After four seasons and 44 episodes, Zander Lehmann’s brother-sister relationship series “Casual” is signing off with a final season in which the growth for its characters mirrors the growth of Hulu, the streaming service that served as its home.
“‘Casual’ is a platform-defining series in the tradition of groundbreaking Lionsgate shows like ‘Weeds,’ ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Nurse Jackie,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and ‘Dear White People,’” says Chris Selak, Lionsgate executive vice president and head of worldwide scripted television. “These shows underscore our commitment to carefully crafted episodes of serialized television. We are very proud of ‘Casual’ and the amazing creative team behind it, and grateful to our partners at Hulu for four seasons of support and commitment.”
Hulu began original programming in 2011 and moved into original scripted series in 2012. Back then, its lineup ranged from a mockumentary (“Battleground”) to a parody (“The Hotwives of Orlando”) to a supernatural comedy (“Deadbeat”) as it slowly built an audience who wanted more than just licensed titles.
But the streaming service had bigger goals, including series that boasted “names we could market Hulu with,” says Hulu’s head of originals Beatrice Springborn.
Enter “Casual,” which came to Hulu from executive producer Helen Estabrook, who was Jason Reitman’s producing partner at Right of Way Films at the time. Lehmann and Reitman shared an agent, who steered the script into the banner’s hands.
“The thing that made me most passionate about it, honestly, was Zander’s voice,” Estabrook says. “It was so unique and yet it felt so familiar. I felt like I knew these characters so well. I was just so impressed with how he was able to get so much life on the page.”
Lehmann originally imagined the script for “Casual,” the first comedy he’d ever written, as a writing sample to get him staffed on another television show. He ended up selling it to Hulu with a 10-episode commitment.
“Inherently it wasn’t a super high-concept idea, but it was one of the projects where everyone across the board went home and read it that night and immediately started a group text chain about the quality of the show and the voice,” says Springborn, who was also impressed with the project’s auspices. “It might not have the highest concept, but it would have the highest execution. And we cared the most about — and still do — the quality of our show over ‘is this just a gimmick or a concept you haven’t heard before?’”
The early “Casual” team needed a television veteran to run the writers’ room, so brought onboard “Life Unexpected’s” Liz Tigelaar as executive producer. When it came to casting, Springborn says Reitman encouraged them to look away from “big casting” and just look at “the right casting,” which led them to Tommy Dewey (Alex), Michaela Watkins (Valerie) and Tara Lynne Barr (Laura).
“The thing that made me most passionate about it, honestly, was Zander’s voice. It was so unique and yet it felt so familiar.”
“I think this is a testament to our producers and our casting director because we are similar to our roles, and I think it really does inform our dynamics,” Barr says. “These characters are written so well, and the dysfunction is clear, but they don’t spoon feed it to you. When there are moments of conflict or joy, there’s no speechifying going on. It can be communicated through a moment that doesn’t even necessarily have any words, and I think that’s something so beautiful about how our show was put together.”
The show came from a “personal” place for Lehmann, who was interested in telling a family story not often explored on television — the complex, somewhat dysfunctional dynamics between adult siblings Alex and Valerie who live together and are kind of co-parenting Valerie’s daughter Laura, while all three characters are also navigating the dating world.
Lehmann praises the experience of working with Hulu, saying everyone he dealt with at the then-emerging platform was “really passionate about it,” really got “the vision of the show” and gave it “the support that we needed.”
Hulu slated the launch of the show for October 2015, but premiered it a month earlier to a select audience at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.
“This was the first time I’d seen people see it and it felt like they’d really responded to it,” Dewey recalls. “And then in the car ride to the party afterwards, a couple of the reviews had come out. By and large they were good. I think it helped that Hulu was reinventing itself. It just felt like maybe we had something special.”
Soon the show, as well as Hulu, had its first awards acclaim, scoring a Golden Globe nom for comedy series in 2016.
“It was really exciting for us because I think we got to feel like we did well for a network that had done so well for us,” Estabrook says. “We really lucked out with Hulu [whose executives] were such supportive partners [and] the Golden Globe nomination felt nice because we felt so indebted to Hulu.”
In the first three seasons of “Casual,” the episodes came out weekly and that, Springborn admits, was often due to production schedules being right up against release. But that timetable also allowed the show to build momentum and word-of-mouth, and without having to worry about traditional overnight ratings to hit, the storytelling grew organically. But the fourth and final is delivering all eight episodes at once, in the binge model, another way in which Hulu is expanding its offerings.
“Knowing that ‘Casual’ fans are anxious to see the next season and learn where our characters will wind up in their journey, we believe binge-ability is a plus,” says Selak.
“Casual’s” first three seasons lived in the quieter, seemingly simpler moments of the relationships between its core characters as they often struggled to grow or evolve too deeply. The fourth and final season flashes forward a handful of years to still focus on the characters in whom the audience has become so invested but in a world that is “a little heightened,” says Lehmann.
“The last season does take some swings and is a little different from the other ones, but it does still feel contained and the characters still feel like our characters and the scope doesn’t feel unwieldy,” he says. “And that’s a credit to the network and the studio, obviously, for not saying, ‘Hey it’s your last one, you have to go out on this crazy high note.’”
What was most important to everyone involved was to “do right by the characters,” Lehmann says. Alex, who at the end of the third season learned he was going to become a father, settled into that role and found peace co-parenting, while Valerie and Laura both found fresh passions for their careers and embarked upon new romantic relationships.
“I wanted her to be settled, somehow [after] the dysfunctionality that she’s grown up in,” Barr says of Laura. “It feels like an ending, but it also feels like a very lovely beginning for all three of them.”
“These characters are written so well, and the dysfunction is clear, but they don’t spoon feed it to you.”
Tara Lynne Barr
Alex and Valerie, who were previously “never able to leave each other’s orbits” in an at-times unhealthy co-dependent way, were able to “break away from each other and live a life that was outside of each other,” says Lehmann.
“The thing that meant the most to me was the brother-sister relationship,” Watkins says. “As much as I absolutely love the daughter relationship and getting it right the final season, I kind of feel like that kind of love is unconditional, that’s never going to change. With Alex, there was so much love there and too enmeshed. … We were letting each other go, which means we were letting the show go, because I feel like that was the heart of the show. They clung to each other because that’s all they felt they had, and they learned they could be whole without being enmeshed.”
“Casual” was a growing experience for its actors as well. In the third season, Dewey and Watkins co-wrote an episode (the eighth, titled “Venus”), which gave them the opportunity to steer the show narratively.
“I’m completely changed,” Watkins says. “My character felt some of the lowest depths and the highest highs, sometimes in the same scene, and I feel like that expanded me as an actor. I feel ready to take on the next thing, and what I’m ready to take on now is so much different than what I was [ready for] four seasons ago.”