Like so many of its peers, the streaming network Hulu has thrown quite a bit of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, in an attempt to distinguish itself as something more than the easiest workaround for cord-cutters who nevertheless like to stay current on the latest TV shows. Its original comedies and dramas have been mixed, to say the least.
But with “Casual,” an intelligent and beguilingly downbeat 10-episode dramedy from executive producer Jason Reitman (whose movies include “Up in the Air” and “Juno”) and creator Zander Lehmann, Hulu appears to be entering a phase of shrewdly hipper choices.
“Casual,” which begins streaming Wednesday in weekly installments, is occasionally surprising, sexually provocative and cruelly wry; despite some of the show’s faults — including a cynical through-line that reaches toxic levels of intra-family hurt and resentment — it is addictive and weirdly welcoming, like hopping into a bed with a stranger whose apartment is decorated with red warning flags.
Michaela Watkins, an underappreciated comic actor seen too briefly on “Saturday Night Live” and ABC’s “Trophy Wife,” stars as Valerie, a Los Angeles therapist whose recent discovery of her husband’s affair leads her to move in — temporarily, she hopes — with her younger, single brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey), whose spacious Hollywood pad reflects his success as the co-founder of a popular dating app called Snooger.
With an array of personal hang-ups, Alex uses his own Snooger profile to meet (and mate) with multiple women who’ve set their profiles to “casual.” It’s all in the name of tweaking and improving the site’s algorithms, but who is Alex kidding? Snooger is his own easily manipulated sex buffet. Eventually, he “fat shames” a one-night stand who turns out to be a tech blogger; she writes a negative essay about him that jeopardizes the company.
Valerie, meanwhile, is also becoming a frequent user of Snooger, exploring her options as a newly single woman in her 40s, while trying too late to set some boundaries for her 16-year-old daughter, Laura (Tara Lynn Barr), who is busy throwing herself at her handsome photography teacher (Patrick Heusinger).
“Casual” is enjoyable in an unseemly way, with characters who do and say things that a viewer can only hope are aberrations rather than reflective of the social norm. The show is entirely saved by strong and precisely measured performances from Watkins and Dewey. A few episodes in, we begin to get a hint at why Valerie and Alex are at once so frank with each other and yet so emotionally reticent: Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”; “American Horror Story”) arrives as Dawn, their manipulative and unapologetically libertine mother, followed not long after by their erstwhile father, Charles, who is played by Fred Melamed (“In a World . . .”), an actor who seems to be young, cool Hollywood’s go-to ideal of the difficult father.
In fact, “Casual” can sometimes seem almost too self-consciously of a piece with so many other high-minded shows and indie films about dysfunctional families and poisoned relationships: Amazon’s “Transparent,” HBO’s “Togetherness,” FX’s “Married” and FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” to name a few. These upper-income, mostly white tales of ennui in L.A. tend to feed off one another’s cliches. There’s a continual sense that we’re being let into a club, with look-but-don’t-touch rules of aloofness. Still, it’s good for a quick fling.
Casual (30 minutes) first of 10 weekly episodes begins streaming Wednesday on Hulu.