Joe Swanberg’s Easy Is a Refreshing Anthology Series That’s Easy to Enjoy

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Easy Photo: Scott Garfield/Netflix

One of my most persistent complaints about scripted TV is that the finished product often takes a shape or unfolds at a length that doesn’t really match the ideas. A TV movie will feel rushed and might’ve been more substantial as a mini-series or limited-run series that would have benefited from more breathing space. Conversely — and far more often these days — you’ll encounter a show that runs one or two seasons longer than its character or ideas can support, or that perhaps has too few or too many episodes within a season. And sometimes I’ll see a pilot that gives me everything I could possibly want to know about its main characters in half an hour or an hour — a concept that in hindsight could barely sustain a feature film, let alone a long-running show.  

Which is why Joe Swanberg’s Netflix series Easy is such a breath of fresh air. Swanberg, a Chicago-based independent filmmaker, is known for his amazing productivity (30 directing credits in 13 years) as well as for his defiant embrace of a quasi-improvised, just-hangin’-out approach to moviemaking. He was rapped early on for making solipsistic films about solipsistic characters, many of which got pigeonholed as "mumblecore" because of the slurry, stop-and-start delivery of some of his actors. But he’s been expanding his horizons and challenging himself over the last decade, and this series is the best thing he’s ever done. That's in large part because of the format: a classically styled anthology wherein every episode is essentially a long short film or featurette; a better description might be a "two-reeler," an exhibitor’s term referring to a story that unfolded on just two reels of film and that was over in 20 minutes, give or take.

Easy consists entirely of two-reelers: You meet some characters at a significant moment of doubt, realization or longing; you follow them as they grapple with a decision; and then bam, you’re on to an entirely new story. But there’s a big difference between Easy and earlier examples of the episode-driven anthology: unlike, say, The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, there’s no genre element. These are short stories of the literary-fiction variety, though more casual and light than that phrase might suggest. They’re bloggy, anecdotal. And that’s fine. In fact, much of the time it’s just right.

The first episode concerns a yuppie couple (Elizabeth Reaser and Michael Chernus) whose sex life is nearly comatose. She’s a successful career woman and he’s a stay-at-home dad who’s toiling away on what sounds like an insufferable Civil War play. A chance conversation with friends at a party leads them to role-play gender stereotypes (he dresses up as a “construction worker” who looks alarmingly like Bob the Builder, while she dresses as a “sexy housewife” in knee socks and frills); the question is whether greater equality and increased sensitivity have distanced straight, middle-class Americans from a more primal sort of sexual connection. The episode doesn’t force an easy answer, preferring instead to let the characters be who they are, then complicate the question. The best moment finds Reaser catching Chernus on a couch, just about to start masturbating to a soft-core porn movie, then trying and failing to turn it into couple sex. Like so many moments on Easy, this one doesn’t resolve as you expect.

Episode two veers into a different world, charting the sudden affair of Chase (Kiersey Clemons), a young African-American woman who’s never slept with a woman before, and Jo (Jacqueline Toboni), a white, short-haired lesbian who’s a committed vegan. Unlike most sitcoms, this episode doesn’t treat veganism as a source of cheap jokes about self-righteousness and lecturing; Chase takes her new partner’s beliefs seriously and explores them via YouTube videos of animals in slaughterhouses (consider yourself warned). Chase also grapples with her attraction, wondering if it’s deeply felt and legitimate or a form of emotional/sexual tourism. This is not something that she expected to happen to her. It’s also not the story you’d expect to follow the first one in this series.  

It’s a treat so see so many actors you recognize placed alongside new faces, and to see all of their lives and concerns taken seriously, though never as seriously as they take themselves. Hannibal Buress plays a reporter; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is an actress enduring a breakup. Orlando Bloom and Malin Akerman play a gorgeous yuppie couple who join Tinder to find somebody who’ll participate in a threesome with them; they end up negotiating with someone they know uncomfortably well (Kate Micucci as an employee at their child’s day-care center), then invite her to a tryst in their basement rec room, pausing regularly to deal with a child who refuses to go to sleep. This is the kind of scenario that the hero of Dream On might’ve found himself in back in the day, but there’s no sniggering here, and the sex — as elsewhere on the series — has heat but never feels exploitative; it’s awkward sometimes, and you see people pausing to readjust, or to figure out where to put a leg or arm.

Best in show might be the episode with Marc Maron as Jacob, a graphic novelist who uses his own life as material, alienating his friends and lovers; he meets his match in Alison (Emily Ratajkowski), who insists that the self-portraits she takes with a camera on a selfie stick (including a post-coital shot of Jacob) are just as valid a form of expression as Jacob’s R. Crumb–lite cartoons. Here, too, the series surprises in ways that other series might not. Swanberg, whose own early films were widely criticized for being the indie film version of a camera selfie, sees through both of his main characters, and lets them reach a kind of understanding — one that’s saved from being pat by the realization that all artists mine their lives for raw material, and the most committed ones are more interested in expression and exposure than protecting others’ feelings. The episode also studies the idea of life as performance at a time when the word “performative” is routinely trotted out as a pejorative on social media to delegitimize anyone who expresses strong feelings that the complainant doesn’t share. Everyone is performative, the episode seems to be saying, and artists more so than most people. “You’re doing a monologue at all times,” says Jacob’s ex (Jane Adams); she’s not wrong, and Swanberg doesn’t treat her comment as a harpoon to the heart. It's just a valid observation that Jacob is self-aware enough to graciously accept.

Much of Swanberg’s filmography focuses on white middle-class Americans, many of whom are on the fringes of art or entertainment and are trying to break through to the center. As Swanberg aged into his late 20s and 30s, his focus shifted to what it feels like to come to terms with disappointment (or to reject it, or refocus energy on something else), and there is often semi-explicit sex. All these elements are represented in Easy, but the wide array of characters and situations and the subtle shift in tone from episode to episode prevent the series from feeling as if it’s going to the same well over and over. The gently satirical writing pokes fun at the delusions of importance that were always characteristic of Americans in this class, but which grew like science-fiction blobs in the first decade of the aughts, when Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and various online dating and conversation apps caught on, making everyone a celebrity in their own minds.

But even though the show is unsparing in its digs, it’s never cruel. In fact, there are moments in each episode when a disarming sincerity shines through, and you realize that you’re seeing that rarity of rarities: television characters who are having substantive, free-ranging conversations about something other than their own needs, and finding themselves getting closer to something like mutual understanding. This is hard to do without coming off as pompous or Polyannaish, but Easy makes it look easy.