‘Casual’ and ‘Red Oaks’ Illustrate the Benefits — and Problems — of Binge-Viewing

Not to be outdone by “actual” television’s crowded fall slate, some streaming sites are also providing a healthy amount of new programming to keep us glued to our screens. Hulu’s Casual premiered with two episodes yesterday — the rest will air weekly, like The Mindy Project — and this morning, Amazon launched the full first season of Red Oaks.

The shows have completely different premises: In Casual, a brother-sister duo, Alex (Tommy Dewey) and Valerie (Michaela Watkins), and Valerie’s daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) all live together after Valerie’s divorce, with large portions of the episodes revolving around the casual sex they’re all having. Red Oaks is more of a coming-of-age period piece set in the ’80s, centered on a young man, David (Craig Roberts), who works at a tennis club while on summer break from college.

Despite these differences, the shows feel similar. Both have an aesthetic reminiscent of indie film — likely because Casual is from Jason Reitman, while the Red Oaks pilot was directed by David Gordon Green. They’re slow-moving and a bit quirky, and overly concerned with the everyday happenings of white people in white worlds. Each is more pleasant than it is good, and more introspective than outright entertaining. Both are perfectly watchable — Casual more than Red Oaks — but neither feels urgent; there are so many programs on television that are much, much better.

What’s interesting about these two series is that they perfectly display the pros and cons of binge-watching. Though episodes will be released weekly, the entire first season of Casual was sent out to critics — and there is no doubt that many viewers will prefer to watch these ten episodes all at once on Hulu, rather than returning to the show weekly. Casual gave me what I jokingly refer to as binge-watching Stockholm Syndrome: I was barely lukewarm on the show during the first three or four episodes, but then I found myself starting to love it, to enjoy the aspects that had annoyed me two hours prior, to plainly accept the faults (find them charming, even!), and to get invested in the interpersonal relationships of a family of boring, privileged people. At certain points, I wasn’t entirely sure if the show had improved over the course of the season or if I had just been staring at the screen for so long that I’d willed myself into believing it had.

It’s a little of both, I suppose, because Casual does eventually get stronger — particularly with the addition of Eliza Coupe’s character, Emmy, a free-spirited, unapologetically sexually adventurous woman in an open relationship. Emmy is wonderfully written, so much so that it unfortunately highlights how the main leads tend to veer into cliché territory, and Coupe is utterly delightful to watch. She has an undeniable and seductive screen presence, one so strong that it makes you wish Casual were about her, rather than about the people whose lives she disrupts. Without Emmy, Casual would’ve remained dull but enticing. There are some nice moments (after sleeping with a much younger man, Valerie instinctively folds his clothes before sneaking out) that fail to overshadow the groan-worthy one (a plot in which Alex “fat shames” a blogger he sleeps with, prompting him to go on some halfhearted self-discovery journey). But the more you watch, the more you, well, casually like it.

733aae60-617d-11e5-822b-ebfa7550ef39_Red-Oaks1Red Oaks, on the other hand, should’ve gotten the weekly release treatment. It’s a nostalgic homage to multiple ’80s films, with great acting from Richard Kind, Paul Reiser, and Jennifer Grey. But it demands a certain kind of audience (while watching, I kept wondering if I was too young to fully appreciate the fuzzy ’80s nostalgia), and viewers who are patient enough to let elements of the narrative float around, rather than build big stories. There are some bizarre missteps, such as an honest-to-god body swap episode that is well executed (and directed by Amy Heckerling) but feels so jarring and dissonant with the down-to-earth atmosphere of the show that it pulls you far enough away from the original narrative that it’s hard to simply enjoy it.

The trouble with Red Oaks‘ binge-ready format is that the show has the exact opposite effect of Casual: the more I watched, the more I grew tired of the program, and gradually started to like it less. It meandered, it lost my attention, it began to feel repetitive. Red Oaks is not a terrible show, but it’s one that would’ve made a better 90-minute movie than ten-episode series. The problem is that there isn’t much content in the individual episodes, which can be fine if there’s a week between each new one — but watched in rapid succession, the aimlessness becomes an increasingly serious issue. You begin to get the feeling that you’ve seen this before, and it’s because you have: about 30 minutes ago.

Casual and Red Oaks both illustrate the benefits of and problems with binge-watching. Their release schedules should’ve been switched, but both are perfectly watchable. The trouble is in deciding how to watch them.