From writer, director, and executive producer Joe Swanberg comes “Easy,” Netflix’s latest original series. “Easy” is an eight-episode collection of vignettes depicting sexual or romantic relationships in Chicago. The show is less about story than atmosphere; each episode feels like a living portrait, except instead of the characters as subjects, “Easy” is more invested in exposing the invisible relationship dynamic between the two.
Swanberg’s cinematic style has a place in modern film history; his 2005 debut “Kissing on the Mouth” was one of the first films to be called “mumblecore,” a sub-genre of indie filmmaking that emphasized natural conversation and low-budget production values, including, at the time, nonprofessional actors. But like everything that was hip in 2005, the genre has now become part of the establishment in its own way. The style of mumblecore inspired a whole crop of intimate television shows, and indeed, Swanberg’s fellow mumblecore directors Mark and Jay Duplass have become fixtures of brooding half-hour programming in “Togetherness” and “Transparent.”
Now Swanberg is taking his turn with “Easy,” which offers bewitching intimacy to eight occasionally overlapping private lives. The naturalism of mumblecore has found its way into “Easy,” too, with conversations and, perhaps more notably, sex scenes that feel raw, unmediated, and authentic. It’s remarkable how lived-in Swanberg manages to make scenes with recognizable actors like Orlando Bloom, Elizabeth Reaser, Michael Chernus, and Malin Akerman. Actors clearly like working with Swanberg; the cast includes Aya Cash, Dave Franco, Zazie Beetz, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Emily Ratajkowski, Raúl Castillo, and Jake Johnson. Swanberg excels at bringing the best out of his actors, and the partnership between apparently at-ease actor and apparently invisible camera creates an atmosphere so lived-in that it’s both welcoming and suffocating. People, and intimacy, are what fascinates Swanberg’s lens in “Easy” — the auteur wrote and directed all eight episodes.
But that haptic closeness comes, sometimes, at the expense of meaning. “Easy” is interested in a lot of different kinds of people, but frequently ends up coming to rather simplistic conclusions about the characters in these vignettes, many of whom are in various stages of married crisis. In the first episode, the reversal of traditional gender roles interferes with the sex life of Chernus’ stay-at-home dad and breadwinner Reaser. In the third, a bored father-to-be (Evan Jonigkeit) keeps an increasingly involved side project a secret from his pregnant wife (Aya Cash). In the fourth, a visiting ex-boyfriend (Mauricio Ochmann) throws a shadow over a couple (Castillo and Aislinn Derbez) trying to conceive. In each, “Easy” is more interested in looking than interpreting, in seeing than understanding. And as a result, in some episodes, the characters’ circumstances aren’t excavated; they just remain kind of… there.
There is a way in which that makes very captivating viewing. “Controlada,” the fourth episode of “Easy,” is entirely in Spanish, and climaxes — pun intended — with unexpected ruthlessness. “Vegan Cinderella,” the second episode, follows two young queer women who hook up at a concert, and their inevitable emotional rollercoaster of moving from crushing to dating. “Vegan Cinderella” is the first episode of the series that truly feels like Chicago, and when “Easy” locates that sense of place, it’s unnervingly atmospheric, from the perpetually gray days of midwinter to the unexpected beauty of Midwestern snowfall.
“Easy” is probably meant to indicate the sexual freedom of the show, which portrays sex with a loving, curious abandon that is its own special skill. But it also speaks to indicate Swanberg’s ease with this type of intimacy, and his ability to reproduce and/or update his style for the Netflix format. And yet one wishes that Swanberg had tried a bit harder to get out of his intimate, meandering comfort zone. It would be interesting to see what Swanberg would produce if he gave himself a more difficult challenge.