It’s not often that Chicago sees itself on television. Sure, there are a couple of notable shows “set” here: the American remake of Shameless, RIP The Good Wife, cult favorite Happy Endings, the oh-that’s-still-on? CBS sitcom Mike & Molly (which actually isn’t on anymore). But these are the types of shows that shoot their interiors in Los Angeles, occasionally cutting to a snowy exterior in Chicago. Of course, there’s also the immense Dick Wolf television universe, consisting of Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med. They’re Chicago shows because they say they’re Chicago shows, but these shows aren’t so much about the city itself as they are about setting a television show in a place that isn’t New York City or Los Angeles.
And so, when there’s a shot of the Davis Theater approximately 17 seconds into the trailer for Joe Swanberg’s new Netflix show Easy, I can’t help but perk up a little. But, hey––I’ve seen TV before––they can shoot exteriors any time. You show me one Lincoln Square exterior and the rest of this shit gets shot on a soundstage in LA. There’s no way Joe Swanberg got Orlando Bloom to the Midwest. And yet, six episodes into Easy, there he is, sitting at noted Logan Square tiki bar Lost Lake, negotiating the terms of a threesome, that I find myself saying, “Well, that’s Chicago, all right.”
Swanberg is something of a golden boy in Chicago. A longtime local filmmaker and writer and actor, he rose to prominence in 2013 with his film Drinking Buddies, which largely took place at the Revolution Brewery in Chicago. The characters in Drinking Buddies not only sound like people who live in Chicago; they sound like people, period, and he’s known for allowing actors to improvise their way through a scene with only the knowledge of the key emotional beats, otherwise learning and discovering as their characters. Since Drinking Buddies, he’s written and directed other projects, his own––films like 2014’s Happy Christmas, also set in Chicago, and last summer’s Digging For Fire, set in LA––as well as episodes of television of both Looking and Love. There’s an easiness to Swanberg’s style; it’s comforting and familiar, the way Midwesternism is. Perhaps it’s a regional preference, but there’s something deeply calming about watching his characters talk and interact, even if they’re arguing because it’s mundane in the way life feels when you live in a place like Chicago, or Ann Arbor, or Indianapolis. We’re not townies here, not all of us, at least, but we’re certainly not as interesting (spelled with flashing lights around it) as people in coastal cities. I’d also argue it’s impossible to dislike a filmmaker who’s made it clear that Jake Johnson is his muse. Jake Johnson rules.
And then there’s Easy, consisting of eight 30-minute episodes, each focusing on different yet connecting narratives about people––young, old, gay, straight, Marc Maron––living in Chicago, and boy, are they trying to have sex! Six out of eight of the episodes are mostly if not completely sex-focused, with the remaining two focusing on the noble art of homebrewing in a garage. I watched all of Easy in a single weekend, and in the finale episode, as Dave Franco talks about the business strategy of real Chicago independent coffee shop Dark Matter, I thought to myself, “Jesus, is this what we all sound like to people? Is that all there is to this city: wearing overpriced down coats and drinking independently-produced growlers and trying to have sex all the time?”
And the answer, I think, perhaps sadly but you know, also truthfully, is yes.
Because there is so much about Chicago that Joe Swanberg gets right in Easy. And I don’t just mean exterior shots. I don’t mean seeing the Bean––[extremely “well, actually” voice] it’s called Cloud Gate––or the Old Town School Of Music and thinking, “Damn, he nailed it.” I mean, stuff like lying about whether or not you bike in the snow to impress a queer girl (check!) or listening to people talk ad nauseum about the noble passion of homebrewing (check!). I mean, stuff like being a grad student who wears a bad blonde wig and seducing a graphic novelist who writes exclusively about himself and you actually are doing selfie portraiture as a master’s thesis and the two of you get into a big fight about what it means to portray self in art but ultimately come out of the situation better for it all and friends (check!––just kidding––this is the episode where Marc Maron and Emily Ratajkowksi fight about whether or not selfies are worthwhile. Do not watch it. No one in any city acts like this, let alone Chicago). Swanberg nails the stupid, boring shit that we do here all the time because we’re not anywhere else. We have the time to break down a study about gender roles because it’s 40-fucking-degrees here on a good day, and what else are we supposed to do?
