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‘Easy’ Is Auteur TV Done Right

And Joe Swanberg’s most polished work to date

Netflix
Netflix

Two women sit at a table across from one another in a well-lit bar, engaged in a halting but frank conversation. “Thank you for inviting me out,” says the first woman, who is pregnant and wearing a nondescript white button-down shirt, her shoulder-length red hair smoothed inoffensively in place. “I always felt like you thought I was just, like, basic and boring and — ”

“Really?” interrupts the second woman, her statement earrings jangling, hair disheveled in all the right ways. “No, I feel like, you, like, have your life togeth — like, I feel every single day I wake up and I don’t know what’s happening next, or…”

“Are you kidding?” the pregnant woman sighs. “I wanna live vicariously through you.”

A lot of scenes written and directed by Joe Swanberg unfold like this: Two characters who are in some sense different — whether in their relationship statuses, ages, or career choices — gaze at each other and momentarily envision themselves in the other’s shoes, and then at the end of these reveries they must jam their feet back into their old sneakers and decide whether they’re still satisfied with the fit. These signature moments are all over his new eight-episode Netflix series, Easy: In Episode 4, a woman who just moved into a pristine condo with her mild-mannered husband is visited by a reckless ex-boyfriend, and wonders what her life would have been like if she’d stayed with him. In Episode 6, a happily married woman asks her uncoupled friend to tell her all about Tinder. In Episode 7, perhaps the most poignant of the bunch, a 50-something single woman tells a 32-year-old single woman, “But when you’re on your own, [at your age] … it’s … fun.” The younger woman strains to believe that this is true. As it did between those two characters in the bar, an unfulfillable wish hangs in the sad silence between them: I wanna live vicariously through you.

Swanberg is 35, and he writes for and about a generation with unprecedented choices about whom to love, what type of career to pursue, how to assemble some semblance of an adult life. The more choices you have, though, the more difficult it is to be happy with your chosen path and its necessary limitations, and so his characters always seem to be looking across the aisle, mournfully curious about how the other half lives. Technology has made all sorts of what-ifs and alternative decisions within our grasp, and Swanberg’s show zooms in on how this dynamic has affected modern relationships. Easy interrogates the fidgety difficulty of staying happy with what you’ve got when the possibilities of a new job, a new partner, or even a whole new lifestyle always seem to be just a few quick swipes away.

Swanberg emerged from the mid-aughts mumblecore movement, an umbrella term for young directors who favored cheap, postdigital production values, small dramatic stakes, and stammering dialogue littered with naturalistic “likes” and “ums.” Mumblecore directors have always had a complicated relationship with ambition. On the one hand, their early films — Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, the Duplass brothers’ The Puffy Chair, Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs — wore their slightness and lack of grandeur like badges of honor. On the other hand: These guys made a lot of movies. Swanberg is perhaps the most prolific of the bunch; in just over a decade (he directed his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth, when he was just 23), he’s made almost 20 feature films.

Most of these filmmakers presented themselves as artsy outsiders when they were in their 20s, but now that the members of Generation Mumblecore are reaching their mid-to-late-30s, it’s been interesting to chart their divergent paths toward success and maturity. Mark and Jay Duplass have kept busy with a variety of projects, the most high-profile of which was the recently canceled HBO show Togetherness. (Jay is also great in his recurring role on Transparent.) Greta Gerwig, the star of Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, has become a bona fide (indie) movie star. Lynn Shelton (in addition to directing her own hit-and-miss fare like 2011’s very good Your Sister’s Sister and 2013’s inert Touchy Feely) has forged a successful career as a TV director for hire. The so-called “godfather of mumblecore,” Bujalski, has had the career that most closely resembles that of an old-fashioned auteur, foregoing the thriving world of TV and sticking with his rhythm of writing-directing an independent feature every few years. (His last two, Computer Chess and Results, were both excellent.)

Swanberg, too, has spent the last few years easing into the second phase of his career, and for him that’s not meant making “grander” films so much as casting brighter stars in his mumbly moral tales. In his breakout film, 2013’s Drinking Buddies, Olivia Wilde played a more polished version of the searching, spirited mumblecore heroine: Her Kate works at a Chicago brewing company and flirts with possibility when she becomes a little too close to her coworker Jake Johnson. (Anna Kendrick played his less-free-spirited girlfriend.)

