Netflix’s Easy Review
Joe Swanberg’s comedic Netflix anthology series Easy has a lot to say on relationships, but is it anything new?
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Anthology series have become all the rage these days—hell, Ryan Murphy himself has three currently in production. But while the gamut of drama anthologies continues to hit a point of over saturation, the anthology bug has naturally begun to spill over into the area of comedies. Joe Swanberg’s Easy, currently available to stream on Netflix, is one of the first real contemporary examples of this.
I’m a fan of Swanberg’s body of work and was ready to get a healthy dose of his mumblecore presence in the form of an anthology series. It’s not at all surprising that the Duplass Brothers also have a comedic anthology show in the works that will surely involve a lot of crossover of this talent. The unscripted, “hang out” atmosphere of their work is an attractive quality for a show about love. That being said, I was surprised at how unaffected I was by the majority of this series. I was even wishing that Swanberg mixed things up a little more here and delivered something a little more stylistic and subtle like his segment in V/H/S, rather than stories that are focusing almost entirely on content instead of style.
Each of Easy’s eight episodes explore a take on a different sort of relationship, with Chicago as the setting for all of these stories. Easy’s big selling point is surely going to be the impressive cast that Swanberg assembled. The show features the likes of Jake Johnson, Marc Maron, Dave Franco, Hannibal Buress, Orlando Bloom, Malin Akerman, Aya Cash, Emily Ratajkowski, and a whole lot of other people. There’s truly some enviable talent here, not just in terms of the comedic ability on tap, but just the level of celebrity of some of these guest stars. I have no doubt people will be flocking to this show because they’re a fan of this talent, which is ultimately why it’s so frustrating that a lot of these people feel ultimately squandered. Make no mistake, everyone is doing a great job, but it’s all work that feels hardly challenging or demonstrative of what they’re capable of. Certain actors like Jake Johnson and Hannibal Buress even feel like after thoughts. They get swallowed up by the bigger stories and they barely even register.
What’s interesting with Easy is that Swanberg wrote and directed all eight episodes, rather than having different like-minded voices come in to helm the various installments. Part of the point of an anthology series is to highlight the new universe being created each episode and someone like Swanberg has a very particular style rather than being the chameleon necessary for this sort of endeavor.
In spite of this, Swanberg more than rises to the challenge and does a great job with all of his outings, so who am I to say that he should have had other people involved? I’d just think that the presence of other cinematic vantage points could have taken this show even further. Swanberg still could have even directed all of the episodes, while still allowing a stable of different writers to blossom under this premise (or vice versa). However, there’s an episode that’s nearly entirely in Spanish with subtitles that feels particularly out of Swanberg’s wheelhouse. It’s an ambitious experiment for him, and still a worthwhile episode, but you’re just thinking, why couldn’t a Spanish director be doing this? Is Swanberg really the best person to tell this story?
Easy has a lot to say—or at least it thinks it does—with it tackling many variations on people in a relationship. There’s an episode that looks at a long-time married couple whose spark is vanishing. There’s another that digs into the lust and magic of new relationships and becoming addicted to someone. There are stories about committed couples exploring the idea of an open relationship, another about a pair trying to conceive and the accompanying drama that goes along with it, while another looks at a divorced man becoming inspired by a younger woman. Most of the more “traditional” relationship archetypes are explored here, with the season jumping between various races, genders, and sexual orientations to keep it fluid and versatile.
My favorite entry from the season is the fifth episode which follows Marc Maron as a twice-divorced graphic novel writer who’s personal life has exploded around him. Maron kills in this and it’s obviously a role that hits very close to home, but it’s still good casting, and thrilling to see Maron continually better himself as an actor. As Maron’s character involves himself with a younger girl who’s a fan of his, the episode begins dipping into the extremes between their two social circles. Things bubble up to a pleasant, poignant discourse about privacy that I ended up enjoying a fair bit.
A lot of these episodes will also hint at certain directions or themes that feel like they’d be more worthwhile than the road that they actually take. For instance, another enjoyable episode sees Orlando Bloom and Malin Akerman playing a married couple with kids who are looking to add another woman into their dynamic. The episode gets so close to flirting with some fascinating ideas like this threesome becoming an accidental twosome and the jealousy that can go along with it, but instead the entry coasts along with there not really being any obstacles. Another episode sees a husband keeping a huge “I’m a meth cook”-level secret from his wife but shies away from the real juicy material and never allows things to heat up. The same can be said about another episode that teases the idea of an illegitimate pregnancy but shuts it down before you can start to get excited about it.
More often than not, the show resorts to easy, manipulative endings, which still manage to elicit a response from you, but usually just feel unearned. A lot of the bigger beats of these stories are also fairly obvious. The episodes would benefit from taking more left turns and being less telegraphed. I can firmly say that as enjoyable as these peeks into people’s lives may be, nothing new is being said here.
The biggest takeaway that Easy left me with is that its individual stories are effective and engaging in the moment, but the series as a whole doesn’t really stand out or make that much of an impact. The episodes connect but the series could aim for greater heights and not be afraid to get a little crazier. I suppose though that those are the sort of things that could happen in a second season. The series ends up amounting to the equivalent of one-night stands and whirlwind relationships—entertaining while they’re happening, but largely forgettable after everything’s said and done. A lot of the originals on Netflix are not only programs that you want to binge on, but were also specifically designed to be consumed in such a way. I actually fear that watching a lot of Easy back-to-back will only leave you with relationship fatigue. Yes, these episodes all highlight different stratas of love and commitment, but you’ll definitely feel exhaustion and the walls between these installments wearing thin if you hit this show hard. The singular voice present only becomes more apparent.
Another puzzling area for this show is its relationship with its universe and the shared connections between characters. At first it seems like there is going to be no attempt at all to connect these stories. Touches like the main character from episode two being a friend in episode five and establishing that this is all operating in tandem in Chicago would create a fun, layered aspect to the show. It would at least give all of this a tiny bit more impact, not that a flair like this is necessarily needed in anthology programming. Then, however, the show eventually does start to mash together characters and connect its stories, but in the second last episode.
When these aspects see incorporation they’re done in such an inconsequential way and happening so late in the series, you’re just left thinking why? And really, why weren’t these connections being made earlier? By at least providing a taste of this in the second or third episode you’d at least be able to keep your eye out for it in the future. The season’s final two episodes indulge in this area in such a gratuitous way that it’s almost distracting. All of these connections come across as forced fan service. It’s fun forced fan service, but it’s just there.
While I’m still very much on board with a series that’s trying to do the things that Easy is, and even with Swanberg still being the person responsible for it, there are issues here that hold this show back from being one of the classics that Netflix so typically churns out. Widening the scope, diversifying the creative team, and aiming for less conventional relationships are all ways in which a second season of Easy could improve upon a strong foundation. This might be a series that washes over you between the releases of Narcos and Luke Cage while leaving your mind immediately after, but it’s also a perfectly fitting distraction for an afternoon. Everyone’s got an opinion on love, after all.
Easy’s entire first season begins streaming on Netflix, September 22nd
This review is based on all eight half-hour episodes of Easy’s first season