By Adam Vitcavage
After four seasons, Hulu’s “Casual” is taking a bow. Zander Lehmann’s half-hour show quietly became a critical darling ever since it premiered in October 2015 by blending quirky comedy with raw and emotional dramatic storylines.
Over the course of the series, we watched as Alex (Tommy Dewey), a dating app guru who feels he is incapable of being loved, began living with his newly divorced psychiatrist sister Val (Michaela Watkins) and her sexually progressive teen daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr). The three characters navigated their own love lives while learning what it means to be a family as life kept throwing curveballs at them.
In its last season, the show switched from a week-to-week 13-episode format to a binge-mode eight-episode season. Knowing that, Lehmann and crew decided to jump ahead in the characters lives to ensure fans got eight solid episodes packed with laughs, tears, and a few awkward sex moments.
Ahead of the final season’s premiere on Hulu, I chatted with Lehmann about the past seasons of his show, why jumping ahead was the right risk to take, how the show uses comedy bones to build a drama body, and more.
Adam Vitcavage: You lived with your sister at some point and that’s how the show started. Casual is your first gig really?
Zander Lehmann: Yeah, it’s my first real job. I had sold a pilot to HBO a couple years prior but it didn’t get made. I wrote this show as a way to get staffed. I didn’t have any experience so I knew I needed to get on a staff. I just got really lucky that people liked the pilot and Jason Reitman liked it. I wrote the second episode and it somehow became a real thing.
Hulu really liked it and was willing to take a risk on us. It went from “I don’t know what I’m doing and I need to get on a writing staff” to “This is a real thing and I need to learn how to run a production.”
AV: Throughout the series, you have the writing credit for a lot of the episodes. What was it like going from trying to write a sample to get on a staff to balancing writing and show running a staff of writers?
ZL: I had really good and smart people around me. I had a good idea of what the show was supposed to be, where the story went, and how the characters bonded. They did everything they could so I only had to focus on the writing. I had another executive producer named Liz Tigelaar who really helped me run the writers room. Then there was another named Helen Estabrook who helped me run production.
We three split the duties among us. It allowed me to write as much as I could. That really helped the show.
AV: You mentioned how you had a really strong focus of what the show was. Over the course of the four seasons, how did the show evolve in ways you didn’t expect?
ZL: When I wrote the pilot as a sample, I had no idea what stories I had to tell. Every year was a new discussion of what we were going to do and how it was going to be different, how is it going to be surprising.
Every hiatus we sat down to figure out what we were going to do. We had to learn how to tell a story with real longevity, which I had no idea how to do until I did this show.
AV: Every hiatus, did you in the back of your mind have how the last episode ever was going to end?
ZL: No. I would be lying if I said I did. Every year was a mad dash to figure out what we could do for 13 episodes. At the end of every season, we tried to do a version of an ending that could work if they canceled us but also one that could continue if they renewed us.
I never thought I’d get four seasons. Every year seemed like a happy accident that they kept bringing us back.
The ending came probably three weeks before we shot it. I had surgery and got my appendix out when we were breaking the last five episodes. I ended up writing a fair amount of it at home in bed while recovering.
AV: For this last season, did you know going in that it was going to be eight episodes and the final season?
ZL: Yes, they told us when they renewed us what exactly we were working with. That was really helpful. Knowing before we started changed our thinking a little bit. We weren’t looking at how it could potentially renew us. We were writing for the end. We knew we had eight episodes so we didn’t want to waste our time. That’s part of the reason we did the time jump.
We didn’t want to waste any time getting to the part where we thought was the most interesting for these characters. We jumped ahead four years in the future so we can just start right up. The eight episodes were a sprint to the finish.
AV: I always find that when there are shows I like that know they’re on their last season, that it amps it up. There’s no time to waste. I definitely felt that way watching these last eight episodes.
ZL: I’m glad you felt that way. It’s funny, we always felt like 13 episodes was at the upper end of what we could possibly do. It’s hard to tell an interesting story with a 13-episode arc when your world is grounded and your characters have to exist in reality. These 13-episode seasons sometimes felt like a struggle to get enough story that is interesting that feels true to the characters. Doing eight felt a little more streamlined. We didn’t worry about what we were going to do for the middle three or four episodes. We had a beginning, middle, and end. It worked really well for us.
AV: I understand the business side of TV and production orders, but every now and then I wish a showrunner could go to a network or whenever and say, ‘Hey, I know you gave us 13, but we’re gonna just make a season eight episodes and use the next five for another season.’
ZL: [laughing] I know.
AV: Because like you said, there are always three or four episodes in a 13-episode season where I’m just… over it.
ZL: Everyone has that problem. The more episodes we make the more money that’s there because you can get more ads per season and everyone gets paid more. But there is that moment where you stress if there is enough story and you have to throw a curveball into the middle of things to mix it up.
AV: Those are the episodes where if it is a weekly show, that’s where I’ll stop watching.
ZL: “If it’s bad, I’m not going to watch any more.” I get it.
AV: I don’t have time to watch a bad Episode Seven when there are 500 other scripted shows out there.
ZL: Exactly. It’s a risk because you can lose an audience. I think that happens when they see it’s bloated. They might come back later but might forget about it.
AV: We briefly touched on the time jump, but go more in depth to that.
ZL: It was an idea that one of our younger producers named Sarah had. She pitched it to us and we liked it. At the end of Season Three, everything is so fractured and everyone is pulled apart. I ultimately didn’t want to spend half of the last season trying to put those pieces back together. That wouldn’t be fun to watch the three of them getting back together.
