In Stray Observations, The A.V. Club collects its thoughts on recent streaming-TV releases that aren’t being covered episode by episode in TV Club. In this edition: Joe Swanberg’s anthology series Easy, which debuted on Netflix on Thursday, September 22.
Chicago’s been the setting for several recent series, including dramas like The Good Wife and the surreal comedy Man Seeking Woman. But all too often the city ends up just as fictionalized in those shows as the characters. Joe Swanberg’s representation is far more accurate than the unaccountably CTA-less versions of others, though it’s still pretty limited. He writes what he knows, and his stomping grounds are clearly on the north side of the city, in neighborhoods like Lincoln Square, Logan Square, and Lincoln Park. A jaunt is made to Pilsen in “Controlada,” but even there, the southern border of the city lies far north of the real one. But it’s certainly more of an insider’s look: There’s no relying on showing off the lake or Wrigley Field to denote a sense of place. Instead, Swanberg features local artists and businesses (Don’t Fret and Half Acre make repeat appearances), even highlighting the city’s cycling culture. It’s not the most expansive approach, but it’s obvious that Chicago is a sweet home for Swanberg.
Elizabeth Reaser and Michael Chernus star in the opener as Andi and Kyle, a comfortable, if not entirely content couple struggling to maintain an active sex life. Chernus’ improv earns more laughs—it seems his classically trained actor has exacting standards for sexy role-playing—but Reaser’s performance is the one that sticks. The fantasy they cook up leaves Andi far more vulnerable, and her look of quiet desperation at the end is in stark contrast to Kyle’s self-satisfaction, which he carries into his appearance in “Utopia.” The episodes made available to critics ahead of the premiere represent the first and third quarters of the anthology, which means we didn’t initially get to see Kyle successfully put on his show. But the way he dismissively refers to Andi suggests that feeling fulfilled outside of the relationship hasn’t done much for it.
The couple’s babysitter, Chase (Kiersey Clemons), escapes the marital strife for “Vegan Cinderella.” Now, Chicago winter isn’t the most conducive to romance, possibly because the down-coat uniforms leave too much to the imagination. But it’s the perfect backdrop for Chase and Jo’s (Jacqueline Toboni) budding relationship. They unwrap each other like gifts during their first passionate encounter, throwing knits in the air. Chase’s desire to adopt Jo’s lifestyle is quickly tested, as she struggles to bike through the snow and avoid comfort foods like pizza after putting in a full day at school and work. Hooking up in the spring or summer would have provided enough distractions to delay the realization that they don’t have quite as much in common as Chase would like Jo to think they do.
Now let’s catch up on the other half of the season:
It’s hard to fathom why this particular story got a sequel in what’s otherwise only a loosely connected series, other than to show off all the Dark Matter and Half Acre swag the crew must have gotten. This first chapter introduces Jeff (Dave Franco), a coffee roaster turned illegal brewer who brings his brother, Matt (Evan Jonigkeit), along for the ride. Matt is supposed to be juggling the launch of a new business with preparing for the arrival of his first child with Sherri (Aya Cash), but he seems far more psyched about the former. He’s not so much folding under the sense of obligation as taking on more of it. The tension that does arise is quickly waved away—Matt has enough money for the brewery’s overhead and to keep a roof over his head. Even though it isn’t the last we see of her, Cash is squandered in the part of the pregnant wife.
This story is the darkest of the bunch and the most removed, taking place miles from the rest of the entries, in Pilsen, and consisting of mostly Spanish dialogue. You have to wonder if that isolation was incidental or just a reflection of Swanberg’s experience of living in the city. “Controlada” centers on new arrivals Gabi and Bernie, an Argentine couple whose domestic bliss is interrupted by their handsome houseguest, Martín. The settings are new construction homes and newcomer businesses like Punch House, details that put together a version of Pilsen that’s out of a realtor’s pamphlet. Swanberg is not playing to his strengths here, but he has more than capable performers in real-life couple Aislinn Derbez and Mauricio Ochmann. There’s infidelity and secrecy as the two Mexican telenovela vets bring the melodrama. It’s not the most inspired take.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Jane Adams have several great scenes together in this episode, but they could each easily fill an individual outing. In a way, Sophie’s (Mbatha-Raw) story is the prologue to Annabelle’s (Adams), as they’re both actresses who choose to put their careers before their personal lives. There’s no reason they can’t have both, really, but Swanberg’s story requires them to fail in striking that work-life balance. (The return of Kyle is just salt in the wound.) Still, Adams and Mbatha-Raw make the most of their limited screen time—they take turns lighting up the room. Although Annabelle seems regretful, when she runs to an old lover, their dalliance is sensual, not desperate.
The final episode, “Hop Dreams,” revisits Matt and Jeff, the illegal brewers working out of a garage, now with the blessing of Matt’s wife, Sherri. Their operation’s grown considerably, and now the beer bandits are being tracked by a dogged Newcity reporter played by Hannibal Buress. This chapter feels like nothing more than an opportunity for Swanberg and company to drink lots of beer and pun on the title of a wonderful documentary. There’s a cameo from Arthur Agee, one of the Hoop Dreams subjects, that does little more than establish Buress’ character’s journalism career.