And are Chicagoans actually this sex driven? Pretty much! The issue, mainly, with how horned up everyone in Easy is is that it’s not always that interesting, because sex in Chicago is not all that interesting. The take on Chicago––the reason why people are driven to it in pop culture––is often, “we’re like Los Angeles/New York City, but get this: we’re normal.” Half the plots of half of the Easy episodes are literally: “Why isn’t our sex more interesting?” (Spoiler: Because it’s Chicago, baby!) If sex and relationships are barely interesting enough when they’re set in New York City or Los Angeles, they’re certainly not interesting in Chicago, where no one is a sociopath. It’s a bit of a relief to watch Easy and see all these characters struggle to make their lives interesting. Maybe a threesome is not that exciting to you, because you live in New York City or Los Angeles where I have to assume people are having threesomes every ten minutes, but in the context of a show where the other sex options are “trying to have it” or “no longer want it,” it’s very exciting! That itself is very often the struggle of Chicago––why am I bored, and how can I be less bored? There’s a comfort to it, the boredom. It is the midwest, after all. Every man here looks like Dave Franco, which is fine—when I tell people I think Dave Franco is handsome, and they go, “Hm, I’m not sure,” and I go, “No, I’m sure,” that’s the Chicagoan in me speaking.
Sometimes it feels like Swanberg is exploring premises rather than characters. What if: a married couple wants to try out a threesome? What if: a husband and wife don’t have as much sex as they used to? What if: a graphic novelist and a selfie artist––never mind. I sat through nearly every episode as characters lamented and sighed and wondered about sex in their nice parkas, and thought, “You guys should try talk about this. What if you had a conversation about any of this?” Swanberg notably steps outside of his comfort zone (which I feel safe labelling as “white people living on the North side”) with the episode “Controlada,” which is almost entirely in Spanish and takes place in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen. And while it’s nice to see a director stretch his point of view, even “Controlada” is just a premise. An uptight husband and his wife host their old, hard-partying friend who threatens to upset their marriage. But who are any of these people besides “a husband” and “a wife” and “their friend?” I don’t know, and I don’t know that “Controlada” does either.
Yet Swanberg’s work is undeniably best when people are talking. He likes to let people talk and learn and discover things from each other, and when his characters are allowed to do that, they sound like people I know. When Swanberg has 90 minutes, he lets his characters flex and change and grow. Marriage––or dating, or cheating, or love, or sex––is not inherently interesting, but when discussed by smart, nuanced characters over a course of time? That’s something! It feels real, because much of what we do in Chicago is sit around in nice outerwear and talk to each other because it’s too fucking cold to do anything else. (Over 30 minutes, it’s a little tougher, I’d imagine. There’s a lot of plot and a lot of people and a lot of exterior shots of familiar haunts to squeeze in.)
I could talk about each of these episodes for hours, and I feel like I already have with many of my friends in Chicago. There’s a learning curve to understanding a lot of television comedies––to Girls, to You’re The Worst, to Love––which are so specific to New York or Los Angeles. We watch and understand on basic narrative levels, sure, but there will always be coastal tics we never really pick up on. It feels so distinctly Chicago of everyone here to watch this show almost immediately––“yeah, yeah, I’ll get to it,” was the response from many of my coastal city friends––and spend the following week dissecting it at every possible level. This feels especially good when it seems like Chicago often only makes its way into the cultural dialogue to discuss the violence and little else. I don’t think Easy is a complete portrait of the city, no, but it is a reflection of creatives and upstarts with a relatively diverse cast with regards to gender, sexuality, race, and age. We don’t get this opportunity a lot in Chicago. It feels rare and special and nice, even when we’re ragging on the selfie episode (I mean, honestly).
Fran Hoepfner is a writer and comedian living in Chicago. She is the digital editor for The Onion.