On Swanberg’s Easy

I’ve been a longtime fan of Joe Swanberg going all the way back to his first mumblecore film Kissing on the Mouth. He just came out with a new Netflix series, Easy, so I had to check it out.

The show doesn’t follow the conventions we’ve come to expect from Netflix. Each episode focuses on a single relationship issue between completely new characters. There is no big story arc like Orange is the New Black or House of Cards.

Familiar Themes

The problems these couples face are familiar to any fan of Swanberg’s. They include classics like gender roles, sex, sexuality, stagnation, and change creating conflict. Modern relationship ideas make an appearance as well like privacy when posting to social media and using apps to hook up.

Lots of people consider Swanberg’s early work to be boring.

This stems from the philosophy of mumblecore: capture everyday moments with improvisation that sounds like normal speech (hence some inaudible mumbling). This can make for long stretches of pretty much nothing happening.

I want to argue that Easy is a departure from, or maybe more accurately, a continuation of his early work.

Moving Beyond Mumblecore

First, the finished product consists of thirty-minute short films. The medium forces a tightness that a feature-length movie does not. And Swanberg most definitely shows this off by staying completely focused on the core idea of each vignette.

There isn’t time to languish on nothing.

Still, the improvisation aspect of the acting keeps with an aesthetic from his early works. There is an authenticity to the speech and rapid insight into the characters that often doesn’t come out in fully scripted shows.

I’ve seen some reviews that claim this is the same boring stuff and it is dated and cliche. I think these reviewers are bringing a bias from his earlier work to these viewings. They also probably don’t understand what each vignette is really about.

Deeper Issues

The thing I like most about Easy is how each episode has a surface problem that gets explored, but each also has a more complicated meta-commentary running beneath it.

I’ll use the first episode as a case study in this.

The premise is that a couple thinks they don’t have a good sex life because the man stays home. He thinks maybe the wife sees him as emasculated and isn’t aroused by the thought of him doing the housework.

To spice things up, they use Halloween to dress up in stereotypical masculine (a construction worker) and a stereotypical feminine (a maid?) costumes and role play.

On the surface, this does look cliche. How many times have we seen comedies and dramas examine the gender role idea? It’s old. It’s boring. It’s been done since at least the early ’90s (Thirtysomething comes to mind).

We should be over this by now.

I get that sentiment, but I think it misses the real and new commentary of the episode.

Cultural Commentary

The reason the couple thought this was the problem in their relationship was that a “study” told them. This is cultural commentary about how eager we are with our devices in hand to jump on every study as essential to our lives.

We blindly follow whatever gets reported on, despite the fact that we don’t even know anything about these studies.

I certainly don’t believe catchy headlines. Studies often have small findings, and the degree of certainty about their validity is low.

But the mainstream media wants clicks, so they put out catchy headlines that have little to do with the actual results of the study.

Strangely, we all jump on the headline as if it were capital-T Truth and make adjustments to our lives based on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has changed their order at a restaurant because they were perusing their phone and ran across a headline “New study finds link between X and cancer.”

Are we really that gullible?

Final Remarks

Each episode has these underlying issues that are not the “obvious” surface one. I can see writing this series off as unoriginal if these surface problems are all you see.

But I think the show is inspired in how it takes these old tropes and puts a deeper cultural commentary underneath (many of which would not be relevant five or ten years ago, so they certainly are not rehashing old ideas).

I never once got bored watching it, and I have to wonder about the type of person who did.

If you liked this, you might like my article on Amazon’s The Romanoffs.