the sitcom trappings of its premise (and the premise of some of the episodes or arcs -- Val and Alex's awful parents, played by Frances Conroy and Fred Melamed, crash Thanksgiving; Val and Laura end up being attracted to the same man) and the premium cable polish and tone of its content. The show is frequently funny, especially when Watkins and Dewey are bouncing off of one another, but even from the first episode, it's clear that creator / exec producer Zander Lehmann and co-exec producer Liz Tigelaar aren't kidding around when it comes to how fully they intend to address Alex's commitment issues, or Val's occasional bout of self-destructiveness. In fact, they aren't even going to give the viewer much time to get to know the characters before tackling these issues, as the first episode starts without much explanation, assuming the viewer can piece together most of the details on their own.
In addressing those issues, the show is surprisingly frank about each character's sex lives, which is refreshing. Val is aware that Laura is having sex with her dopey emo boyfriend Emile (Evan Crooks), and is more or less okay with it as long as she does it safely. Val is a therapist, so perhaps her understanding of the sex drive of teenagers is more than enough to get her to realize that it's better to accept the inevitable than turn a blind eye. Similarly, Val and Alex are willing to be open with one another about their own sex lives because they grew up dealing with the sex lives of their parents, who never married and were constantly having affairs and flings that were more important than paying attention to either of them. This kind of openness leads to bizarre character dynamics, such as when Alex befriends Leon (Nyasha Hatendi), Val's attempt at a confidence-building one-night stand, or scenes where Laura and Val discuss the dick pics that begin flooding Val's Snooger inbox.
It's those unconventional character dynamics that give "Casual" its edge over other similar comedy-dramas. That's not to say that the show's writing isn't sharp and that the performances aren't great, especially Barr's, but the show gains an element of unpredictability when there aren't traditional boundaries to prevent characters from talking to one another about awkward and extremely personal subjects, which then gives the creative team license to dig even deeper, doubling down on those subjects. For instance, the thread in which Laura and Val fall for the same guy is complicated by the fact that the guy is actually her photography teacher, Michael (Patrick Heusinger). Val is the one who gave Laura sexual freedom to begin with, and it's ambiguous whether Michael's kindness toward Laura is just the friendliness of an encouraging teacher, or if he recognizes her somewhat unsubtle attempts to hit on him. When the story comes to a head, it's not just a wacky misunderstanding, but a catalyst for developments that unfold over several episodes, and affect other characters, characters that Laura and Val haven't even met. The same is true of Alex's major arc, which involves his calculated and "authentic" profiles on Snooger, the latter of which has never had a match. When he finally finds one in Emmy (Eliza Coupe), he discovers, not surprisingly, that she has many of the same commitment issues that he does, only manifested in a different way (an open relationship).
The trade-off for unpredictability is unevenness, and much of the material with Val and Alex's parents is frustrating to the point that it's unsatisfying, possibly because it's the only aspect of the show that feels slightly surprised. However, "Casual" scores points in the end for bothering to have one, something too many modern television shows are afraid of doing. Obviously, the show, which aimed to be and has since been renewed for a second season, doesn't tie things up in a neat little bow, but these 10 episodes actually feel like they tell a full and satisfying chapter in the characters' lives, even if there are details that will no doubt be unpacked in the next one. For a bunch of characters who don't seem to know where they're going or what they're doing, that kind of closure is a bit of a relief.
"Casual": Season One arrives on DVD with key art that is somewhat perplexing if you've actually seen the show: it's bright, it's colorful, everyone seems generically happy, and they're gathered in the bathroom, which isn't a particularly common focal point during the episodes -- having them seated on the living room couch together would make far more sense. What do I know, I suppose. The two-disc set comes in an eco-friendly DVD case that is remarkably flimsy, between the holes punched in it and the thinner plastic (dear studios: use the kind without holes, or your product feels physically cheap), even with the slipcover slid around it using the same artwork. There is also an insert inside the case for a UltraViolet Digital Copy (standard-def) of the show. Nice touch, by the way, making the banner on the front advertising "DVD + Digital" the same lime green as Hulu's logo.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the more ambitious color palette, lighting, and detail of the image in "Casual" does not lend itself particularly well to standard-definition. Watching it, the sense one gets is that the original, full-resolution image is already a touch soft, to take the "digital" edge off of it, and that the additional compression required to bring the quality down to SD results in it appearing overly mushy. Aside from Lionsgate logo at the end of each episode, actual serious compression artifacts or banding are kept to a minimum, and daytime scenes generally look fine, but there is still a sense throughout the series that the quality here is a little compromised. Sound is a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, which more or less gets the job done on a show that's mostly dialogue and the occasional music cue, and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
A brief, glossy promotional featurette called "Creating 'Casual'" (8:23) is the only supplement. Points to creator / executive producer Zander Lehmann for realizing that he had no perspective on being a 39-year-old single mother, and (it's implied) bringing on Liz Tigelaar as a fellow executive producer rather than forge ahead on his own. Minus a few for confessing that Alex is him "unfiltered" -- given Alex is such a trainwreck, is that something one should happily admit?
"Casual" is pleasingly unique, a show that finds a fresh character dynamic that allows even some of the less inventive elements of its premise to become exciting and new again. Sadly, this Season One DVD is a little on the underwhelming side, with a mediocre presentation and almost no extras. For a show that's about something as modern as online dating, you'd think Blu-ray would be on the radar. Recommended.
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