A title card by Don't Fret

As Manhattan is Woody Allen’s love letter to New York City, Easy appears to be writer-director Joe Swanberg’s own fawning missive to Chicago. A small part of the city, anyway.

Like Allen’s personalized screen version of NYC, the portrait of Chicago that Swanberg paints in Easy is not universal or representative, but rather suggestive of the decidedly narrow slice of the city that the show’s 35-year-old creator inhabits. It’s a world concentrated on the north side (with the exception of the occasional Pilsen nightlife outing), one predominantly populated by upper-middle-class whites, stroller pushers, and scores of young, vaguely creative types. Their lives intersect in high-end restaurants, cafes, brewpubs, clubs, bakeries, stores, and arts centers, where they gab about such topics as veganism and Tinder. 

You’ve seen Portlandia. Welcome to Chicagolandia

Easy‘s meandering, subtly affecting eight episodes, however, offer only the faintest whiff of satire. Viewers of a certain age who live in Logan Square—or Lincoln Square, as Swanberg does—will likely regard the show as either remarkably evocative or generically emblematic of their everyday lives. In what could be read as an overreaction to decades of TV series and movies set in Chicago but filmed on LA backlots or in Canadian tax-credit havens, Swanberg clobbers his audience with a carefully curated collection of localisms. Street artist Don’t Fret, the nonprofit arts organization Chicago Filmmakers, and even the Reader are among the scores of not-so-casual references that root the show’s characters in a defined social environment. 

In <i>Easy</i>, a mural by Don't Fret adorns the door of a garage that houses an illegal brewery.
In Easy, a mural by Don’t Fret adorns the door of a garage that houses an illegal brewery.

It’s telling that one of the most recurring motifs in Easy, aside from Swanberg’s trademark scenes of awkward sex, is the logo for Dark Matter Coffee. The brand’s emblem appears on paper cups that characters nonchalantly drink from and on stickers that hover conspicuously in the background of certain scenes. After a while, it becomes tempting to suspect the show’s been underwritten by the artisanal java company: at least two main characters are Dark Matter employees, one of which ends up conducting what amounts to a gratuitous extended interview with company founder Jesse Diaz about the growth of his business.

Swanberg fills out the frames of Easy with north-side Chicago delicacies like Piece pizza and Half Acre beer. Title cards are illustrated by Chicago artists, including cartoonist Jeffrey Brown, who further lends his drawings to a fictional graphic novel by a character played by Marc Maron. There are also cameos by a parade of locals that will be immediately familiar to Swanberg’s intended audience of culturally literate NPR receptacles: cartoonist Chris Ware, mixologist Paul McGee, and improv gurus TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, among many others. With the aid of an abundance of exterior shots, Swanberg places his cast in their expected north-side haunts: the Old Town School of Folk Music, Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse, the Handlebar, Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, City Lit Books, and the like.

Slippin' on by along the Eisenhower Expressway
Slippin’ on by along the Eisenhower Expressway

Certainly no one can accuse Swanberg of writing what he doesn’t know. If he did attempt to portray the love lives of residents of neighborhoods on the city’s far south or west sides, it’s not difficult to imagine him being harangued for getting it wrong—or, worse, for appropriating a culture for which he has no frame of reference. Even the episode of Easy that features actors speaking mostly Spanish dialogue feels—especially in the status details and chief concerns of its characters—firmly planted in familiar Swanbergian territory, specifically a sequence in which a woman takes an old friend from out of town to Millennium Park, where they stroll Frank Gehry’s pedestrian bridge and snap photos beneath the Bean.

Not so much a fatal flaw as a dutiful (if potentially tiresome) tendency, Easy‘s north-side-centrism comes across as Swanberg fulfilling the contract of contemporary auteur television, wherein a highly personal vision is encouraged and allowed to flourish. Like Donald Glover’s new FX show AtlantaEasy is at least unmistakably of a particular place. That much can’t be said for Dick Wolf’s trio of Chicago-shot network series—Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med—which seem local in name only (though they have featured a number of Chicago actors). By contrast, Swanberg has finally managed, to some degree, to do with Chicago what Woody Allen is always praised for doing with New York: he’s given the city of his lived experience a starring role. 

The screencaps below are some of the on-location Chicago shots from Easy.

<i>Cloud Gate</i>, aka the Bean. Duh.
Cloud Gate, aka the Bean. Duh.

Easy is streaming on Netflix.