Remember winter break? It was a simpler time — three gloriously empty weeks of 24 gloriously empty hours a day, free to be filled with “Jane the Virgin,” “Jessica Jones” and endless reruns of “Judge Judy.” It can be tough to make the transition from complete TV saturation to a normal and productive college existence. Here are two excellent shows — one a returning hit, the other a new critical favorite — that deserve a prime spot in your second-semester streaming queue.
The former, Amazon’s “Transparent,” returned for another season on Dec. 10. Writer/director/showrunner Jill Soloway keeps the Emmy-winning magic of the first season alive in the second, creating a show that’s warm and intimate and convincingly messy.
This time around, “Transparent” is less focused on Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), the transgender woman whose interior journey suffused the first 10 episodes. Now the whole Pfefferman family — and all their glaring flaws — are on full display. Sarah (Amy Landecker) realizes on her wedding day, conveniently enough, that she’s unhappy with just about every decision she’s ever made. Music business hotshot/man-child Josh (Jay Duplass) attempts to settle down with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn, a beautiful angel sent from above). And Allie (Gaby Hoffmann) finds herself seduced by the erotic impulses of graduate school, and by an aggressively cool department chair at UCLA.
While last season introduced us to Maura’s search for herself, this season explores the search for identity as a universal phenomenon. There are many interlocking forces at work here. Jewish tradition and inherited trauma, sexual exploration and the limits of self-reflection — all of these inform the narrative tilts of “Transparent.” Maura’s trip to a women’s festival with strict rules about who qualifies as “female” fosters nuanced discussions of feminist and queer theory. Flashbacks to the Pfeffermans’ ancestors in 1930s Germany twist around contemporary plotlines on love, fatherhood and CrossFit. Characters grow — kind of, slowly — and then return to their old ways. “Transparent” is damn good.
Another streaming option worthy of your limited free time is “Casual,” Hulu’s new comedy series. The 10-episode first season premiered in October and has been gaining critical steam ever since.
Michaela Watkins plays Valerie, a forty-ish therapist with a flailing personal life. Newly separated, Valerie lives with her playboy brother and best friend Alex (Tommy Dewey), inventor of an online dating site whose algorithms he manipulates for his own romantic gain. Valerie’s teenage daughter (Tara Lynne Barr) has plenty of personal complications too, from a philandering high school boyfriend to a serious hot-for-teacher phase.
“Casual” is a cynical take on modern dating, of a piece with some of director Jason Reitman’s previous projects (“Juno” and “Young Adult,” among others). Valerie’s fleeting affair with a younger man is especially hilarious; she generously gifts him a box of spoons, since his apartment has none.
The show often feels like a streamlined sex comedy — not quite one-note (there are some nice moments of genuine family bonding between the three main characters), but rarely straying from its focus on sex in the age of Tinder. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. “Casual” has some incisive things to say and is often quite clever in saying them. It’s a fun take on what hookup culture looks like in your 30s. (On second thought, maybe it’s more of a horror series.)