Netflix’s Chicago anthology from Joe Swanberg, Easy, came out the same year I moved to the city. I gave it a pretty positive review only six months into being a Midwesterner. Three years later, I’ve found a home here and Easy has matured into more than a light cross-section of a city. In its continued examination of its optimistic, yearning, yet ultimately homey Chicagoans, Easy has pinpointed how a certain type of Midwestern urbanite sees themselves with imperfect, bumbling, trying-our-best grace.
A benefit of being an anthology is that you can skip and hop over time as much as you’d like, catching up with familiar characters while still sprinkling in new bits of flavor to keep things fresh. It’s a little like the sublime vignettes of High Maintenance but with heady and heightened empathetic comedy replaced with awkward, earnest, heartwarming fuck-ups. Rather than define a city through a subculture, it’s finding a culture’s common threads through disparate stories. Creator Joe Swanberg leads his actors through plenty of stuttery improvisation that is less intent on capturing realistic dialogue and more focused on embodying a group of people constantly uncomfortable with their own emotions. “I’ll keep all my emotions right here, and then one day I’ll die,” is John Mulaney’s riff on a stoic Irish upbringing, and Easy’s hiccupy conversations show these similarly bottled-up characters’ feelings dribbling through the cracks.
The midseason “Swipe Left” is the longest episode of the third season (51 minutes), 20 of which are taken up by a single seated bar conversation between Andi (Elizabeth Reaser) and Kyle (Michael Chernus) addressing their asymmetrical success testing an open marriage. It’s like surgery. It’s painful. It’s often dull. And it’s utterly accurate. They disjointedly use the modern language of therapy to no avail, eventually abandoning it for Andi’s repeated statement that their situation “sucks.” Marc Maron’s Jacob fumbles around, trying to get at the “secret understanding” that is Midwestern flirting. Social media stars and influencers? “Trash,” says Jake Johnson’s Andrew. Somebody somewhere can probably find the right words, but not here. This negotiation of language and emotion helps the series dodge a larger scope foisted upon it by others—defining Chicago—and settle into its well-earned “uncomfort zone.”
Easy has become more sour over time, which is nice once you’ve learned to appreciate its flavor. It’s partially acclimation, like how initial awe at skyscrapers and landmarks is slowly replaced with appreciation for community gardens and ancient tavern signs. And some is age wearing and tearing at the characters, especially as they turn up again season after season. The change is a little bitter, but ultimately satisfying and necessary. The wheels have to keep spinning, with progress measured in inches and cents.
As far as wheel-spinning goes, there’s still a least one terrible episode per season—this time around it’s the almost cartoonish “Private Eyes” which has a U-Spy Store (a security purveyor known for its magnifying glass signage) employee investigating a BDSM club. If it wasn’t so obviously uncomfortable with this newfangled kink scene (the protagonist of the episode explains that he’s somewhat familiar with the “Bondage, domination, sex…” acronym) it could be mumblecamp. There’re still many local cameos, like Minding the Gap documentarian Bing Liu popping up in “Spontaneous Combustion”, but even more recognizable than the environments or the background faces is the mindset.
In three short years the crises have shifted from quarter- to mid-life, and my own life here has made the situations in the drama eerily familiar. Kate Micucci’s Annie decides she’s going to say “yes” to everyone that asks her out for 30 days (that’s something my lifelong Chicagoan partner did in college), then fakes being rich at open houses (something I know multiple couples have done in the city) in order to dream of that millennial nirvana: home ownership. Exes have to live together out of complicated necessity. Entrepreneurial black street vendors and white speakeasy owners get shut down by the cops in vastly different ways. Everyone has a hustle, a daydream, and enough built-in self-loathing to keep both small. Either everyone in Chicago shares a collective unconscious or Easy has gotten very good at figuring out the anecdotal details that best capture its specific cultural subsection. It’s anthropology through anthology.
Progressive values clash with an ingrained distrust of all things new, different, outgoing, and introspective. Combined with all that is an underdog complex built upon everything from sports to city size to food to global perception. It’s not an inferiority complex, but a superiority complex grown from always feeling second-rate. Nobody’s prouder to be underrated than Chicago. Capturing the 70+ community areas in Chicago and the endless subdivided neighborhoods would be impossible for any series, even if it had three times as many episodes as Easy’s 25. But it’s still possible to look for Chicago’s spirit, consistent across a diverse group.
Sex, of course, is still where Easy captures this dynamic best. It, of course, is never glamorous. In fact, almost all the fucking is fucking up. Now that everyone’s a bit older and a bit more tired, the sex becomes much more interesting and complicated—like in the great Wanderlust, it’s just repressed people using their bodies rather than their words. Thankfully, as in previous seasons, the sex is just foreplay for the climactic conversations.
“Blank Pages” reckons with a sexual abuse of power in an excellent #MeToo episode, just one example in the season where toxic, stubborn, selfish men actually listen for a change. Addressing the deficiencies of the pent-up culture is key to picking it apart without de-romanticizing it, which is something the show has self-effacingly learned how to do over three seasons. Season two learned to be comfortable telling its limited stories of the North side. The latest learned to make its characters less tolerant of bullshit and less blandly likable. At the end of three seasons of Easy (or three years spent living in Chicago) you have a similarly limited view of a culture—but a loving understanding of its core.
Nelson Algren wrote of Chicago that “once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” The series’ bittersweet final chapter, “She’s Back”, follows this theory closely. Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is back from Hollywood and damn it, she misses her city. Easy devotes plenty of time to hateable hipsters and terrible decision-making, but all in service of a defining a set of unmistakable values. What better way to end than to have these things woo back someone who’s left? Its unpretentious tangibility. Jake Johnson’s busted nose. Michael Shannon’s scowl. A shoveled parking spot in the snow. Dunking on L.A. These are the pleasures of the city as I know them and they’re the pleasures of Easy as it’s discovered how best to show them. As imperfect as they are, there are few so real.