Always with a soft touch for the nuances of love in its many forms, Joe Swanberg’s filmmaking career is dotted with contemplative explorations of how individuals find happiness through each other. So it makes sense his first foray into serialized television — as a creator, writer and director of all episodes — combines the best of both worlds, films and love, all told within his favorite city. From a lovingly-captured Chicago, “Easy” functions as a series of short films, 25-30 minutes apiece, with each episode tracking a new couple’s singular journey.
A favorite among the independent film community, Swanberg has gathered a consummate group of actors with various degrees of experience to give life to each of his stories. Orlando Bloom and Malin Akerman, for instance, only appear in one episode, while Aya Cash, Dave Franco, Michael Chernus and a few others pop up a few times. Yet very little crossover occurs until the later episodes, and while there is a definitive tone to the overall experience — as well as an ingrained appreciation for the blue collar aesthetics of Chicago — it seems fitting to judge each entry on its own basis before passing judgment on the eight-episode whole.
So, without further ado, the episodes of “Easy” ranked from
worst good to great: [very limited, plot summary-like spoilers below]
“Art and Life” (Episode 5)
Starring: Mark Maron, Emily Ratajkowski
In a rather predictable turn of events, Mark Maron’s Jacob, a graphic novelist who uses his personal experiences with women for artistic inspiration, sleeps with a young fan (Emily Ratajkowski) and is later mortified when she uses him as a subject of her own art. While there’s a divisive argument to be had over the artistic value of models taking selfies, Swanberg seems more enamored with Jacob’s ignorance to and forgiveness of his own moral bankruptcy. Not only does he ignore complaints fielded from the women he’s hurt through his books, but he seems a little too oblivious to the parallels between what he does and what’s done to him for any kind of empathetic investment in his plight to carry weight. We don’t have to like Jacob to learn from him, but there’s also not a lot to learn.
“Vegan Cinderella” (Episode 2)
Starring: Kiersey Clemons, Jacqueline Toboni, Jaz Sinclair
A simple story about how people try to change for their partners, “Vegan Cinderella” is a frustratingly unpleasant take on young love — seriously, the word “like” is said so many times Kiersey Clemons’ character becomes a surprisingly aggressive condemnation of millennials — and it gets a little redundant during the middle section. But the episode still makes its point clearly, effectively and with a few spots of fun in between — not to mention an ending I, for one, didn’t see coming.
“The Fucking Study” (Episode 1)
Starring: Michael Chernus, Elizabeth Reaser
A subtly devastating and emphatically discouraging assessment of how gender stereotypes can adversely affect even the most open-minded couples, “The Fucking Study” presents its thesis with a level of contention absent from the ending — which could have been great, if the discussion in between sounded more like, “We have a long way to go” than “Give up hope, all who enter here.” Kyle (Chernus) is a stay-at-home dad who worries his wife isn’t as attracted to him now that he’s taken over the gender normative role of a housewife. Annie (Reaser) adamantly disagrees, and the couple explores various options to disprove the theory (first proposed by a friend citing an unnamed study). By the end, you, too, may want to cite reasons that could disprove the infuriating study, but upon second thought, you may realize that that very response is exactly what Swanberg was aiming for.
“Controlada” (Episode 4)
Starring: Aislinn Derbez, Raul Castillo, Mauricio Ochmann
Continuing the theme of oppressed instinctual attraction, “Controlada” uses silence, implication and body language to paint a portrait of a woman torn between two sides of herself. Of course, because we’re dealing with romantic relationships in “Easy,” her polar opposite desires are embodied by two men of far less complexity than Gabi (Aislinn Derbez). Bernardo (Raul Castillo) is her husband; a discipline, fixed-in-his-ways individual who represents security. She seems happy with him until Martin (Mauricio Ochmann) comes to town. A former flame who burned out after too many random departures, Martin is an unpredictable and passionate man who’s always up for a good time and always confused when others aren’t.
Gabi’s journey may be tough to watch at times — her inner turmoil is exhibited in a forceful physical encounter that could be misinterpreted if the scene wasn’t so carefully choreographed — but it’s vividly memorable, in part because of how well Swanberg captures the city Martin is so eager to explore. You may have seen Millennium Park in a few movies before, but never quite like this.
