Joe Swanberg is back! After a fairly under-the-radar Season 1 release in September 2016, Season 2 got the similar low-key marketing treatment before dropping the first day of December.
But don’t take the lack of buzz as a lack of import. Season 1 asked a lot of valuable questions while delivering a beautiful and unique realization of modern Chicago. The anthology approach, with each episode functioning as a standalone short, helped cover a lot of cultural ground, and Season 2 continues that pattern in interesting ways.
While the episodes can certainly stand on their own, many bring back characters from Season 1. Context from earlier episodes isn’t prescient, but it does help, and just like last year, some stories are better than others.
To that end, IndieWire has reviewed each episode individually below and ranked them by their assigned grades. The season overall is strong; arguably stronger than the first, as Swanberg continues to perfect his approach to the medium. For TV fans, it’s intriguing to see how he plays with beginnings and endings; how he continues to tell some stories almost with the assumption there will be more in the future, while others end with the emphasis of a movie.
Swanberg’s further exploration evidently leads to greater success, so we’re already hoping for a Season 3. Until then, here are a few thoughts on the fascinating stories from these eight new episodes.
8. “Baby Steps” (Episode 8)
Starring: Kate Micucci, Megan Ferguson
The last episode of Season 1 gets off to a rocky start when Danny Masterson walks in the door, but it levels out nicely, essentially ending with a message that men are unnecessary annoyances, even in families. That’s great, and overall “Baby Steps” is an observant examination of loneliness, recuperation, and satisfaction, even if it’s a little too complacent to be affecting.
Annie (Kate Micucci) returns after her Season 1 introduction in Episode 6, “Utopia,” but her former threesome partners Malin Ackerman and Orlando Bloom are long gone. Now she’s facing a break-up (Masterson plays the boyfriend moving out of town), a job that forces her to constantly confront her delayed future plans (she wants a family), and a tricky balancing of healing and hiding through work.
Annie wants a kid, and she gets to pretend like she has one when she’s babysitting. Plus, she doesn’t have to deal with the problems associated with a relationship. Her boss, played by Megan Ferguson, is going through something much worse than Annie’s breakup, and how the two bond at episode’s end is a touching empathetic note, if not a particularly telling one. It’s nice that Annie is taking note of where she’s at, what she’s doing, and what she wants, but the episode is unclear about whether or not her choices are as innocent as they seem. Perhaps she’s using this family as a distraction from the difficulties of dating, or maybe it’s just the right situation for her right now. The latter is implied by the title, but any impact is deadened by a lack of strong choices.
7. “Spent Grain” (Episode 4)
Starring: Dave Franco, Zazie Beetz, Evan Jonigkeit, Aya Cash
Here’s where “Easy” Season 2 — and Joe Swanberg’s transition to TV — hit a bit of a speed bump. Brothers Jeff (Dave Franco) and Matt (Evan Jonigkeit), along with their wives Noelle (Zazie Beetz) and Sherri (Aya Cash), took up two full episodes in the first season, and those two episodes were top tier entries. This takes a bit of a step back, mainly because it feels like the start of something without a definitive ending. (There’s no second episode in Season 2.)
Picking up 10 years after the brothers started a brewery business together, the episode finds the two families even bigger than before. Both couples have kids. Both are living well and contemplating expansion. Jeff and Matt want to keep growing the brewery, but in different ways, while Noelle and Sherri are going into business themselves. A rift over how to make a mark in the Chicago beer world splits up the brothers, leaving Jeff all but abandoning his brother, and the women resolve not to operate like their incommunicative husbands.
If the ending was just a pause before Season 3 continued the story, fine. “Spent Grain” would still be a bit of a transitionary episode, but that’s OK when you’re telling an ongoing serialized story. Swanberg isn’t exactly doing that. Yes, stories from Season 1 continued in Season 2, but the other episodes found a more satisfying stopping point than this. They were still short films, or anthology episodes, or whatever we want to call self-contained narrative arcs. “Spent Grain” starts out like that before leaving Jeff and Matt’s relationship in tatters and Noelle and Sherri about to start something worth watching. Audiences need to see what happens next, and not just in the next 10 years, but immediately after all these big decisions.
