Netflix UK TV review: Easy
James R | On 22, Sep 2016
Joe Swanberg makes the leap to the small screen with his new Netflix series. Of course, in some ways, that’s not really much of a leap; Swanberg, one of the kings of the genre that was once dubbed “mumblecore”, is a big screen veteran with a small sensibility, specialising in the kind of drama where people have existential crises, do a lot of a navel-gazing and speak in mostly improvised dialogue. Sure enough, judging by these eight episodes, the jump for the director is not at all difficult.
The show takes the form of an anthology, serving up eight standalone stories. It’s a rare format for telly these days, with the ones who do employ it tending towards horror, sci-fi or somewhere in between. It’s a joy, then, to have someone take the same approach with straight drama. There are only very loose threads connecting these tales: they’re all based in Chicago, they occasionally see the same person appear in the background, and they all follow people who find life far from easy.
But they do share one thing in common: they’re almost all uniformly fantastic. Swanberg has a real talent for creating something sincere, not just in terms of believability, but in terms of honesty: Episode 1 (“The F*cking Study”) sees a married couple trying to rekindle their bedroom life, in between trick-or-treating at Halloween and looking after their kids. A porn flick and some cosplay later and we’re witnessing the most awkward on-screen love scene in recent memory. It takes a lot of skill to make sex un-sexy, but Michael Chernus – who will be recognised by fans of Orange Is the New Black – and Elizabeth Reaser manage it beautifully (or not beautifully, depending on your definition), bringing enough of their day-to-day worries to the foreplay without undermining their earnest enthusiasm. She looks like a Disney princess gone wrong. He looks like Bob the Builder. Both are hilarious to look at, but also oddly sweet.
The show, perhaps unavoidably, spends most of its time tangled up in the ties of romance, but there are other themes lurking beneath the surface, from ageing and sacrifice to fidelity. Episode 2 (“Vegan Cinderella”) may appear like a story about lesbians and veganism, but it emerges as a sensitive meditation on the perils of losing yourself in a relationship. Episode 6 (“Utopia”) follows a husband (Orlando Bloom) and wife (Malin Akerman) into the world of Tinder, as they both find intrigued by the possibility of a threesome – resulting in a bizarre encounter with a friend and lots of shots of Orlando Bloom getting his kit off. (If you ever wanted to see Legolas in the buff, this is the show for you. Remember: Episode 6.)
Some of it works better than others – Akerman and Bloom are enjoying themselves so much in their racy storyline that their improvisation sometimes moves into over-the-top territory – but Swanberg is good at doing this for a reason, and is able to reign back even his A-listers into understated moments of brilliance. By the end of Utopia’s threesome, you can’t tell if you’re feeling mildly uncomfortable because of their grinning faces, or because their characters are so pleased about what they’re doing. A very low-key Dave Franco in Episode 3 (“Brewery Brothers”), meanwhile, turns an uninvolving story about a husband tempted to join his younger sibling in launching a home-brewing company into an understandable dilemma – Franco’s gentle charm is so effective that even you’d consider backing his start-up.
The result is a series of micro-plays, rather than TV episodes – short films that give Swanberg enough time to flesh out an interesting idea, but also keep him constrained enough to avoid wandering aimlessly. It’s a delicate balance: Eon Mora’s cinematography emphasises the intimacy without feeling low-budget, while editors Harrison Atkins and Daniel Johnson (assistant editor on Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies) do a superb job of finding conclusions to each chapter while leaving things realistically unresolved. Combined with the admirable performances, these are concise, moving, often very funny bursts of humanity; shots of intimacy that remind you what can be done with a camera, some talented actors and a heavy dose of sympathy. Sex, usually something unrealistic on camera, becomes a natural extension of conversations between these people, while fights are never clear-cut or loud. This feels less like a TV series and more like serial eavesdropping.
In the hands of someone like Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Chemistry Read”), you end up with an astonishing one-hander; who wouldn’t want to watch the star of Belle given a screen almost to herself for half an hour? Her episode is perhaps the best of the bunch – although a shout-out goes to Marc Maron, who plays a graphic novelist navigating the boundaries of privacy – as she attempts to find her way in her acting career, following a sort-of break-up with her boyfriend. Jake Johnson plays her almost-ex brilliantly, despite his brief screen-time; his caller ID photo on her phone alone manages to express as much pain and detachment as we sense during their online video calls. Mbatha-Raw, meanwhile, delivers another star-making turn as the nervous but ambitious actress, who puts on fronts for different people and, even when things seem to be looking up, still can only knock down life’s skittles through sheer luck.
The result recalls the wonderful web series High Maintenance (just graduated to HBO original) in its use of the anthology format to examine the mundane conflicts of life – and not just white, middle-class life, either, as we get an episode about a Spanish couple arguing over a sofa bed. Totalling just four hours in bite-sized chunks, it’s a delightful package with treats that can be unwrapped individually or all at once. Don’t like the sight of Legolas Jr.? You can just skip to the next without worrying about missing a key plot point. A bunch of stories about navel-gazing Chicago residents talking about themselves and making it up as they go along, Netflix’s series may sound hard-going, but make no mistake: Joe Swanberg’s series is Easy to watch.
Easy: Season 1 to 3 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.
Photos: Zac Hahn/Netflix