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Many series have tried to capture Chicago on the small screen with little success. The comedy Happy Endings is supposed to take place here, but is obviously filmed in LA—it's riddled with incorrect references, and there's almost never snow. Chicago Fire attempts to be Chicago so aggressively that the Sears (er, Willis) Tower is somehow constantly in the background.
Joe Swanberg's Easy, however, feels like it was made by a crew who truly know Chicago. The local director naturally drops in references to things like Chicago Filmmakers, Dark Matter Coffee, Koval, and even the Reader. He films in familiar, but not touristy locations. Famed Second City and iO improviser TJ Jagodowski shows up as a character in the very first scene.
But Easy succeeds where others failed mostly because the show focuses more on the human experience than the city around it. The best parts of Swanberg's movies are the natural and believable plots and conversations—everything is rooted in reality, nothing is dramatized for entertainment's sake. Often, however, his simple situations aren't substantial enough for a 90-minute feature and the film drags. With Easy, Swanberg's able to take what works and squeeze it into more digestible 30-minute chunks.
The series is a collection of short films about relationships connected by brief overlapping interactions. Among them are a married couple struggling with gender roles (Michael Chernus and Elizabeth Reaser), a graphic novelist and a photography student (Marc Maron and Emily Ratajkowski), and a pair of brothers opening a brewery (Dave Franco and Evan Jonigkeit). One of the most compelling episodes is performed entirely in Spanish (with subtitles) and follows a couple in Pilsen (Aislinn Derbez and Raúl Castillo) who host an unruly houseguest (Mauricio Ochmann) while they're trying to conceive a baby.
Swanberg deftly captures the internal struggles that plague a range of simple, everyday decisions, like whether or not to ride a bike, or when to completely cut off an ex. That's in part due to the talent of the cast, all of whom easily fell into the director's style of emotional, improvised scenes that are funny and sad and all too real.
While the show has draws for audiences in any city, there's something special about watching it as a local. One character was collecting signatures for reproductive rights down the street from my apartment. The street artist known around town as Don't Fret makes a cameo and has his work prominently featured. And seeing a group take one too many shots of tequila at the Punch House hit very close to home. Maybe next time Swanberg will venture even farther out into the city to highlight more specific pockets of Chicago, and hopefully everyone can relate to what they see onscreen.
Easy is now streaming on Netflix