Review: EASY Season One

Posted on Saturday, December 31st, 2016 at 11:48 am

[Originally written for and published by Crossfader Magazine]

It’s easy to describe EASY. Netflix essentially commissioned Joe Swanberg: The Show. Describing what Joe Swanberg does is not so easy: His minimalist oeuvre about mundane existence is deceptively simple and often taken as “empty.” Swanberg’s prolific in semi-experimentation and full improvisation within comedy/drama fare. His recent emergence into mainstream cinema makes complete sense (in minor throwback fashion to ‘70s character pieces), though it’s evident with EASY that he has not lost sight of what made him so unique in the first place; in fact, the show seems to be about his struggle to maintain his own deal, among other struggles with family, friends, and creativity. However you want to peg what Swanberg and his rambunctious, explorative crew does, it certainly brings forth a much-needed sense of peculiarity and insightfulness in a genre that’s just about to become stale and flaccid, if it hasn’t become that already. It’s exciting to say that EASY is a low-key triumph for episodic storytelling and Joe Swanberg as a writer/director.

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Any actor to Joe Swanberg: “You want us to do what?”

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EASY consists of thematic studies of self-industry and love in contemporary Chicago. Though decidedly middle class in its melting pot recipies, Joe Swanberg utilizes subtle subversion through naturally progressive means to portray a wide swath of characters going through crises that juxtapose the show’s title. He finds fascination in the difficulty, and even convolutedness, that comes in life changes: starting a new relationship, maintaining intimacy in a marriage with children, societal gender constructs, preparing for having a child, giving up on dreams and past lives for bigger purposes, breaking up with loved ones, and being alone for long periods of time, among other scenarios. Each episode tackles an individual theme via observation of characters of different ethnicities (one episode is almost completely in Spanish), different sexual preferences, and different ages.

One consistency of admirably human nature is that every individual portrayed has a unique light within them, be it creative or just in pure soul. Swanberg is adamant in his empathy, which he portrays through highly natural and engaging performances. His films have always lived and died on his actors (often including himself), but the ensemble he’s gathered here truly get what it means to be a Joe Swanberg player… which comes with quite a few requirements. In addition to improvising from beat to beat, a Swanberg performer must be comfortable being intensely casual and inquisitive in a crowd, fluctuating between emotions naturally and organically, and playing off of the mundanity and “nothingness” of normal life. A lot of sequences of pure conversation and simple tasks might feel like time wasting, but over the years, Swanberg has become impressively economical with his characters simply breathing.

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Marc Maron is great here, despite constantly asking “we good?” to every character.

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Considering every episode is practically its own short film, the actors Swanberg got to work with here all not only fit the bill for his style, but manage to make simple premises captivating. Standouts include Dave Franco, Gugu Mbtha-Raw, Marc Maron, Hannibal Buress, Elizabeth Reaser, Michael Chernus, Jane Adams (a Swanberg mainstay), Aislinn Derbez, and pretty much everyone else; Swanberg gives everyone a chance to really shine and play along.

Perhaps the most shining example of the boldness and bravery in his performers is their flexibility with the last Swanberg requirement: They must be willing to express sexuality in a very frank manner. Swanberg is notorious for portraying sex scenes in long takes and sequences, showing every single blip of awkwardness and human nuance that comes with intimacy. The banter and interruptions, the mismatch of rhythms, or even the pure, unglamorous physicality inherent in even enjoying the act: It’s all there and in the spotlight. In a television landscape where GAME OF THRONES and GIRLS portray sex in such visceral terms, EASY’s sexual streak is not only fitting, but also a solid, human refresher, outside of someone like Lena Dunham’s all too present attitude in her attempts to be honest. Joe Swanberg lets his performers build their characters and exist within their bodies in the moment; both sides give 100% of their 50%, resulting in some incredibly awkward, funny, but genuine looks at sex.

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Porno plumbers need motivation, too

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Joe Swanberg’s latest fare has shown a lot of cinematic growth, which comes to a head with EASY, including some of his best directing yet. In the past, he’s worked under the mumblecore ethos of flashy cinematics being an afterthought to character. His cinematography has often been stationary with long takes, or documentary-style with frequent zooms and handheld pans. Though since 2010’s DRINKING BUDDIES, he’s not only become a better visual storyteller, but a playful one as well. EASY demonstrates patient, observant filmmaking that matches the vibrancy of his protagonists, creating a palpable energy level that doesn’t feel like it’s making up for run-time, but instead develops tone and character while being entertaining to watch unfold.

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An actress playing an actress. Surprise, she just played herself – did I do that right?

Image Source: Screenshot of EASY

As a filmmaker, Joe Swanberg has not only grown on a purely cinematic level; his philosophical explorations have reached intense levels of textual richness within his frames and scripting. Like most new series, EASY feels like one big movie, though more in the vein of a Robert Altman film by way of John Cassavetes, with each segment complementing the next in contradictions or juxtapositions. Swanberg does his usual magic with improvised sequences of dialogue and exploration that feel like lazing around while incidentally presenting windows into souls, but even more impressive is how he utilizes human interaction with inanimate subjects. Whether we’re simply watching characters on their phone or the internet reacting, without seeing what they’re seeing, or watching characters walk through Millennium Park or a museum about the history of the universe, Swanberg makes beautiful, thoughtful connections about humanity and our relationships with technology, each other (through technology, such as his contrasts of pornography to intimate intercourse), and ourselves that are not only thought provoking, but have the warmth and insight of a hug from a good friend. A particular example is in the conclusion of the Wong Kar Wai-esque episode “Chemistry Read,” (spoilers avoided) as it portrays a heart-wrenching yet understated juxtaposition of a game to the fleeting complexity and grand scale of one’s own existence. It’s a heady show, but is surprisingly easy to engage with.

It can be difficult to empathize with yuppies, but Swanberg’s EASY ensemble is captured in an empathetic, universal light, jack-knifing off progressive notions into casual existence with all of its complicated nuances. The show observes that everyone has a unique, creative core within them that is constantly ready to be explored, and Swanberg reiterates it’s important to do so. It can be difficult, even to a paralyzing degree, especially since the key to living a good life involves the lives of others that you love, dealing with their own problems and insecurities, all of which are colliding with one’s own personal dilemmas. Whether there’s a right path or not, EASY highlights that struggle for all of its ups and downs.

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Joe Swanberg arrested for spray-painting the word “METAPHOR” on the historic Cloud Gate

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This is what’s so thrilling about EASY. Joe Swanberg has long colored outside of the lines in attempts to highlight originally unforeseen nuance within them, and it hasn’t always been easy to take in at first glance. Here, being on the nose in several instances allows for his ideas to trickle down gracefully, and reveal connectivity that can cause goosebumps along the way. Essentially, EASY is a Joe Swanberg mixtape of everything he stands for, portrayed at the peak of his ability. For a huge majority of audiences, this is their first introduction to a unique voice, joining the voices of shows like HIGH MAINTENANCE, ATLANTA, and BROAD CITY in a push to bring sincerity and art back to the sitcom. EASY’s introspection is one-in-a-million, low key in its content but urgent and enlightening in execution.

Verdict: Recommend

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