So we thought about what would happen in reality. They would all go off and build a version of their lives. They would be okay. They wouldn’t talk. They wouldn’t be as close as they were. Something would have to happen to bring them closer together. Some of the issues would melt away. Some would be slowly resolved. Some issue they’d learn weren’t even issues at all.
We had to find a way to get them back into the fun place where all three can be in scenes together. That was so difficult in the middle seasons because we needed to tell dramatic stories for all of the characters, but if they were all together it was difficult to find dramatic stories with each other. During those seasons we came up with stories where the three were off on their own. It was less fun to write and less fun to watch. It became very difficult to budget a show with all of these characters. Every episode had so much.
We figured with this last season we had eight episodes so we needed to move ahead and get them all together so we can have fun again.
AV: Whenever a show time jumps in the last season, especially when all of the other seasons are so closely written together, I’m a little way because it could not work. I could just not. But this felt very organic. When we were younger, shows premiered in September and if it was about teenagers we see the beginning of school and end with graduation in May. Now we can play with time. Season Four is coming out in July 2018, but it doesn’t take place then obviously.
ZL: Exactly. It’s something like September 2022 then.
AV: With these non-traditional…I don’t even want to say non-traditional because Hulu, Netflix, whoever are premiering entire seasons in one day now.
ZL: I think that’s true. I’m reading this book called The Big Picture. It discusses how movies dominated the artistic medium, but in the last 10 years that is gone and the mid-budget, character-driven dramas are entirely in television.
You look at the TV landscape there are so many creative directors, writers, and actors. Networks are taking risks by not making things for a broad audience. We can make things for a really specific smaller group of people. When we accept that, we get to do these non-traditional things. We don’t have to sit through a basic development cycle, we can jump ahead five years, we can jump back. We’re basically open to play with the form of the narrative.
That is what is so exciting and we are all hoping the network says sure we can do it. As creatives, we’re all just trying to challenge ourselves
AV: This final season also moves away from the traditional weekly roll out on Hulu. All eight episodes are coming at the end of July. You used to film and edit early episodes while writing episodes for later in the season?
ZL: A little. We were done filming by the time the episodes were premiering, but we were doing post-production. Now there was a little more crunch and more to do. I like binge-model. I felt the show always felt better as a binge. I think when people were watching, they were waiting to binge.
Our show is like a 30-minute drama. It was written like a drama and staged like a drama. Those are the shows you want to binge. A good drama is, if you do your job right, addicting. When we were told we were going to an eight-episode binge-model, I was really excited.
AV: With binge-model, you can stay focused. You’re not worried about how the media or fans are reacting. You get to write it, shoot it, edit it, and then release it.
ZL: When you have week to week, you get these reactions that can affect you. If an audience doesn’t like a storyline, you can do some creative editing and do less of it. You can really get in your own head about it. It can mess with your creative vision.
AV: In addition to the stellar writing, this is a really strong cast. Do you remember the first time you saw Tommy Dewey, Michaela Watkins, and Tara Lynne Barr?
ZL: I remember. It’s funny, they read the roles as I imagined it should be read. They got the jokes, they got the cadence. The three of them know what they were doing and who the characters were. Jason, Helen, and I knew they were the ones. Part of the issue of being a new show was, do we sell the show with some fancy movie actor everyone knows, or do we pick the right actors?
We were lucky that Hulu gave us, who never had our own shows, believed us. It ultimately is what makes the show good. We have fun actors who are good at what they do. They knew their characters from the start.
AV: There’s the season one plotline where Laura is dealing with some boyfriend shit and I noticed how well written it was. Like, you know teenagers. But how Tara acts the scenes is when I went full in on the show.
ZL: Writing-wise, I write for direction and write for the actors. I like a simple script that lets the actors act and let the directors film something interesting. I always cut the really wordy parts of my scripts. It's the part where you can get really talented actors and directors space to do what they’re good at. That was our strategy going in.
AV: Looking ahead to when these final eight episodes come out, what do you hope fans walk away with?
ZL: I hope they walk away satisfied with where these characters have evolved to. The question for us was how will these characters learn and change. Or if they were even capable of that.
In this season, we see Valerie come to terms with where she is in the world. She decides to take risks to be happy. Laura thinks she has poisoned relationships but is going to give one a real shot. We see Alex who thinks he is incapable of not being loved or being selfish. He grows and learns to do a really selfless thing.
I hope people realize we can be unable to solve life problems, but we can find our own version of happiness. We need happy endings in these times. Change is possible.
AV: I know you’re still in the “Casual” world, but what’s on your horizon?
ZL: I’m really trying to figure that out right now. I directed one of the episodes this year so I want to do more of that. I’m writing a miniseries for Hulu in the sports world. I’m also writing a romantic comedy film. I’m trying to spread the net and do more. This was a great experience, but I don’t know if I want to live in this series world. Maybe a genre show.
Doing a television series for four years took over my life. It was 15-hour days and I was on set every day. It’s like putting your baby out in the world and now my baby is going off to retirement. I don’t know what to do with my empty nest.
AV: And I know you're not going to talk about it, but I’m going to ask anyway: can you give me any more details about the sports miniseries?
ZL: It’s a true story. It’s in the world of college sports. I’m hoping I can do something in the vein of “The People vs. OJ Simpson” in the world of college sports. That’s as much as I can say at the moment, but I hope I can put it all together and make it work.
To learn more about Zander Lehmann, follow him on Twitter @ZanderLehmann. Also, watch the trailer for the final season of “Casual” below.