CASUAL Review: “Phase 3” / “Trivial Pursuit”


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Airtime: Tuesdays on Hulu
Episode: Season 2, Episode 1-2 (S02E01-02)


Tweetable Takeaway: The character’s problems on Casual may be anything but, but the show is nearly flawless

is back and picking up the pieces from where we left off last year. And with the fallout of Valerie sleeping with her best friend/roommate/brother Alex’s girlfriend, and her daughter Laura committing something along the lines of sexual assault/harassment against her teacher, there are a shit ton of pieces to pick up. But at the core of it all Casual remains a show about relationships, loss, love and people. How do our actions affect those we love, and what are they taking away and learning from us? There are no clear cut lines in Casual and for some this might be frustrating, but I think there’s a lot of enjoyment and a lot to learn not only from the characters, but along with them.

Hulu decided to release the first two episodes of Casual together, and although the plots are fairly dissimilar, the themes are not. The first episode deals with Alex and Valerie trying to be OK with each other while Laura looks for another school. The second episode deals with the continuation of Laura’s school searching while Valerie tries to find her place amongst her old friends. But the main idea behind both of these episodes is how we use people. Usually when you hear someone on say “You used me,” the implications are both grandiose and, well, obvious. Casual is not that kind of show, and if you’re like me, you enjoy being challenged a little.

The main plot behind the first episode is that Alex is trying to move on with his negative feelings by thrusting himself into a self-help course that includes phases. Phase 1, or as he puts it, “Women, booze and drugs,” comes too easy. Phase 2, “Wallowing in self-pity,” also comes pretty easy. Phase 3 though, where Alex is to exercise and channel positive energy is a whole other thing. What’s worse is that Valerie sees this and is the opposite of supportive. And although that comes across fairly straightforward, the why is a little more obscure and much more meaningful.

If the main plot is Alex getting better, then the main theme is what your self-improvement does to those around you. And quite frankly it’s toxic. Valerie is unable to see Alex’s self-improvement as anything but a horrible endeavor. From the beginning of the episode she has convinced herself that her previous actions have forced him to rebuke his nature and do something that will inevitably collapse. But first of all, his “nature” is boozing and casual sex. Not only that, but she wants us to believe that she’s doing it for the better of Alex, but in all actuality it’s for completely selfish reasons. She doesn’t want to lose Alex, and she’s deeply worried that on Alex’s path to self-fulfillment that he will realize that he needs to distance himself from her. Alternatively it’s impossible to say if Alex would react like this. The climax of the episode is when Leon, on Valerie’s pushing, tries to get Alex back to Phase 1. In the process of doing that, he screws up, brings up his ex-fiancée and how she’s with another man. Alex decides to pay her a visit with Leon and when they confront the ex, Alex goes on a rant about how much it hurts to be hurt from the person you love the most. This is clearly about Valerie, but as soon as he gets an apology from Leon’s ex-fiancée, he’s OK and leaves. It’s hard to say whether this signifies him forgiving Valerie, but something tells me there’s going to be a lot more to it than this.

The other plot deals with Laura’s search for a new school, unable and unwilling to go back to her old one. At first she flirts with the idea of public school, but it’s comically bad. As someone who went to public school though, I stress the comically part. Eventually, Alex and Laura convince Val that she’ll be homeschooled and Alex is especially happy about the idea. But remember the theme. Alex is a lot like his sister, and in Laura’s homeschooling he sees a selfish motive.

Now we’re entering episode two territory and we begin with Alex making breakfast and greatly expanding the curriculum to rigorous effect. No one is happy about it, especially Laura who was hoping for more of a two-day-a-week thing. It doesn’t help that the classes are ridiculous and feel more like memorizing trivia then it does any sort of curriculum. Well that’s because it is exactly that. In being Laura’s teacher, Alex sees an escape from a life he really doesn’t like. He’s not fulfilled and he’s not happy, and it’s still hard to see what his and Valerie’s relationship is now. Not to mention he refuses to connect with the company he helped create, and eventually when he finds out they’re trying to buy him out, he gives a much subdued reaction. No, instead of all this, the only thing Alex cares about is bar trivia and with a team of Laura’s trivia enhanced curriculum and Leon’s know-it-all nature, Alex thinks he’ll finally beat the UCLA kids who use their cellphones and cheat.

Meanwhile Valerie is having a tough time at work and her personal life. A new mysterious woman named Jennifer moved into the office next to hers and what begins with a missing shared bathroom key turns into loud renovations turns into a literal couch blocking the hallway. And problems with Alex and lovelife aside, Valerie is lonely. So when her assistant puts her on Instagram she begins following old friends and takes a follow back as way more than what it is in the social media world. Valerie calls the old friend, Karen Dennis, and it’s an awkward conversation that Valerie tries not to pick up on. She invites herself to a party that she clearly wasn’t supposed to be invited to and as you can imagine that’s also extremely awkward. And then when you think it couldn’t get any more awkward, Valerie’s ex-husband Drew shows up. They’re not mean, they’re not hateful, they’re nothing but awkward with each other. It’s even harder to swallow that her friends chose Drew over her. You can’t help but feel for Valerie until you realize she put herself in this mess. Valerie used the memory of old friends to make her feel wanted and appreciated again. And it didn’t work.

When bar trivia inevitably falls apart, Alex gets mad and angrily drives him and Laura home. It’s in this moment that you can tell Alex feels regret, but not for the right reasons. Alex regrets getting mad, but he doesn’t regret using her. This becomes apparent in the last scene of the episode when Laura tells him that she’s going to opt for a coop, where she’ll be around other homeschool kids her age and they’ll hire a professional teacher. Alex is at first supportive but when he finds out he’s not going to be used as a teacher, a mix of reality and loss hits him. He ponders the lengthy syllabus he drew up and the breakfast he made at 7:30 AM sharp. He can’t pretend nor can he make believe anymore. He has to come to terms with all the nasty parts in his life.

Sadly Valerie’s ending doesn’t feel as poetic, but there still is a lot of season to go. Valerie and Laura have a couple of meaningful heart-to-hearts during the penultimate of each of the two episodes. The talks they feel heartwarming but they lack any real substance. Instead of Valerie coming to terms with using Alex, she instead goes to work and meets the mysterious Jennifer… and they hit it off. Valerie makes a new friend and she smiles as she watches Jennifer climb over her own hallway couch.



Arman loves sandwiches
Twitter: @armanbfar

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