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June 28, 2016

Sibs in the City

Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey explore an unusual sister- brother bond in Casual, the Hulu hit that's boosting the streaming network's comedy brand.

Graham Flashner
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer
  • Maarten De Boer

It’s 90 degrees on an unseasonably hot spring morning in Los Angeles, but inside a soundstage at Tamarack Studios, everything is cool.

Production has just begun on season two of Hulu's edgy half-hour dramedy Casual, and Zander Lehmann and Helen Estabrook are hunched over video monitors, watching Jason Reitman prepare to direct a scene in the first episode.

Perpetually stressed single mom Valerie (Michaela Watkins) lies morosely in bed, slightly drunk, after a party gone wrong. She laments to her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) that her ex-husband has taken all their friends and that she's already been replaced in their social circle.

"That's me," Valerie sighs. "Miss Replaceable."

Laura gently tries to reassure her. "Alex," she says, referring to Valerie's bachelor brother, who's also their housemate, "will never replace you."

It's a tender but revealing exchange that perfectly encapsulates the show's theme: a platonic love story between two siblings. No matter how often their hearts get broken, Valerie and Alex will always have each other, Lehmann, the show's creator, describes the concept this way: "What if your soulmate was your brother or sister?"

A disturbing thought to be sure, but exactly the kind of provocative idea that's found a home at Hulu.

In January, Casual — with an exec-producing team of Lehmann, Reitman, Estabrook and Liz Tigelaar — brought the streaming channel its first Golden Globe nomination (for best comedy), solidifying Hulu's rep for offbeat scripted programming. Thirteen episodes have been ordered for season two, which launches June 7.

Casual fits neatly into a brand that Beatrice Springborn, Hulu's head of original programming, describes as "accessible content that has an elevation to it." Here, the elevation comes from a heady mix of sharp writing and direction that adheres to an indie-film aesthetic.

Valerie's a newly divorced therapist navigating the pitfalls of online dating while trying to manage her sexually liberated daughter. Thirty-something commitment-phobe Alex (Tommy Dewey) got rich off a dating website he created and spends his time bouncing from one hookup to the next, seeking the intimacy that eludes him.

In sharp contrast to shows that jam early episodes with TMI, Casual unravels its surprises with the leisurely pace of a long movie. It's only gradually revealed, for example, that Alex and Valerie's codependence was forged by a dysfunctional childhood, thanks to neglectful parents more interested in pursuing a sexually permissive lifestyle than in raising their kids,

This psychological trauma has left the siblings fiercely reliant on each other, but they remain haunted by their past. They're casual about sex, but little else.

"They're in love with each other, but they know they can't be in love with each other," Lehmann says. "You're rooting for them to be together, but you're also rooting for them to be apart."

"They have a frankly open relationship in a way that I can't imagine," says Reitman, who has two younger sisters. "They have completely candid conversations about sex and dating. Even reading it made me uncomfortable — in the best way."

Having tackled comedies about teen pregnancy (the Oscar-nominated Juno) and tobacco lobbyists [Thank You for Smoking). Reitman is no stranger to making audiences squirm. "There's always something fun about taking an environment people are scared of and making them comfortable with it," he says.

Observes Springborn: "It's not a laugh-out-loud comedy, but more like one of amusement and awkwardness that pushes you to a place where it's funny, because there are truths being told that are uncomfortable."

Given the siblings' decades-old baggage, one might expect outbursts of heart-wrenching catharsis. But Casual resists such temptations. In a fraught Thanksgiving episode, Alex's only reaction to a humiliating childhood anecdote his father tells is a smoldering look.

"I like my characters to earn those big, explosive emotional moments," Lehmann says. "We want to feel like this build is coming and never quite gets there. We'll give them small moments of happiness to be taken away with big moments of unhappiness and pain. In the spirit of good drama, you never want to give your characters what they want.

"They're always striving for something and should get a little piece — and have it all taken away." Like Alex, Lehmann has a sister, which is how Casual came into being.

The show was inspired by the three years he and his sister lived together (he's a year older), following their parents' prolonged separation and divorce.

"We found comfort in our friendship and how well we knew each other," Lehmann says. He wrote the pilot while writing for the MTV fantasy show The Shannara Chronicles.

"I thought this would be a different way to spin an old idea. My agent said, 'It's not much of a concept, but it's well written; let's see if we can get Jason to do it,'" Lehmann recalls.

As it happened, Lehmann and Reitman share an agent, and the timing was fortuitous. Reitman was filming Men, Women & Children and looking to make an inroad into television. Casual fit the director's darkly comic sensibilities.

"It was that rare piece of DNA you never seem to find," he says. "The words jumped off the page. It was like hearing a unique singer for the first time. I've never heard anything like this, and I definitely want more."

Lehmann and Reitman have even more in common, being the sons of famous film directors: Michael Lehmann [Heathers) and Ivan Reitman [Ghostbusters). Both say they connected instantly.

"There's an immediate understanding of what it's like to have grown up on sets and a different understanding of storytelling that comes from being around it since you're a kid," Reitman observes.

