In the on-going blitz of Netflix Originals we’ve been experiencing so far in 2016, Joe Swanberg’s “Easy” feels like a homing missile that has all the explosive resonance of a beach ball. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Filled with familiar faces, compartmentalized into bite-sized 30-minute shorts, and produced, directed, and written by the master and commander of mumblecore, “Easy” takes a light-hearted and accessible approach (no, really) to portray mid-life modern romance in Chicago, with the hopes of digging up some pretty heavy-duty stuff underneath terrifyingly ordinary lives. The show is basically two or three Swanberg feature films (“Drinking Buddies” perhaps the closest relative), sliced into eight pieces; some sharing the same flavors, others announcing new palatable discoveries – all part of the same, organic-only, buffet table.
The order of the episodes plays a key role in how you perceive the bigger picture of Swanberg’s sprawled assortment of appetizers. We start off with Kyle (Michael Chernus) and Andi (Elizabeth Reaser) in the first episode – affably titled ‘The Fucking Study” – which sees the two struggling to spice up their sex life after 15 years of marriage. Then, later, in episode seven (“Chemistry Read”), when we follow Sophie (an incredible Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who decides to break off a long-term relationship, Kyle drops a bomb of a line weighing a megaton towards the end – “It’s a young person’s game” – that silently crushes Sophie. It lasts a few seconds but resonates for hours on end, which wouldn’t have been possible had we not already gotten to know Kyle in the first episode. Episode three (“Brewery Brothers”) and episode eight (“Hop Dreams”) are essentially one, 60-minute film, with the four episodes in between allowing us good breathing room to digest and register Jeff (Dave Franco) and Matt’s (Evan Jonigkeit) predicaments over their illegal brewery business on a more meaningful level. Comparing Jeff’s entrance in episode three and how we leave him in episode eight is feeling the force of the season’s heaviest punch in the gut.
Speaking of which, the fact that Swanberg doesn’t force the interconnectedness of the world he’s building is a huge plus and a good sign of things to come in (possible) future seasons. Babysitting, sharing the same music taste, being neighbors, acting in the same play, a general love and respect for artistic expression; these are the connective tissues that make the characters in “Easy” cross paths in the most natural of ways. What’s more, this liberating approach allows Swanberg to introduce people who don’t have to share something with someone else from another episode (besides living in the same city of Chicago, of course). Two of the season’s highlight episodes – four (the all-Spanish affair “Controlada”) and five (idly titled “Art and Life”) – are strong enough to stand on their own, sharing the same “Easy” creative space but introducing memorable characters and engaging themes in the process and feeling more whole than any of the other six. For those who haven’t seen them yet, “Controlada” is about a Spanish couple silently tearing at the seams when Gabi’s (Aislinn Derbez) ex-boyfriend Martin (Mauricio Ochmann) couch-surfs for a while, and “Art and Life” sees middle-aged graphic novelist Jacob (Marc Maron) getting a taste of his own artistic medicine when he meets the beautiful young selfie-artist Allison (Emily Ratajkowski). This doesn’t always work, though, which the following stand-alone episode – episode six, “Utopia” – proves in spades, introducing us to perfect couple Tom (Orlando Bloom) and Lucy (Malin Akerman), who end up being perfectly uninteresting and superbly forgettable in their quest to check out Tinder for the first time.
It’s also true that Swanberg’s laissez faire method and the 30-min format don’t always spark a connection. Episode two, “Vegan Cinderella,” is the most zeitgeist-y of them all, tracing the beginnings of a relationship between vegan feminista Jo (Jacqueline Toboni) and her Cinderella, Chase (Kiersy Clemons) – but there’s so much packed into it in terms of sheer character evolution that it ends up feeling rushed, forced, and – much like Chase’s pepperoni pizza – pretty indigestible.
A thickly character-driven style complements the rather thinly plotted storylines, allowing a lot of space for the viewer to draw parallels with his or her own real life experiences. Asked to describe the show in one word for an Entertainment Weekly interview, Swanberg chose “accessible,” explaining how he wants “the work to be engaged in a dialogue with the audience, not so much a monologue just coming from me.” The director’s signature working methods – heavily leaning on improvisation, directing his actors to put as much of their real selves into their fictional characters, and fleshing out stories from paragraphs on the day of the shoot – turns every episode into a breezy watch, even the ones that fall short of fully engaging you. You’ll spend 4 hours with a main cast of around 20 leads, with modest production values, fluid flow and a relaxed tone helping to dissolve the screen in front of you and make you feel like you’re in the same room with these people, nodding along or shaking your head as a silent observer. In this crowd, there’s bound to be someone or something everyone can connect with, even if most of the people we spend time with come from a specific area of Chicago (north side) and are white middle-to-upper class adults. Most of their dilemmas are universal.
While Swanberg calls the process of making “Easy” “a summation of different creative decisions, as opposed to having one overarching theme,” the season clearly treads similar subjects throughout. Beside the obvious connection of Chicago, every episode deals with some aspect of millennial romance and contemporary relationship dynamics, probing into issues of gender roles, exploring modern communication through technology (or the lack thereof), new forms of self-expression and the timeless theme of identity loss. The theme of control – feeling it, taking it, wanting it, needing it – is omnipresent in “Easy,” with commitment often taking the form of a two-headed relationships monster who feasts on furniture sales and wipes the corners of its mouth with a monochrome Color Swatch. Having and not having children, and just how big of a game-changer this is for couples, is as unanimous a topic as the nostalgic reminiscing of how things used to be “in the good old days” versus how they are now. A surprise cameo from “Hoop Dreams” baller Arthur Agee in the last episode is a profoundly heartfelt example of the latter.
Speechless reactions that stifle deafening internal screams through listless eyes abound in just about every episode, which brings me to my very favorite thing about this show. Ambiguity. Swanberg and his actors expertly handle the ambiguous, with the majority of the episodes ending on some kind of cliffhanger, and leaving the viewer – provided you find a connection – with a intense whirlpool of emotions. It’s in Jeff’s vacuous stare into oblivion at the end, it’s in Sohpie’s tearful eyes while Skyping, it’s in the way Andi looks at Kyle after she prepares him breakfast, and it’s even in a single shot of an empty sofa. Swanberg veils the world of “Easy” in an equivocal quilt that offers comfort through silence, and while the thread count might not be as rich in some corners as it is in others, you’re often left with a compelling kind of softness that wraps itself around your memories, your experiences and your life as it is right now.
If Swanberg gets his way – and with the mixed reaction to the show, the jury’s still out on this – we’ll be getting a lot more seasons of “Easy.” Its compressed format, starved plots, lack of showy acting and overtly liberating use of characters can easily translate to a hollow experience for a lot of people, and probably won’t dominate conversations around the water cooler, but there are plenty of moments that thrive here for those willing and patient enough to engage with the director’s unconstrained panache. For my money, “Easy” is a refreshing and humble counterpart to the deafening blaze of shows like “Narcos” or the Marvel fare, and I hope Swanberg is given the chance to continue fleshing out his world. The first season feels like the foundation of something much grander in the making, like a construction site whose scaffolding sketches out a would-be skyscraper that will one day overlook an entire city. Sure, it may not look like much right now, but then again, neither did Willis Tower at first. [B]