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Joe Swanberg's 'Easy' is authentic, empathetic in second season

tv review

Aubrey Plaza stars in the second season of "Easy," which was released Dec. 1 on the streaming service Netflix.
Aubrey Plaza stars in the second season of "Easy," which was released Dec. 1 on the streaming service Netflix.

With his Netflix series “Easy,” currently in its second season, director Joe Swanberg does some growing up. The meandering, documentary-style naturalism of his early films — characteristic of the subgenre referred to as “mumblecore” — is still present in Swanberg’s most recent work, but there’s a new order and focus to the storytelling.

Swanberg’s love for Chicago and the people who live there is clear and central to the show. “Easy” is, in a sense, a sprawling portrait of the city, at once broad in its whole and specific in its parts.   

The show is nearly an anthology, but not quite. Each episode follows a single character, couple or family, lingering on a particular experience or idea. Familiar faces from previous episodes, or the previous season, pop in and out, sometimes figuring significantly into the plot, or, as is more often the case, just passing through. While the first season was mostly concerned with romantic relationships, season two widens its scope, probing the intricacies of communities, families and couples. That each episode feels lived-in and true to the experience at hand is as much a testament to the work of the show’s actors as it is to Swanberg’s direction, which guides each episode.

Of course, the cast is amazing. For a show that few people are aware of and fewer have watched, the wealth of talent is confounding. New additions to this season’s cast include Aubrey Plaza, Timothy Simons, Joe Lo Truglio, Judy Greer and Michaela Watkins. Returning are Marc Maron, Zazie Beetz, Dave Franco, Aya Cash and Kiersey Clemons.

It’s here, with the cast, that Swanberg’s mumblecore background produces scenes of empathy and startling authenticity.

Early mumblecore films were made and starred in by mostly white casts of 20-somethings just out of college; genre pioneers included the Duplass brothers and “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig. In the late aughts, when the genre started to have some cultural cachet, critics accused mumblecore of self-absorption bordering on solipsism. The films seemed insular, limited to the white, middle-class experience.

“Easy” finds Swanberg moving beyond that limited scope. In “Side Hustle,” one of season two’s best episodes, Swanberg casts Karley Sciortino — who writes Vogue’s “Breathless” column on sex and relationships — as a kind of variation on herself (she plays a sex-positive feminist writer hustling to follow her dreams). In that same episode, Odinaka Ezeokoli, a Chicago-based comedian born in the U.S. and sent to live in Nigeria at 15, is also cast as a version of himself.

Swanberg provides the narrative framework, then lets the actors’ experiences speak for themselves — only in “Easy” those actors aren’t so uniformly white and young. Like early mumblecore, the dialogue has a ring of authenticity to it. It rises and falls erratically, landing on drawn-out pauses before starting awkwardly again. The naturalism of “Easy” is one of the most appealing parts of the series. Following in the tradition of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist works, Swanberg sometimes lapses into a sort of documentary style, avoiding plot. And although, for the last few years, Swanberg has worked with high-profile casts, his attention to realism remains, even if the work now hinges on structure.

“Package Thief” is season two’s most plot-heavy episode and also its best. When Swanberg dedicates himself to exploring specific ideas (in “Package Thief,” that means middle-class morality, fear of the other and political correctness), the results are satisfying and perhaps more captivating than the meandering, improvisation-driven plots shaped in the cutting room. If “Easy” indicates anything about Swanberg as a filmmaker, it’s that he is, despite an early aversion to convention, adept at shaping a narrative.

Visually, “Easy” represents a step forward for Swanberg, away from the shaky, aimless camera movements characteristic of mumblecore. Particularly in scenes of sexual intimacy, of which the series features more than a few, the direction and editing are always working to communicate something. In “Vegan Cinderella,” an episode from the first season, two women meet at a concert and go home together. In the sex scene that follows, Swanberg avoids voyeurism, moving his camera to align with the characters’ perspectives. He cuts quickly between shots of tangled limbs and faces, producing a sense of immediacy and an identification with the women that defies objectification.

Throughout the series, sex is treated as a means of characterization and never lapses into the exploitative. It also helps that “Easy” is, for the most part, a series about good people who talk about consent and respect each other’s boundaries.

As an examination of relationships, “Easy” poses questions, lightly interrogates them, but rarely provides concrete answers — Swanberg is too concerned with capturing a natural, intimate messiness, and he observes without moralizing. As a love letter to Chicago, the series is, in its whole, a portrait of a quirky city full of complex dreamers and hip haunts. And as a calling card for its creator, “Easy” is evidence of Swanberg’s ongoing evolution into one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.


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