A TV show that begs to be hate-watched isn’t, by definition, a “bad” show. The most glaring example is Girls, a “good” show that’s nearly impossible to view through any lens other than unfiltered contempt—its quartet of fairly loathsome Brooklyn gentrifiers, moving messily through their 20s, are subtly exaggerated caricatures that are meant to simultaneously represent and critique their demographic. But Girls is addictive because of the surface-level familiarity of the setting and styling, enough so I’ll clench my jaw while watching a very specific subset of upwardly mobile urban “creatives” behave noxiously. Besides, good TV doesn’t require characters you can personally vouch for; more often, the truth is closer to the opposite.
Since it’s written into the millennial birthright that, in exchange for affordable health care, each major American city is entitled to its own comedy-drama series locals can mock knowingly while secretly hoping they’ll one day make a cameo, Joe Swanberg‘s Easy seems like a blessing. Now in its second season, the Netflix series posits itself as the antidote for anyone tired of seeing Chicago represented on television as “New York, but not” or in overwrought Dick Wolf melodramas. Easy presents a series of loosely connected vignettes about everyday Chicagoans, revolving mostly around sex and love and loneliness. (It’s been noted that the vast majority of these “everyday Chicagoans” are planted firmly on the north side, but I’d argue that’s better than the inevitably offensive alternative.) It’s a bit obvious to say Easy‘s best character is the city itself, albeit in limited scope. But there’s something appealing about spotting recognizable bars and beers and landmarks presented with casual reverence, even if that appeal is just, “Hey, I’ve been there!”
So I instinctively started cackling when episode three (“Side Hustle”) opens inside Cafe Mustache, a perfect monument to Logan Square hipsterdom, or whatever we’re calling “hipsterdom” these days. “Nailed it!” I thought, reminiscing over when I’d freelance from Mustache during the year I couldn’t afford Comcast. The dialogue snapped me out of my reverie. Annabelle (Jane Adams), a middle-aged theater actress we met in season one, is sputtering with delight as Sally—a sex blogger played by Slutever‘s Karley Sciortino—details the feminist backlash against a recent post in which she confessed her gang-bang fantasy. “That’s thought-police shit, right?” Annabelle yelps. “Yeah, I definitely feel like I’m increasingly libertarian,” Sally replies, and the two laugh, bonding over their shared un-PC smugness.
The episode goes on to juxtapose Sally, who builds her brand on her blog but pays her rent via sex work, with Od (Odinaka Ezeokoli, playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself), a Nigerian immigrant and aspiring stand-up comic who drives an Uber and guides for Big Bus Tours to make ends meet. Presumably, these characters represent two sides of a similar coin: both use autobiography as creative source material, and both must indulge their tedious customers’ egos in order to pay the bills. Still, I was along for the ride, glib libertarianism aside, until the final scene, where Annabelle debuts her hot mess of a stand-up routine, stammering “Hate speech is free speech, you fuckers!” to a politely uneasy audience. We’re supposed to cringe at her performance, but we’re also meant to recall Annabelle’s backstory from season one: she’s lonely, unfulfilled, and unloved. And so we’re meant to understand—perhaps even sympathize with—the conditions under which this harsh new worldview was born.
In short, the Chicago of Easy is by and large a judgment-free zone, populated by flawed but well-intentioned people in cozy threads they picked up at Village Discount Outlet. Hence, in season two, there are stories of Beverly yuppies in training conspiring to narc on a neighborhood package thief; stories about the bumbling soft opening of an open marriage; more stories about craft breweries and artisanal dog-biscuit start-ups. (We all know SAIC can be a cornucopia of fart-huffing post-postmodernism, but we collectively abandoned performance art about iPhone selfies in 2015.) The characters are clearly Chicagoans, though not particularly interesting ones. And while it often feels like Swanberg goes out of his way to focus on the most tedious subjects imaginable, you can’t say he doesn’t have a distinct style.
Chicago is an apt canvas for the muffled, slow-paced, hyperreal mode of filmmaking Swanberg’s been pushing since the mid-2000s. If the city is Easy‘s best attribute, the most frustrating aspect of the show isn’t a specific individual but how Swanberg frames them all—with a kind of gentle midwestern tone, scored by reassuring soul songs and lit serenely in orange-streetlight glow. There’s something unshakably patronizing in this presentation of not-terribly-dire interpersonal conflicts, an unchallenging perspective that nudges us to root for almost everyone. This storytelling mode drives Easy‘s narrow narratives, rather than any claim toward a broad representation of the “Chicago everyman.” The characters are tenderly idealized, even in their fuck-ups, to the point of complacency—nice people with relatable growing pains and artsy hobbies who talk, in a chill way, about absolutely nothing. In its efforts to avoid melodrama, Easy creates a new kind of cliche, an inverted “Da Bears!” impression that instead bashfully stammers, “Yeah, uh, haha, I do community theater” over a tallboy of Hamm’s.
Season two’s most fully realized episode, “Conjugality,” reprises Marc Maron‘s role from season one as Jacob, a successful but smarmy graphic novelist who treats the women in his life like garbage, then plumbs their failed relationships for source material (because there’s such a void of novels about wack men’s gross sex lives). “Conjugality” succeeds not because Jacob’s ex-wife exacts some small yet satisfying revenge by sabotaging his upcoming release, but because his character veers the farthest from Swanberg’s model Chicagoan. Demographically speaking, Jacob doesn’t exactly break the mold, but at least he’s not another well-intentioned dork who has OK sex and medium-size dreams. He just plainly sucks; his story is unresolvable, not because life’s complicated but because he’s an irredeemable schemer whose art is dumb. Easy presents itself as a show about sex, but in truth it’s a show about self-image—even the episodes featuring couples are really about individuals. And believe it or not, the midwest has raging narcissists too!
Even at its best, Easy‘s full-on individualization of perspective—the storytelling mode that sees each person’s life as a screenplay, no matter how banal—comes at the expense of any real consideration of Chicago’s broader structural realities. And it’s this stubbornly small-stakes focus that ultimately makes Easy feel somewhat false, even though it takes place in the “real world.” Each story ends with an overwhelming “welp!” or a minor conflict tenderly half-resolved. The characters are tethered to one another but unaffected by the city’s sociopolitical framework beyond who drinks at which bars. And to suggest that this is the Chicago way of seeing—or even just a Chicago way of seeing—feels condescending to Chicagoans I know, who are urgent, thoughtful, accountable, and critical. (And funny! Why is nobody on this show funny?) The Chicagoans I know would never suffer bullshit out of midwestern nicety. The Chicagoans I know would’ve booed Annabelle offstage the moment she got out of pocket. Don’t let ’em sell us short. v