TV shows and movies are usually filmed in Los Angeles or New York City; it’s rare to see Chicago — real Chicago, that is — on the screen. When the city does make an appearance, it takes the form of the Willis Tower or Millennium Park; it’s never the diverse metropolis we Chicagoans know it to be. Luckily, Joe Swanberg’s latest series for Netflix, “Easy,” bucks this trend as Swanberg weaves his apparent love for the Windy City into his episodic exploration of love and relationships, taking full advantage — no double entendre intended — of what this city has to offer.
Swanberg, an alumnus of Southern Illinois University (SIU) and a former employee of The Chicago International Film Festival, clearly knows and cares about Chicago. His successful feature film, 2013’s “Drinking Buddies,” was also filmed here. Just like “Easy,” “Drinking Buddies” explores themes around relationships and love while simultaneously examining life here in Chicago. The spirit of the city is intrinsically linked to the themes of Swanberg’s work, and it is through his specificity of that spirit that “Easy” manages to achieve a sense of universality that makes it so effective.
For an example of how Swanberg uses setting as holistic inspiration for “Easy,” consider the structure of the show. Just as Chicago is home to a wide array of neighborhoods, each with a different feel and vibe, “Easy” is comprised of uncorrelated, episodic, self-contained stories (including one set in Pilsen and shot almost entirely in Spanish). The show feels recognizable to people living in Chicago; from a cameo by renowned Chicago mixologist Paul McGee in his Logan Square tiki bar, Lost Lake; to people brewing beer in their garages, biking through the snow, or discussing ongoing renovations while walking through the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square. Most importantly, these touches don’t feel forced but are organically related to the stories being told.
There’s an intimacy at work here, not only because of the subject matter — love and relationships are intimate by nature — but because of the execution. Swanberg uses a lot of improvisation and scenes that come across as organic and conversational. Lines and delivery are naturalistic and performances are nuanced and subtle. The show has a simplistic and practical style, giving the feel of a massively successful indie film. Each episode almost feels like a small movie, just like life in a big city can often feel self-contained and solitary by way of population density and building size. But then, suddenly, a character from another episode will show up, or a location will be revisited, and it feels just like seeing an oddly familiar face on the L.
Is “Easy” perfect? No. With 30-minute runtimes, an episode isn’t always long enough to fully flesh out the characters. Story arcs seem resolved and set aside. Tonally, the naturalism can often avoid the highs and lows of comedy or drama to really reach beyond what some people may consider boring. The characters, as refreshingly imperfect as their relationships often seem to be, are less diverse than one might hope. Despite faring better than similar shows, the characters all seem to be unrealistically affluent, causing the show to ring false when it comes to the socio-economic realities of life in Chicago.
Overall, “Easy” works in more ways than it doesn’t, especially for someone looking for a romanticized version of the city they love. For fans of “Drinking Buddies” or shows like “Looking,” “Girls,” and other sort of slice-of-life, urban dramedies, “Easy” has a lot to offer; especially for the aging millennial crowd navigating what it means to be past the craziness of their early twenties, navigating the waters of married life, parenthood, and Tinder. Despite it’s imperfections, “Easy” does for Chicago what so many TV shows and movies do for New York City and Los Angeles: It lets people place themselves inside the story. A Chicago viewer can see themselves as that brewer of beer grappling with the choppy waters of life as a late 30-something — while still being sexy enough to have a threesome with Orlando Bloom (episode six). What more can a Chicagoan ask for?