While Lehmann recalls his father trying to discourage him from entering the film industry, Reitman fondly remembers the day his father summoned him back to Hollywood while he was studying pre-med at Skidmore College in upstate New York. "My father convinced me to come back to L.A. and follow my heart. He's the first Jewish dad to say, 'Son, don't become a doctor. Become a filmmaker.'"

Reitman did exactly that, transferring to USC, making short films and commercials and establishing himself as a leading director of sharply observed comedies. He is a four-time Oscar nominee, with two of those nods for directing (Juno and Up in the Air).

Lehmann gravitated to writing — but television was not on his radar at first. "Growing up with my father, a film guy, I was raised with the idea that TV was the lesser medium," he says. While attending Washington State University, he got hooked on HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and was enlightened. "I realized you can tell adult stories on TV."

Ignoring his father's advice, Lehmann pushed a mail cart at ICM, worked as a development assistant, sold a pilot to HBO (Game Show) with David Fincher attached and wrote a feature that landed on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays,

Reitman — who at 38 is 10 years older than his collaborator — says, "I see a lot of myself in him." Laughing, he adds: "Zander is so much more mature than I was at his age."

Indeed, there's a wise-beyond-his-years quality to Lehmann, who doesn't seem fazed by his ability — as a single millennial — to channel the psyche of a divorced woman approaching 40. "I have an old soul," he says, "I've dated older women, divorced women.... My friends are mostly in their 30s and 40s. I just write what feels truthful to me."

With Lionsgate Television aboard as the production company and Reitman attached to direct, Hulu went straight to series with a 10-episode order. It helped that Lehmann had already penned a second episode.

"For us, a second script is much more telling than a bible, or someone pitching you a take on the season," Springborn says.

Hulu, with more than 9 million subscribers, has its eye on its more established competitors, Netflix and Amazon. Casual anchors its growing comedy brand, which includes Difficult People and The Mindy Project.

From the start, the filmmakers have been encouraged to push the envelope, to "let the characters be bad at times," Lehmann says. Thus, in one episode, Valerie sabotages Alex's budding relationship by sleeping with his girlfriend; in another, Alex proudly tells a woman he's just bedded that it's the first time he's "slept with someone I'm not attracted to."

While Hulu originally envisioned bigger names for the two lead roles, the screen chemistry between Watkins and Dewey has proved serendipitous, as seen in their authentic portrayal of the fraught sibling relationship.

Casual is the first starring role for Watkins, a Saturday Night Live alumna whose credits include Trophy Wife and Wet Hot American Summer. She was the first cast member to read for the show, and she felt an instant kinship with Valerie. "Instead of bringing a character to the role, I felt like I could just bring myself — dive in as a whole person," she recalls.

Dewey, best known as the preppy blond boyfriend on The Mindy Project, has seven siblings in real life, all step-or half-brothers and -sisters. He identifies with Alex's use of biting humor as a shield.

"Alex covers stuff with glibness and sarcasm, but there was real heart there," Dewey says, pointing to "demons I thought could be really fun to dig into. He was layered in a way that characters in a half-hour often aren't."

Reitman adds: "Both Tommy and Michaela recognized how to make them real human beings whose humor and pathos were in lockstep."

Meanwhile, Tara Lynne Barr is a scene-stealer as Laura, the smart-ass daughter who views herself as the adult in the family. She shows she's still a child at heart in one extended story arc in which she believes her teacher is falling for her.

Though Reitman directed only the first two episodes of the first season, he established Casual's lo-fi indie template. He explains it as "muted production design, not overshooting, longer lenses, building a house that allowed opportunity for depth, actors that stay naturalistic, music that has fewer instruments - sometimes out of tune."

Back at the soundstage, Reitman asks Watkins for subtle variations on the scene in the bedroom, to play with her dialogue and be "a little more drunk." ("Not sad," she later recalls. "I knew exactly what he meant.")

In that spirit, as her daughter leaves the room, Watkins buttons the scene with a plaintive, "I love you, Laura," finding just the right wistful tinge for a mother whose daughter is growing up too fast.

"He creates an environment where we can be as instinctual as possible," Dewey says. "His best advice is to stay out of your own way." The actors' moment-of-truth scene — the one that Watkins says made audiences "restless in their seats" — comes in the pilot episode, when Valerie joins a sprawled-out Alex on the couch during an intimate chat. As they continue talking, Valerie puts her feet up, and Alex takes one foot in his hand.

"It's that moment where we felt like we just explained their whole relationship," Watkins says.

Adds Dewey: "It's a great compliment when people comment on it being weird. We want it to be a relationship you haven't seen anywhere." Season two promises more challenges. Lehmann hints that Alex may find love, and Reitman says the complexities of adult friendship will be explored more deeply.

And a reckoning of sorts lies ahead for Valerie and Alex. "They're both very good at pushing their emotions and feelings down," Lehmann says.

"All that is unsaid in season one will come to a head in season two. We're going for the slow burn.... You want them to be okay, you want things to stay normal, but they can't do that. They have to have a blowup."

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