The new Netflix series Easy, from filmmaker Joe Swanberg, operates less like a story than as a narrative network run with Swanberg as the switchboard operator, ready to plug you into the simultaneous stories of everyday Chicagoans, whose lives proceed for the most part unbeknownst to each other. The stories that unfold in the series’s eight episodes aren’t entirely independent — there are recurring characters, some lives bleed into others, and in one of the couple story lines to reappear over the course of the series, two brothers open their own illegal brewery. By the time the season ends, their business is booming, and the brothers have to decide how to go about scaling up their operations. Will they lose the spirit of the company they started once the venture becomes their primary pursuit? It’s a pertinent question not only for the characters in Easy, but also the man who made show itself.
Filmmaker Joe Swanberg started as the father of mumblecore, the divisive realist film movement that made a splash in the mid-2000s at festivals like SXSW and Sundance. Now he’s drawing investors like Netflix to the table, with his own series to sit alongside the other artisan-brand prestige TV offerings of the year. If Swanberg’s first films like Hannah Takes the Stairs or Nights and Weekends starred non-famous friends, by now the Swanberg brand has expanded to include Olivia Wilde and Orlando Bloom. Easy features Dave Franco and Marc Maron, Elizabeth Reaser and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. If mumblecore was a DIY takeover of the establishment, Swanberg is now faced with the prospect of capturing life from within the establishment itself.
The trick to his trade has been the consistency of his process. Swanberg starts every project with a short treatment — usually only a couple pages, never a full script — and it’s this treatment that he takes with him to meet actors who will collaborate on fleshing out their characters and the story that will develop. Because his treatments are so minimal, Swanberg relies on networking and prior work as a way to convince collaborators to take the leap into the unknown with him. From there the process of taking the film from treatment to set involves workshops and conversations with the actors, who essentially agree to embody a version of themselves within the trappings of Swanberg’s fictional scenario. His visual style has shifted — what was once deliberately hideous, deliberately awkward, deliberately out of rhythm in his mumblecore days has settled to a more presentational mode of direction. His performers act and the camera captures it for the most part without commentary or distraction. Perhaps reflecting the comfort that comes with a more secure career, Swanberg’s style has never been more relaxed ... so why is it that Easy is still so goddamn bothersome to watch?
Swanberg creates work that is as objectively close to reality as any filmmaker could hope to capture, but it still rings false. It’s been tempting over the course of Swanberg’s career to say that the frustration stems from Swanberg’s fixation on a narrow range of the human experience, focusing as he so often does on the lives of middle-class, white, liberal, straight people, but Easy doesn’t fit the bill. Swanberg’s entire gambit in Easy is its inclusiveness, and sure enough, there are lesbians and black people and episodes performed almost entirely in Spanish. Easy does depict a gentrified Chicago, a Chicago comprised of artists and artisans and activists, but this could be said of a vast array of television shows and films that still don’t feel as stifling as Easy.
What’s annoying in Easy is less political than personal. Despite the display of open communication and community and care that should warm Easy from the inside out, the show instead looks the way depression feels. We’re trapped in the subjectivity of objectiveness — limited to the disappointing shell of other people’s interactions without the possibility of ever influencing them. In fairness, it’s not always clear whether or not this malaise is a quality that can be attributed to some kind of grand artistic intention on Swanberg’s part, some poetic equation of our quotidian lives with hopeless monotony — and this contention is one of the reasons Swanberg remains a favorite with festival programmers. Certainly the characters in Easy debate the routines of their lives — the chores, the shitty jobs, the dicks that can only get half-hard — but the moments of happiness that the characters experience are somehow the most depressing. Over and over, the characters of Easy choose what they claim to be their best lives, and the camera remains indifferent.
What’s ironic about Swanberg’s work is that that he affords his collaborators an experience he denies his audiences. The actors improvise in pursuit of the truth of their characters: They experience the thrill of choice, the thrill of unrestricted interaction, but the camera leaves the interior world of the characters trapped inside the minds of the actors themselves. Because the performers keep their actions within the realm of what’s likely, Easy passes for realism — but in life, we face our decisions unaware of the definite results of our actions, and so with any choice we simultaneously experience our decision alongside the echoes of the choices we did not make. Most of us aren’t brilliant speakers, but our conversations often feel brilliant anyway, because even the simplest act of speech constitutes a spontaneous performance of a single permutation out of infinite possibilities that only we can perceive. The facts of life are frequently boring, but perception creates for us a labyrinth of endless fascination, a hall of mirrors where with each step our possibilities, our pasts, our desires, our dreams, and our fears are constantly reflected back to us. In this regard, the inertia of Swanberg’s work proves the value of the unconscious — if nothing else, Easy is a reminder that life would not be worth living if our minds were confined to the impression our actions leave in the eyes of our observers.