When sex is a family affair
WHEN SEX is a family affair
Creator Zander Lehmann talks pushing boundaries, combatting normalcy, and the strange-yet-charming character dynamics of 'Casual.'
This piece was written as a collaboration between Hulu and Adapt Studios, the branded content division of The Hollywood Reporter.
When was the last time you shared breakfast with your sister’s one-night-stand? What about the last time you competed with your mother for a sexual partner, or discussed pubic zones with your 30-something brother?
Likely never – assuming that your family conforms to traditional familial boundaries.
But in Casual, creator Zander Lehmann blows up our collective understanding of taboo territory, and replaces it with an inverted and somewhat aspirational family construct that takes on casual sex in a way that is, for lack of a better word, casual.
Lehmann’s universe follows the journeys of three characters through disparate phases of life but similar phases of love: Alex, a depressed tech startup founder with time on his hands and sex on his mind; Valerie, Alex’s psychiatrist sister who’s coping with a recent divorce while inching her way back into the dating world; and Laura, Valerie’s rebellious teenage daughter, who uses sex more as a pastime than an outlet for romance.
The three family members all live under Alex’s roof in a convenient, almost sitcom-y environment, which gives rise to their unconventional relationships and openness about sex.
And boy, does it get weird.
“I would love if you could talk to your family about anything and didn't feel uncomfortable or ashamed by any of that stuff,” Lehmann explained in a recent interview. “But [sex and family] are two things that should never go together, so it's the fun of trying to weave those two worlds together in a way that felt organic and fresh and new.”
For Lehmann, feeling “organic” wasn’t exactly a challenge, considering the concept for his Golden Globe-nominated show was based on a time when he and his sister shared the same home and the same sexual agenda. But admittedly, the show takes things to a whole new level.
“Yes, we're pretty open about stuff, but I would say not to the degree of our characters,” Lehmann says. “They're a heightened version of how we are.”
The first thing that viewers notice about Lehmann’s “heightened version” of openness is the shock value, like when Valerie and Alex walk in on Laura (topless) mounting her boyfriend in the series’ pilot episode and don’t bat an eye, or when Alex proudly tells his sister that he had sex “with a four” for the first time.
But on the other hand, there’s something strangely lovable about the family’s borderline-inappropriate relationships; each character has been rejected by the world in some way, giving them a “We’re all we’ve got” kind of dynamic.
“It's funny, you look at them objectively and you go, ‘These people don't really have any friends,’” Lehmann says of the trio’s tight-knit bond. “I think all of our characters are struggling with trying to make friends outside of what's comfortable, and what's comfortable for them is their family unit.”
Despite its comedic value, though, the show's greatest triumph isn’t in Lehmann’s ability to craft a slew of cringe-worthy interactions between blood relatives. Rather, its true genius is found a few layers deeper – in its blurred depiction of what “normal” is.
A lot of what we're trying to do is turn the tropes on their heads [regarding] what we've seen in relationships and what the truth actually is.
- Zander Lehmann
Lehmann states that when he started this project, he wanted to break down the barrier between appropriate and inappropriate things to share with loved ones. However, the end product of his vision does a lot more than redefine sex talk at the dinner table: Casual masterfully lulls its viewers into an inverted sense of normalcy, both in the way characters interact with one another and in the narrative roles they perform, to a point where you forget what normal was in the first place.
In Lehmann’s world, we aren’t surprised when playboy Alex finds himself at the brink of a foursome with his polyamorous girlfriend, his sister’s former paramour and a complete stranger. Instead, we’re surprised when we see him feeling heart-broken and unlovable. Similarly, it doesn’t bother us when Laura makes a sex tape to lure a teacher, but we find it strange when she struggles to act her age.
“A lot of what we're trying to do is turn the tropes on their heads [regarding] what we've seen in relationships and what the truth actually is,” Lehmann explains. “I think looking at Alex in particular, you've got a guy in his mid-30s who seems like a commitment-phobe but at the same time sort of has this yearning for something more substantial. Laura seems beyond her teenage years, and at the same time she struggles with even basic teenage relationships and intimacy.”
According to Lehmann, the vast range of sexual encounters seen in Casual also function as a blurring mechanism for normalcy. The showrunner describes how important it was to put Alex, Valerie and Laura in different scenarios with different partners as a way of normalizing various forms of sex. “My writers room has a really broad range of sexual preferences,” he says. “I like the way that they look at sexuality on this continuum, and I think it was really important for us to normalize the idea – like it's not just an either or thing. You can like men, you can like women, you can like both, you can like nobody.”
Of course, Lehmann can’t let the show drift too far afield, and that’s where his straight man, Leon, comes in as comic relief. Valerie’s onetime lover often serves as a barometer for the family’s insanity, teaming up with Alex on a variety of sexual escapades, while also angling for Valerie’s attention.
“He gets to have this perspective that feels more like our audience, which is like, ‘Oh, you people are pretty messed up. You have some interesting things to say and you clearly love each other, but you have a lot of problems,” Lehmann says. However, even Leon is one of the show’s inverted tropes. Playing a role typically reserved for the Shakespearean Fool, Leon’s level-headedness and poise in the midst of insanity is atypical for an outsider, further complicating the line between right and wrong, and normal and strange.
Lehmann’s rejection of traditional archetypes is clearly a statement about normalcy, but it’s also one of the ways he can keep the show feeling fresh and build out the narrative beyond the show’s second season. “I think for us, [it] leads us toward the most dramatic and interesting situations,” he says.
“These characters think of their worldview as right, or that's the way the world should work. But when they get out there, they actually come up against a lot of people who disagree with them. I think that leads to good discussions and good explorations of sexuality and what the possibilities are.”
The show concluded its second season in August, and Lehmann has grand plans for the next chapter of his story. For starters, he intends to continue his trope-flipping ways and give Leon another shot at Valerie’s heart. But perhaps his biggest challenge going forward will be maintaining Alex’s relationship with Valerie and Laura following Valerie’s season finale decision to move out of his house.
“It's a fun challenge,” says the creator. “It's so easy [when] you have them all living in this house for two seasons, and obviously, there's so much crossing and their lives are on top of each other. Now we actually have to work to get them back together and you can't fall back on the easiness of, ‘Oh, we're just going to pick up in the house and they're all living there talking.’”
One thing is for sure, however: He and his writers won’t starve for storyline twists.
“I've always felt that the way to sustain these things long-term is by giving your characters dramatic stakes and making them do bad things to get themselves into trouble,” Lehmann says. “You have to walk this fine line between, ‘OK, our characters are good people and we like them,’ [and] 'They have to do bad shit that gives them story to work with.’ It’s tough, [but] if you give them everything they want, there's nothing to come back and watch.”
Casual has been renewed for a third season, due out on May 23, 2017, and the first two seasons are available for streaming on Hulu.
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