casual-huluSeveral nights ago on a break from his thesis work, my husband peeked his head into the den and casually noted, “The shows you watch have a lot of sex in them.”

This was worrisome and, once I thought about it, also true.

Most recently, I stumbled upon Hulu’s Casual (Season 2 aired Tuesday) out of boredom and indifference. I’d just finished Six Feet Under, a wonderful but weighty series, and needed a lighter story to balance out my troughed dopamine levels. From what I could tell by the title and cast photo, Casual seemed to fit the bill – a casual (wink) show I could be non-committal about while I waited for Season 3 of The Leftovers. I suppose I should have expected otherwise after learning it was directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Young Adult, Up in the Air, etc.). Needless to say, when I delved with more intention into the complex characters and their (in a way) familiar narratives, I discovered a subtle yet refreshing depth.

Casual follows bachelor Alex Cole, his sister Val, and her daughter Laura as they all live under one roof following Val’s marital separation and impeding divorce. Alex is the co-founder of a popular online dating service called Snooger, and he encourages Val to delve into the casual dating scene to move on from this difficult time in her life. But over the course of the show, dating casually only seems to disappoint, revealing to the characters the more jagged pieces of themselves they’d rather keep swept under the ledge.

All three characters perpetually oscillate between wanting disengaged and carefree relationships, but on the other hand seem disappointed when those relationships don’t generate any real intimacy. It’s a familiar tug of war: “I want to be known, but not that known.” “Come a little bit closer, but STOP RIGHT THERE, MISTER.” “If you really saw me, all of me, I’d be left whirling in the cloud of your escape-dust.”

So much of this battle for Alex and Val results from their relationships (or lack thereof) with their parents, who were “together” (in an open relationship) throughout their childhood, but never married and were never around. When Laura confirms this with her grandmother, her response is “Naturally.” Maybe the truth behind this common ideology stems from, as Casual seems to suggest over time, a deep-rooted terror of exposing who we really are. If we choose to not settle down, if we choose to keep at a distance, then we never risk the real horror of letting our actual selves be known and then later rejected.

Val hooks up with a 20-something boy one night and, what she tells herself was initially a one-night fling turns into a greater hope. She likes this guy. She goes back to his apartment the next evening to try to make something of it, but her hope is quickly dashed by dull stares and uncomfortable silence. She rushes to the elevator and begins to hysterically laugh — laughter that quickly gives way to sobs.

5689e71e-c60d-11e5-9b43-005056b70bb8Even casual dating is not a safe sphere for Val in her current state of vulnerability. After this rejection, she changes her online profile preferences from “dating” to “casual sex,” implying once again that we don’t actually long for casual relationships in the name of open-mindedness or personal and sexual liberation, or even because it’s the most natural way to exist – we do it because it’s safe, it’s anonymous, and it’s the surest way to never have to face what lies beneath our crisp facades…our actual, insecure, and wounded selves. The real us never need show up and ruin things, met in a lonesome doorway by cold and awkward stares. Val’s profile immediately spikes from 900 potential matches to 4,192; the aspiration for pleasure with the promise of security (cushioned behind the masks of our carefully crafted profiles) is pervasive and even universal. Just look at the problem of social media and our screen-lationships. Just look at why I began watching this show in the first place (or any other seemingly lighthearted shows “with a lot of sex in them”)! I thought I’d be safe, that I’d leave nothing of myself behind. But I was wrong.

Casual illustrates this to perfection in Alex’s frustration with the Snooger operations, and what he calls “a broken algorithm” (substitute: Original Sin). He believes the website isn’t matching its subscribers at its optimal potential. We later learn Alex himself has not one, but two Snooger profiles; one that’s fake and keeps him on a steady string of easy dates, and another that reveals “the real him.”

“What happens if you filled your profile with real answers?” asks a bartender.

