TV: Casual (Season 4)

Casual, Hulu’s quirky saga of a dysfunctional Southern California family, ends with its fourth and best season, providing uncommonly satisfying closure for its quirky, unhappy protagonists. After three seasons of wistful, awkward cringe humor and depression, Casual caps off what ends up being a sure-handed emotional journey, delivering troubled, flawed protagonists to a better place both realistic and heartwarming.

While the show’s title is likely a commentary on the unfortunate love lives of its main characters— Valerie (Michaela Watkins), Alex (Tommy Dewey), and Laura (Tara Lynn Barr)—the most casual thing about season four may be the brilliantly subtle way it morphs from dramedy into science fictional dramedy. Executing a time-jump reminiscent of Parks and Recreation’s seventh season, this time Casual propels its characters five years into the future. Alex, having accidentally fathered a daughter, has settled into a platonic co-parenting relationship with his former Airbnb houseguest Rae (Maya Erskine), while both of them are seeing other people. Valerie’s chronic existential crisis has led her to question her career as a therapist. And Laura, after traveling to Europe to find herself, settles back into life in LA with her girlfriend Tathiana (Lorenza Izzo), thinking she’s figured life out—only to experience difficult new challenges. Even as the three of them forge new paths, their separated lives gradually weave back together, while they struggle to come to terms with both their individual neuroses and their collective, problematic codependency.

Casual’s unexpected shift into the near future may well have been calculated to serve a similar purpose as Parks and Recreation’s: sparing us the predictable, done-to-death story points of new parenthood to which Alex and Rae would surely have been subjected in a more traditional series. But there’s a side effect to this story decision: the quiet melancholy of Casual’s futurism is a surprisingly apt fit for its thematic journey, as the dehumanizing automation of life’s infrastructure throws the characters’ searches for personal connection into ever-starker relief. It’s also a scenario that therapeutically addresses the psychological impact of our modern hellscape of regressive conservative politics. Casual has always been a show about depression; propelling its unconventional, left-leaning characters deeper into the toxic right-wing reality we’re experiencing affords an opportunity for the show to wrestle even more directly with their troubled emotional states. It’s a narrative master stroke, elevating the show to another level of psychological insight, without overdoing the political subtext.

But of course it’s the characters and performances that make Casual such a special, compelling journey. Watkins, Dewey, and Barr absolutely rise to the occasion in this thoughtful, uplifting final chapter of their story, as these messed-up characters finally experience healthy growth and achieve hard-earned change. The supporting cast aids and abets with its usual aplomb, especially Erskine, Julie Berman, Megan Ferguson, and the show’s secret weapon, Nyasha Hatendi, who served throughout as the viewer’s relatable side-eye viewpoint. For all its low-key rhythms and subdued, occasionally aimless veneer, Casual has always been a solid show thanks to its charismatic cast. But season four distills all that came before into a perfect cocktail of an endgame, revealing itself as something far greater than the sum of its parts. A fantastic final season for a sneakily great, unusual series.

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