The Buzz: ‘Easy’ Makes Creative Leaps in it's Second Season
While the premise for Joe Swanberg’s Easy sounded appealing on paper-- an anthology series centered around the interlocking love lives of modern day Chicagoans-- I was ultimately left lukewarm when the first season premiered on Netflix in 2016. Beyond the streaming co-sign and the dazzling cast of celebrities (Dave Franco, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Orlando Bloom), the series was by and large a glorified improv exercise--earnestly fun at times, aggressively self-indulgent at others. In scouring each of the eight episodes for highlights, I found that “easy” was the last adjective that came to mind. As such, I hoped that Swanberg and company would establish a stronger quality filter as they headed into their second season.
For the most part, that is precisely what they do. Easy season two, which is currently available for streaming on Netflix, is a marked improvement over its predecessor, in that it largely ditches mundane riffing for more incisive bursts of comedy and drama. While not every episode here is a knockout, you get the sense that Swanberg is honing his improv skills as a writer and director, and molding them to challenge his actors, as opposed to just giving them something outlandish to do for thirty minutes.
Context from earlier episodes isn’t mandatory, but it does help, especially as season two see the return of Michael Chernus and Elizabeth Reaser’s sexually-unsatisfied couple, Marc Maron’s grumpy writer, and Franco’s naive entrepreneur. These returning characters allow Swanberg to subvert form and narrative within anthology rules; leaving certain strands open for future revival while slamming others closed with the finality of a feature film. It’s never quite clear which will be presented to us, especially as each episode bears a unique tonal signature. “Package Thief” plays as a demented horror flick, with Joe Lo Truglio, Timothy Simons, and Aubrey Plaza as a trio whose paranoia over missing packages reaches outrageous heights. The mixture of grainy security footage with string-heavy music completely leans into the genre aesthetic, just as the episode “Lady Cha Cha” commits to its delicate, doomed romance between feminist artist Jo (Jacqueline Toboni) and burlesque dancer Chase (Kiersey Clemons).
These drastic shifts allow Swanberg to venture into less broad, more emotionally tricky territory as well. “Prodigal Daughter” packs the weight of an indie drama into a third of the runtime, telling the story of a rich kid (Danielle McDonald) who donates her sizable life savings to the church, only to provoke, and ultimately reshape her relationship with her distant parents (Peter Gwinn and Judy Greer). Insightful without being preachy, the episode is, as IndieWire’s Ben Travers put it “[simply] exquisite television.” Swanberg’s increasingly unique approach doesn’t always go over, as in the episode “Side Hustle”, where parallel storylines fail to click in the final minutes, or “Spent Grain”, where Franco’s return buckles under its own hipster sensibility, but at least they are interesting missteps, indicative of a series that’s figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
Barring the squandered Franco, the showrunner manages to extract top-tier acting from the rest of his cast. Maron, Truglio, and Plaza (who continues to sharpen her deadpan comedic chops with each role) give textured performances that avoid becoming a caricature of a familiar trope or a cheap excuse to behave crazily. Scattered as some of them may be, each are given complexity and justifiable cause for their actions, making their inevitable bouts of lunacy all the more believable.
While Swanberg again stacks the deck with film and television stars, the most prominent character in Easy remains his hometown of Chicago. It’s the lone unifying thread of the series-- an expansive metropolitan backdrop suited to the exploits of a cast that traverses race, gender, and economic background. Iconic locations appear throughout the series, and the finale even includes appearances from Arthur Agee (of Hoop Dreams fame) and staff members of the local Newcity magazine. Swanberg has used Chicago as his geographical muse in films like Autoerotic and Drinking Buddies, but here, he creates his finest synergy of spirit and city, much in the way that Woody Allen (or Swanberg’s contemporary Noah Baumbach) has done for New York.
Easy isn’t be the binge-worthy feast that some have make it out to be, especially given its tendency to evoke different moods with each episode. It goes down much smoother as a collection of cinematic novellas, to experience and absorb at your own pace. That said, it is still an inspired outing by Swanberg that, along with Netflix’s Black Mirror and the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, may be pointing towards a resurgence in anthology television.
All eight episodes of Easy season two are currently available for streaming on Netflix.