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‘Casual’ Review: Jason Reitman Hulu Comedy Transcends Typical Sitcom Cliches

Series tells familiar story, but does so with nuance and smarts

The title actually refers to the online-dating relationship status, but “Casual” also seems to be a mandate for the cast and creative crew behind this laid-back but thoughtful and well-observed comedy about love and family in the modern age. This Hulu series doesn’t break much new ground, chronicling the melancholy exploits of two single siblings and the daughter-niece they’re raising together under one roof. But for every familiar story beat there’s an equally nuanced and smart takeaway, the ensemble digging in to make these characters deeply felt.

Judged by its first five half-hour episodes, “Casual” is quite confident taking its time, letting its central trio’s separate narratives develop in realistic, small-scale ways. As the show opens, Los Angeles therapist Valerie (Michaela Watkins) has just moved in with her young brother Alex (Tommy Dewey) after a painful divorce, accompanied by her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr). Clinical but emotionally timid, Valerie conveniently differs entirely from flippant Alex, who made a mint creating a popular dating website, even though he doesn’t believe in long-term relationships and much prefers random hookups. Meanwhile, Laura is already sexually active, a fact of which her mother is aware–and not entirely pleased.

Created by Zander Lehmann and executive produced by Jason Reitman (who directed the first two episodes), “Casual” travels down some unsurprising roads. Of course, uptight Valerie will awkwardly throw herself into the dating pool to get over her divorce, with mixed results, while glib Alex is due for a little soul-searching after he begins questioning his immature lifestyle. (As for Laura, she develops a thus-far harmless crush on a hunky teacher, played by Patrick Heusinger, that might lead somewhere.)

But if the path is well-worn, “Casual” mostly transcends predictability thanks to a finely calibrated tenor that mixes gentle laughs with a wistful, resigned air. Early on, we learn that Valerie and Alex’s parents had a pretty open relationship, the kids practically an afterthought while Mom and Dad went off to have their own adventures. (Frances Conroy, who plays their estranged mother in one episode, is sublime at capturing the woman’s self-centered, “liberated” attitude toward her childrearing responsibilities, instantly illustrating why her kids have struggled finding happy relationships.) The siblings, who are very close, are haunted by their childhood abandonment, but Lehmann and his writing staff sidestep heavy-handed psychodrama for a wry, knowing examination of romantic dysfunction in which the laughs get caught in the viewer’s throat.

One of the show’s other intriguing elements is how it finds Reitman refining and redeeming the themes that powered his misbegotten 2014 film “Men, Women & Children,” which over-earnestly argued that technology and Facebook were destroying our social fabric. One could glean that message from “Casual” as well–dick pics, proper texting protocol and the trauma of online dating are all major plot points–but as unlike in “Men, Women & Children,” those everyday realities are treated with little hand-wringing worry. Social media is ubiquitous in “Casual,” but it’s never fatal.

As the siblings, Watkins and Dewey exude a close-knit rapport indicative of people who have learned to lean on one another. Alex consistently risks becoming the umpteenth sarcastic thirtysomething male character who needs to grow up, but Dewey uncovers the warmth within his self-consciously blasé exterior. Watkins is particularly good as Valerie, conveying the quiet panic consuming this put-together therapist as she copes with the end of a loveless marriage, a blossoming daughter and a frightening dating environment in which she’s scared she’s too old. It’s a performance that could have easily been set to “daffy” but instead has a lovingly understated quality.

Still, this show’s secret weapon might be Barr. Ever since her scene-stealing turn in the 2011 film “God Bless America,” she’s established herself as a poised young performer who can project steeliness and heart. In “Casual,” Laura is no stereotypical sullen teenager, as Barr brings a light touch, making her navigation of choppy romantic waters consistently touching. Laura’s mom and uncle may have permanent relationship issues, but maybe it’s not too late for her.

“Casual” premieres on Hulu Wednesday at midnight ET.

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