Taken literally and/or sarcastically, the title of new Netflix series Easy is perfectly emblematic of both the show itself and the artistic approach of the man behind it all, Chicagoan indie icon Joe Swanberg. He’s directed nearly 20 features over the past ten years (Drinking Buddies, Digging For Fire, Happy Christmas), not to mention helming episodes of Love and Looking (impossibly, he’s led a prolific acting career as well). His brand of drama is decidedly subtle and naturalistic, following the everyday lives of everyday people who wrestle with age-old anxieties, desires, and fears as they dabble and fumble with the bright and shiny trappings of modern living.
Those familiar with Swanberg’s style will find a perfect TV representation of it in Easy, which follows very loosely connected Chicagoans as they bump and grind on each other in more ways than one. Sex, jealousy, infidelity, more sex, betrayal, illegal beer brewing, kinky Tinder experimentation (which, of course, leads to even more sex); Swanberg examines what it’s like to live in 2016 Chicago from several angles. To bolster this approach, the show is presented anthology-style, a format that allows characters to be onscreen for however long or short Swanberg deems appropriate to their respective stories. Some characters appear in multiple episodes, others are given just a handful of short but juicy scenes.
It’s almost staggering how star-studded the cast is, especially for TV. Dave Franco, Orlando Bloom, Hannibal Buress, Malin Akerman, Kiersey Clemons, Marc Maron, Raul Castillo, and Kate Micucci share the screen, and that’s not even half of the familiar faces Swanberg managed to wrangle for the project (regular Swanberg collaborator Jane Adams is as sensational as ever in a fleeting but poignant turn, Michael Chernus is terrific in the series’ otherwise underdeveloped opener, and the list goes on). Everyone brings the correct measure of sincerity the indie auteur’s material requires, from the most experienced cast members to those with the least screen experience, like standout Jacqueline Toboni, who with Clemons tells a low-key romance story about the stresses of meeting a new partner’s expectations.
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The themes and situations Swanberg and co. explore are so specific and relatable they sting. Almost all of us can sympathize with Clemons’ character, who pretends to be a vegan and avid cyclist, all for the sake of impressing her new crush. Another standout episode revolves around an autobiographical graphic novelist (Marc Maron) who’s known for dishing on the most private details of his failed relationships and gets the tables turned on him by a seductive selfie artist (whatever that is).
Swanberg’s never been one to amplify drama or insert it where it doesn’t belong. The characters in Easy are generally well-adjusted, reasonable people who genuinely care about their friends and family, and there are no explosive arguments or tearful monologues to be found throughout the series’ eight half-hour episodes. The stakes are pretty low and the emotions sneak up on you, but Swanberg is terrific at using the cinematic tools at his disposal to get to the truth of a scene like an x-ray. Sometimes, what people are doing with their hands is more revealing than the words coming out of their mouths, and he totally gets that.
Something that feels missing from the show is the perspective of people from lower income households. All of the characters are middle-class to affluent as hell. Chicago’s many impoverished neighborhoods are almost exclusively populated by minorities, and it would have been interesting to see the city from the perspective of a person of color who has to struggle with economic and civic issues on top of their interpersonal anxieties.
On the other hand, Easy isn’t a show about Chicago. The city isn’t a character in itself like one might expect a proud native like Swanberg to make it, but that’s not to the show’s detriment. The going concern here are the contradictory actions and behaviors of the characters. Despite all of the knowledge and culture and fancy technology that permeates the characters’ lives and informs their worldviews, they’re still beautifully flawed human beings who can’t help but give in to intuition, instinct, and their most primal needs when logic and reason points them in the opposite direction.
With Easy, Joe Swanberg continues to explore gender roles, modernity, love and family in fascinating fashion.