“Utopia” (Episode 6)
Starring: Orland Bloom, Malin Akerman, Kate Micucci
Holy shit, do Orlando Bloom and Malin Akerman go at it. The impossibly attractive couple spends at least a third of “Utopia” getting busy — so much so, the title itself may refer to the literal space these two occupy when their genetically perfect bodies writhe around in passion. More importantly, the episode serves as an actively fun break from some of the weighty issues tackled in other entries, as the two stars play a married couple looking to experiment with Tinder (because they never got to when they were single). What could have been rife with anxiety is instead packed to the gills with love, making “Utopia” a light and sultry treat.
“Hop Dreams” (Episode 8)
Starring: Hannibal Buress, Dave Franco, Zazie Beetz, Aya Cash and Evan Jonigkeit
One of two episodes that shifts drastically from one subject to another, “Hop Dreams” slowly overcomes that awkward transition (without fully justifying the initial character’s inclusion) to tell a tragic tale of one man’s thwarted utopia. (No, Bloom and Akerman do not reappear.) Its partner episode, “Brewery Brothers” (which we’ll get to next), sets the stage, as we revisit Jeff (Franco) and Matt’s (Jonigkeit) illegal garage-based brewery through the eyes of a curious reporter played by Hannibal Buress. Only this time, we get to hear Jeff’s side of things more clearly; seeing how a simple life filled with simple pleasures can be more than enough for those self-aware enough to realize it.
The performances are terrific all around, as certain sides of previously-established players are slightly tweaked after the shift in perception. Franco, especially, makes excellent choices in balancing his character’s emotional arc, taking us from euphoric highs to dejected lows with a precision undoubtedly aided by Swanberg’s guiding hand. It’s an interesting final note, considering the turns between optimism and pessimism the series deftly makes, but “Hop Dreams” certainly makes us want more from Swanberg — and more from these characters.
“Brewery Brothers” (Episode 3)
Starring: Evan Jonigkeit, Aya Cash, Dave Franco and Zazie Beetz
Though the ending’s emotional beat is affected by the story’s continuation in Episode 8, “Brewery Brothers” offers up a balanced deconstruction of stereotypes as it skillfully illustrates how secrets can fester into something larger, and clear communication can overcome just about anything. Starring Jonigkeit and Franco as brothers Matt and Jeff, with Zazie Beetz and Aya Cash as virtual sisters-in-law, the group forms a de facto family as Jeff looks to escape his boring job while reconnecting with his brother over a shared passion for brewing beer. Familiar story beats lead to unexpected (and sharply cut together) scenes, but nothing can compare to a conclusion as satisfying as it is level-headed. Again, your perception may be changed by what comes next, but this stands alone as a superb short.
“Chemistry Read” (Episode 7)
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jane Adams, Michael Chernus and Jake Johnson
Two specific, personal stories get their due in a juxtaposition of what it’s like to be coming out of a long-term relationship and what it’s like to crave one. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is torn between her comfortable life and something more, as the allure of the unknown tempts her both romantically and professionally. Meanwhile, Jane Adams (who we first glimpsed as Marc Maron’s friend in Episode 5), appears agonizingly lonely. Sipping whiskey and biting her tongue as her co-star contests the positive attributes of singledom, a life she’s never really had, Adams’ character has seen the other side and wants to switch places.
Swanberg does a remarkable job remaining nonjudgmental, as well as balancing both stories without losing the power of either. It’s clear neither desire is wrong, but time, experience and individualism keep us from agreeing to one preeminent path. Single and free or coupled and cared for — we all must decide for ourselves and hope the other option is available if we should choose to change our minds.
The Series, Overall
Swanberg’s choice of character ages and demographics is impeccable, providing a diverse group any series would envy — I failed to mention above that Episode 4 is told almost entirely in Spanish. More importantly, this isn’t casually-incorporated tokenism. Each person is consciously and purposefully included, which becomes doubly important given the setting. Chicago isn’t a city historically ignored by Hollywood (or the media), but its demographic breakdown is akin to a melting pot more than an Irish stew.
“Easy” captures all of the Midwestern capital’s glory, showcasing its variant neighborhoods, hidden gems and tourist attractions with an eye toward equality. Swanberg sees the city from a viewpoint of someone who’s long appreciated the open spaces and utilitarian splendor, making the series pulse with raw magic.
For as easy as it would be to get lost in the look and feel of the new series, Swanberg has a lot to say with “Easy.” Some arguments may be more compelling than others, and “Easy” itself is distinctly understated in almost every regard (much like its setting). “Easy” isn’t preoccupied with answering questions as much as asking them, which may frustrate a few viewers. But when the questions are this well-contextualized around a subject that’s anything but easy, what’s valuable are the questions — so we all can answer them on our own.
All eight episodes of “Easy” Season 1 are streaming now, exclusively on Netflix.