(Or maybe I just desperately want to see Aya Cash kick some ass, and do not enjoy watching the otherwise awesome Dave Franco whine about artisanal beer.)
6. “Conjugality” (Episode 5)
Starring: Marc Maron, Jane Adams, Kate Berlant, Michaela Watkins
A simple but entertaining dissection of real and fake relationships, “Conjugality” finds author Jacob Malco (Marc Maron) beginning a publicity tour for the 20th anniversary of his breakout novel. More than willing to honestly shill for his work but utterly unwilling to engage with his publicist’s (Kate Berlant) crass ideas, Jacob has a choice to make: use his ex (upon which the book is based) to sell more copies, or respect the privacy of his alienated former girlfriend, Karen (Michaela Watkins).
Jacob being Jacob, he tries to thread the needle. After being not so stealthily conned into meeting with Karen, he’s sucked into a discussion of their past and what seems like an honest interest in rekindling their romance. But after the book’s publicity soars because the two are seen together, he trades his morals for another shot at fame.
Because obvious answers are so painfully present to the audience, “Conjugality” runs the risk of being a frustrating half-hour spent with a frustrating man. But Maron’s charming performance holds it together, along with another endearing turn from the always-welcome Michaela Watkins. Moreover, Swanberg does a nice job of framing Jacob as better than his baseless PR reps and Karen as better than him. You feel for Jacob even when he’s making the wrong choices, and that lends just enough pathos to make the episode as lightly satiric as it wants to be.
5. “Side Hustle” (Episode 3)
Starring: Karley Sciortino, Odinaka Ezeokoli, Jane Adams
Karley Sciortino plays Sally, a writer who focuses mainly on relationships and sexuality in her work. Odinaka Ezeokoli plays Odinaka, a stand-up comedian who jokes about cultural disparity. His side gig is driving, be it for Uber or as a tour guide, and her side gig is prostitution.
Both characters provide a wide window into the city of Chicago. Karley meets some strange men with some strange requests. Her job never gets dangerous, but she does explain to a friend how she protects herself from violent johns. Odinaka sees even more people, albeit more briefly, as he drives them from destination to destination. Their conversations feed his sets just as her sexual escapades feed her writing.
Eventually, the two meet when he gives her a ride, and later their two friend groups come together randomly at a stand-up gig. But “Side Hustle isn’t a meet-cute or “Crash”-like story of connectivity. Swanberg blends the professions enough to show how their common goals blend together across jobs and emphasizes a perspective shift in general: We’re all just out there hustling for something. People just go about it differently.
4. “Package Thief” (Episode 1)
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Timothy Simons, Joe Lo Truglio, Lawrence Michael Levine
The funniest of the new episodes is also one of the few focusing on a new set of characters, which works out perfectly because it’s all about how a group dynamic can affect individual relationships. The happy residents of the “best” Chicago neighborhood are torn asunder when packages start going missing. They find out someone is stealing them, and the neighbors have to gather together to decide what to do.
Group plans turn to group texts, mass communication turns to mass confusion, and frustrations mount as the best intentions go ever-so-slightly awry. Swanberg frames the episode like a horror movie, but a funny horror movie. You know nothing is going to go wrong, but they don’t, and Swanberg pushes buttons both ways. Banal security camera footage gets paired with a “Psycho”-esque score of high strings, juxtaposing the easily excited suburbanites’ various overreactions with the underlying tension felt between neighbors, partners, and everyone else.
The cast thrives creating humorous archetypes everyone can recognize, with Joe Lo Truglio, Timothy Simons, and Aubrey Plaza all putting their best feet forward. (Lo Truglio makes the most of some great lines, Simons is a hilarious fast-talking worried dad, and Plaza’s sly, questioning looks at her neighbors are priceless.) Simple but effective, “Package Thief” starts the season off right.
(Bonus points, by the way, for two big background touches. First, for following up on last year’s best episode by giving us a glimpse of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a TV show Plaza’s character is watching. Second, to whoever put Old Style beer — a local staple — in the actors’ hands. What a great touch.)