Easy follows the lives of different characters navigating love and friendship in Chicago. It sounds like the same tired script that TV executives keep pitching us in an attempt to make Friends happen again, but it’s not. Each episode follows a new group of characters, and explores a different aspect of relationships, the connection between each being a shared acquaintance and the Windy City.
Joe Swanberg, a pioneer in the ‘mumblecore’ independent film movement, uses his mix of improvisation and deft naturalism to create stories that are neither tired nor revolutionary, but simply real. Easy does not rely on great set pieces or plot points, instead it is a show that relies almost solely on acting and dialogue – to the point that if the sets were stripped away and replaced with an empty stage, little would be lost.
Easy makes the smallest story seem important. Characters’ lives, however insignificant they may be on the world stage, are never diminished or trivialised. Rather, we are shown a city full of different, interesting, and broken people who all contribute in their own way, and who matter to those around them. Swanberg marks himself as a skilled writer in his ability to make us empathise with the worst of humanity, with its selfishness and greed, whilst showing us that the best often lies beneath. In a culture which is increasingly turning to superheroes and gods for our lessons on morality, Easy is refreshing in its understanding that none of us have the answers, and that there often isn’t a magic fix to our problems.
Just when we feel we’ve reached the limits of our empathy, the episode ‘Conjugality’ asks us to go deeper. Jacob Malco, an illustrator who already demonstrated his profound narcissism within the first series, looks for redemption for the way he treated his ex-wife. Through pieces of dialogue, we establish his infidelity, his egotism, and the way he destroyed this woman. And yet, when they sit face-to-face to discuss his misdeeds, he appears more complicated. His teetering hesitation before saying “I’m sorry” pulls us in, as well as the tangible guilt on his face as his ex-wife, Karen, opens her heart up to him. Jacob’s ability to finally recognise his mistakes doesn’t make him good but it makes him self-aware, and ultimately allows us to like parts of him. We are seduced, just as Karen is, into thinking that his charm and wit overwhelms his flaws, until the last scene when, her trust in him destroyed once more, Jacob concerns himself more with the advancement of his career than their relationship. Although it feels that Swanberg pushes his character back to the beginning, in fact, he shows us the way in which people can be aware of their flaws but continue to exploit them, how they pay lip-service to the good in them, if only to hide the bad. How much of this feat is indebted to Marc Maron’s performance as Malco is unclear, as the lines between improvisation and script are muddied by an actor who has gone through two divorces himself.
Swanberg also makes us question even the most fundamental opinions we think we hold. Easy examines themes of polyamory, sexuality, and gender roles without ever feeling like a cynical attempt to crowbar “hot topics” into the script. In the episode, ‘Open Marriage’, preconceptions about open relationships are both explored and dispelled. Although it is clear that despite sleeping with other people their love for each other hasn’t changed, Andi and Kyle aren’t satisfied by the sex they have outside of their marriage. Swanberg doesn’t dismiss polyamory, instead he shows us its complexity, and more broadly, the complexity of human desire and love. Similarly, in ‘Lady Cha Cha’, the way in which those desires complicate our beliefs manifests itself. Chase finds that her girlfriend Jo isn’t happy with her being a burlesque dancer, despite her usual enthusiasm for women expressing their sexuality. As Jo feels compelled to share how jealous Chase’s burlesque dancing causes her to feel, the visceral images of naked female bodies force the audience itself to question how far their sex positivity goes, and whether we truly believe women should be allowed to express their sexuality.
In a show which presents sex as full of awkward moments and not always good, as well as human bodies as diverse and real, Easy compels its audience to experience its version of the real world. Swanberg shows an imperfect world full of imperfect people, and yet, his treatment of these imperfections still seems far more compassionate and progressive than the world we live in.