It’s a miracle, in the age of #PeakTV where a whopping 409 original scripted television series hit TV and online streaming services in a year, that any TV show gets discovered. How does a show make any noise over a crowd like that? The television landscape suddenly resembles a more attractive and expensive version of Horton Hears a Who, with tiny series with brilliant voices shouting to be noticed: “We are here!”
Actress Michaela Watkins, who stars on the Golden Globe-nominated Hulu series Casual, can’t believe we heard her cries.
“It’s funny, when people tell me that they watched our show my reaction is, ‘Really?’” she laughs. “Because it is so crowded and I’m always impressed that people are really starting to find Hulu now and also looking at this little internet show and thinking, ‘Maybe this will be my show,’ opposed to something with explosions and things.”
Of course, Casual is riddled with explosions, a seriocomic minefield of aching self-discoveries, cringe-worthy observations, and beautiful, if at times painful, glimpses at what it’s like to find love in an age of dating apps and the devaluation of romance—and at an age when you fear the prospect of happily ever after has passed you by.
To describe Casual, perhaps, makes it sound woefully unsexy, when really it is rather groundbreaking.
Created by Zander Lehmann and executive produced by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), the series—to keep the metaphor going—explodes into much more than its sitcom-y premise: a newly divorced single mother named Valerie (Watkins) moves in with her flailing bachelor brother Alex (Tommy), and the two raise her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) as they attempt to rebuild their dating lives in Los Angeles. Hijinks ensue, sure. But so does humanity.
The magic of the series, perhaps that unique pitch that helped it to be heard above its contemporaries, is the way it treats its adults as adults. They are real people who make real mistakes, and who are all kinds of dichotomies: vulnerable and ambitious, romantic and jaded, hopeful and defeated, completely together and figuring things out as they go.
We meet them each in a state of personal chaos, yet the drama comes from watching them attempt to rebuild—literally the opposite of how most shows’ journeys are charted.
And then there’s Valerie. Valerie is someone you never see on TV. A real-life, actual woman, who happens to be almost 40.
“That Zander is nailing a 39, 40-year-old woman like that on the head, and not putting them in a box, is astounding,” Watkins says. “He really understands a woman. You don’t see a lot of central characters that age, who aren’t just playing one note.”
In the role, Watkins is a revelation, certainly because of how truthful and grounded her performance is as a woman reeling from divorce, reeling from the prospect of dating, and reeling from not quite knowing who she is anymore. But also because of what a surprise it was to many to see Watkins pull off such a quietly powerful role.
She’s got a treasure trove of scene-stealing comedic characters glistening on her resume—The Back-Up Plan, Wanderlust, New Girl. She most recently played a summer camp musical theatre choreographer in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer revival, and has thus far played two, equally moving and pivotal different characters in each of the first two seasons of Transparent—perhaps hinting at the gravitas on display in Casual.
She first became well-known following her debut in the 2008 season of Saturday Night Live. Characters like her “Bitch, pleeeze” blogger and her hilarious take on Hoda Kotb made hers one of the strongest first SNL seasons in recent memory—only to be fired after that first year because Lorne Michaels, she’s said in the past, could see her landing her own show.
Her next big gig, as an eccentric ex-wife on the ABC sitcom Trophy Wife, certainly lent credence to Michaels’ prediction—except that show, again, one of the strongest first seasons of an ABC comedy in recent memory, was canceled. It would take until Casual debuted last fall for Watkins to finally get the showcase she deserved. It’s just that no one expected it to be with a character this grounded after a career of being so big and hilarious. Least of all, Watkins.
“I think you work in Hollywood and work in TV and do enough casting, then people start to put you in a box and you start to see yourself in a box,” she says. “And then you see someone like Valerie and she’s firing on all these cylinders. She’s a friend, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a lover, a one-night stand—she’s so many things. Suddenly my idea of what’s possible is exceeded.”
“You start to realize that we are also guilty of putting ourselves in boxes,” she continues. “That you do something enough times, you see yourself as the wacky neighbor who comes over with silly information, too. It just isn’t reflective of your capabilities and what you do.”
Critics responded in turn, marveling at her transformation into a fine dramatic actress. Or, outside the box, perhaps blossoming into the dramatic actress that was already there, capable of forcefully leading a major Jason Reitman television series all along.
“If I’m being honest, it was totally thrilling to just see that it worked. That people didn’t think, ‘Ew, what is she doing? Go back to comedy, lady.’ It was just mostly relief. ‘Oh, good.’ That it had the impact that we were hoping to have.”
Each of the three main cast members—Watkins, Dewey, and Barr—are a few years older than the characters they play, something that Watkins says is helpful because they’ve all lived through the life milestones and turning points that the characters are experiencing on the show, albeit perhaps not in as heightened or dramatic a fashion. Watkins, for example, has never gone through a divorce, but “divorce-like situations.”
One layer of anxiety plaguing Valerie in season two of Casual is that she’s turning 40, which Watkins recalls not only having, but being nearly debilitated by leading up her own milestone birthday four years ago.
“It was just such a converse reflection from where I felt like I was in my life,” she says. “I felt like I was 25 doing an improv group, you know? So I was so shocked that it was upon me that I was dreading it.”
But when she turned 39 she met her now-husband. After she turned 40, she landed her role on Trophy Wife. Suddenly, she didn’t know what she had been so afraid of.
“There’s just so much anxiety about 40 and then for me, in my life, everything just clicked together. I just had all these long, arduous relationships that worked or didn’t for whatever reasons, and was feeling like, especially being in LA, that being 39 and single was a terrible, horrible thing.”
“I remember feeling like, no I’m not going to allow it,” she continues. “I’m not going to live in that place. I’m not going to be one of those people who looks at a number and ascribes it value. I remember being weary of the fact that it doesn’t get easier, but I’m a romantic. So I was only holding out for the special one. It’s crazy how much my life mirrors so much what Valerie goes through in season two.”
Now with Casual getting critical love letters and awards attention, along with Watkins landing memorable roles on major productions like Transparent and Wet Hot American Summer, she’s in the most creatively fruitful part of her career, and at age 44, to boot. “My 40s have rocked so hard I can’t even stand it,” she says.
And in Casual, it’s not just that a character like Valerie exists, but that her story is getting recognized, embraced, and even nominated for awards, that sends a message.
“I think it just means that that story isn’t being told enough,” she says. “I also think it’s just bullshit, what people think people want to see and what people want to tune into and are interested in. I don’t know what our numbers are, but there is such a thing as relatability and you can’t discount that whole cross-section of people who relate to a character like that. I think that sexism and ageism are very real in our industry, and that we’re constantly, constantly seeing evidence that what people think is the preferred reality is not.”
One example: the success of Casual and that’s it’s being heard. “I’m just going to be buoyed by that, I think. I’m going to choose to be.”
“I think there are so many ways to get data that numbs you out there that I want to be on the other side of it,” she says, so casually you almost don’t catch its power. “I want to help people feel stuff.”