“Wouldn’t work…I tried it…I answered every question honestly, set the match parameter to 100%, and it sat there for two years. No matches. You know how many matches I got the day I put this up? 2,640.”

The algorithm is broken, the code isn’t functioning properly, and Alex is left to ask himself the question that murmurs and growls – at one time or another – in the darkest part of all our hearts: what if I really am unlovable?

LeadSeptember_OnlineDatingFraud-0c8650a8All three protagonists continue to only engage in relationships that (it seems obvious to the viewer) cannot and will not work out. Val hooks up with the 20-something, Laura tries to seduce her older photography teacher, and Alex (after years of only casual dating) enters into a “committed” relationship with a woman who has another boyfriend. Neither Alex, Val, nor Laura have any real friends or emotional obligations to speak of (other than work for Val). Alex couldn’t keep his dog, Carl, for longer than a day. And Val hasn’t even asked her husband why he cheated on her, why the marriage went south, or what she could have done to make things work. Doing so would cost too much. All of their relationships are carefully executed to keep them safe, except for their relationships with each other. And even those, in the end, become perilous grounds for pain and suffering: Val sleeps with Laura’s photography teacher (unaware of her daughter’s crush on him); in her lowest and most confused moment yet – broken from her painful childhood and also tripping on Ecstasy – Val sleeps with Alex’s girlfriend, Emmy.

As a shrink, Val unknowingly speaks truth into her own life while meeting with a patient dating an extremely unstable woman. She says,

You’re just looking to be punished. After what you did to Joanne, maybe it’s what you think you deserve.

Maybe this is why she (and we) settle and even strive for carefree and casual, why Val continues to dive into bed with all the wrong people. It’s what she thinks she deserves. It’s what we think we deserve: crumbs. And it would seem she is right, if it weren’t for the One who came to turn crumbs into loaves, to carve jagged into smooth – the One who came, in the flesh, into the hardest and most vulnerable places of this world to say I know every awful and awesome part of you already, and I love you madly. Algorithm fixed.

Tommy-Dewey-Tara-Lynne-Barr-and-Michaela-Watkins-in-Casual-Season-2

After Alex walks in on Val and Emmy together, he’s wrecked. He had allowed himself to be known by two women (sister and girlfriend), and they both hurt him in the worst possible way. But his despair paradoxically drives him into deeper connection. He seeks out Leon, who starts out as one of Val’s dates, and over time turns into Alex’s friend (although Alex refuses to admit this). Then together they go looking to re-adopt Carl the dog. When they discover Carl has been euthanized, Alex reaches his breaking point. “What kind of man abandons his child?” He has become his father. Alex jumps in his car, locks Leon out, and drives full-speed towards a massive wall. But the automatic sensors on his car stop his trajectory just before impact. Alex falls out of the car laughing with wild joy, and he lands in the arms of Leon.

“I guess someone’s looking out for me,” says Alex.

“Yes,” says Leon, “I’m looking out for you.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what friends do.”

Alex seems to finally accept that he’s paid a higher cost alone and safe, than if he’d risked the great struggle and adventure of really letting another person in.

In the season finale Laura, done with being hurt by the one person she actually cares about (Val), meets Dave, a scruffy drifter fishing on the pier. He tells her,

“I used to have problems…then I got a surfboard and this pole and now, when I don’t like the way things are going, I just get in my van and drive.”

“Sounds pretty lonely,” she says.

“I meet people, nobody stops me. I guess I don’t leave much behind.”

So she decides to catch a ride to Mexico with Dave. But in the crucible of the season, when all hurt parties come together and actually address their wounds, Alex – both weary and emboldened – says to Laura, “Some things are worth caring about. If you don’t care about anything, you end up like Dave here. You don’t want that.” The cost of worldly and relational “freedom” is to end up like Dave. That cost is ultimately on us. But the cost of real freedom – freedom to be enough, loved as we are – was paid in full by a man hanging on a cross. And Jesus has matched himself to us for the long haul, real profile and all.