Swanberg’s movies are oddly divisive, and they evoke the kind of love-it-or-hate-it intensity usually reserved for directors whose films are actively provocative, such as Gaspar Noé or Lars von Trier. I admire the awkward warmth of Swanberg’s scenes and his subtle observations of human behavior — to me, his films don’t feel small so much as life-size. But I think the criticism of a movie like Drinking Buddies has more to do with the format than the quality of Swanberg’s direction; we expect certain stakes out of a 90-ish-minute movie, and within that formal framework they don’t always deliver. The hero is supposed to have changed in some fundamental way; things should not return to equilibrium at the end. Swanberg’s recent movies have had their moments of sharp intelligence and penetrating emotion, but they sometimes feel like 5 pounds of story in a 10-pound bag.

Easy solves this problem handily. Each episode tackles a small, 27-ish-minute story that ought to be about that length. It’s the perfect show to binge on a rainy day, or — a friend has confirmed — while nursing a hangover. It doesn’t demand too much, but it slowly becomes something greater than the sum of its parts. Characters recur in unexpected ways, themes gradually emerge, its home setting of Chicago is eventually seen in panorama. It is both shrugging and secretly grand, a kind of mumblecore Dekalog.

And perhaps because most actors were needed for single episodes instead of entire seasons, Swanberg gets to have some fun with his most imaginative casting yet. The stars included here give lived-in, fully realized performances, and because of that it never feels like stunt casting the way it did when, say, Lena Dunham appeared in a small, underdeveloped role in Happy Christmas. I never thought I’d see the names “Emily Ratajkowski” and “Joe Swanberg” in the same sentence, but she’s revelatory in Easy’s Episode 5 as a digital performance artist/Grad School Kardashian, complete with the perfect knockoff Kylie wig. Marc Maron’s gloriously sad-sack performance in that same episode makes me think someone’s currently custom-writing him a Bill Murray–in–Lost in Translation–type part, and that he’ll probably win an Oscar for it. Orlando Bloom is uncharacteristically tolerable (as he was in Swanberg’s last feature, Digging for Fire) as a husband helping to arrange a threesome. But if I had to pick the series’ breakout star, I’d go with Dope’s Kiersey Clemons, who plays a college student feigning interest in veganism after her new girlfriend sends her some of those YouTube videos about slaughterhouses. Out of all of Easy’s characters, she’s at the most dizzying junction on the path toward deciding what type of person to be; in one of her most memorable scenes, she crouches on a street corner to scuff up her new bike helmet, trying to create the illusion that she is someone who rides her bike all the time. I haven’t seen anything recently that has made me feel so relieved to be out of my early 20s.

And by the same token, Easy makes me happy that Swanberg has moved on from his early experimentations; the series is the most polished thing he’s done to date, but it deftly retains his signature charms. Easy has its minor flaws: The first episode is the weakest, the Maron episode skirts the edges of anti-smartphone didacticism, the emphasis on the brewery plotline is a bit too reminiscent of Drinking Buddies. But these are minor quibbles; as a whole, Easy makes a strong case for independent filmmakers shifting their attentions to streaming TV and reaching audiences that their art-house features never could.

Which is something that Swanberg, ever the indie kid, seems acutely self-aware about. In the last episode, a terrific Dave Franco plays a reformed (or perhaps reforming) slacker considering whether or not to expand his underground, dubiously legal brewing company into a larger operation. He visits an acquaintance who’s made a similar leap, and again we get one of those across-the-table scenes of dialogue: “As you really grow, how do you maintain, like, the quality of everything?” Franco asks, clearly standing in for the director himself. “[How do you] maintain the reason why you initially started this thing … and what about, like, experimentation?”

“More than ever,” the other guy assures him. “I think we can do weirder shit than we’ve ever done. I mean, we’ve got more talent on the team, we’ve got more money to play with things.” Talk about greener grass.