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At its best, improv is an incisive delight. At its worst, it’s boring self-indulgence. Netflix’s Easy is both.

The new series shows off both the best and worst of director Joe Swanberg’s improvisational style

Kyle (Michael Chernus) and Andi (Elizabeth Reaser) try to jumpstart their sex lives on Halloween.
Netflix

Ninety percent of every human interaction on this earth is boring.

Some people are funnier than others; some have more important things to say. But the vast majority of conversations consist of the kind of small talk that keeps people vaguely informed and/or entertained without revealing much at all.

This was the main thought that kept running through my brain while watching Easy, Netflix’s eight-episode anthology series about the interlocking love lives of modern-day Chicagoans. Creator Joe Swanberg is known for his “semi-improvisational” style, meaning that he gives his actors outlines rather than fully formed scripts. Then, together, they go over the character beats and what needs to happen for the plot, but the dialogue details are left up to the actors themselves.

The best versions of this approach throw talented actors into a high-stakes game where the winners give their characters depth that comes out in personality-specific dialogue. The worst versions reveal just how boring people can be, and the reason why great scripts matter so much in the first place.

Easy does some of both. It throws a wide array of actors, including Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Aya Cash, Marc Maron, Elizabeth Reaser, Orlando Bloom, and Raúl Castillo, into varying scenarios about love, sex, marriage, and everything in between, and the results are, predictably, mixed. In the end, though, the series indulges way more mundane ramblings than anything particularly interesting.

To demonstrate, let’s break Easy down by the best and worst it has to offer.

The Worst: “Brewery Brothers” / “Hop Dreams”

Matt (Evan Jonigkeit) sulks into a pint of beer.
Netflix

Swanberg has an obvious fascination with brewing beer, something that he’s called a hobby of his own and has made the subject of multiple projects. Swanberg’s self-indulgent 2013 movie Drinking Buddies, for example, managed to make charismatic actors like Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston feel hopelessly dull, stuck in their own heads and without much of anything important to say. But hey, at least they drank cool beer!

Not one, but two of Easy’s eight episodes focus on brothers Matt (Evan Jonigkeit) and Jeff (Dave Franco) deciding to open an illegal brewery in Jeff’s garage. Both are at incredibly different stages of their lives: Matt’s working a mind-numbing job to support his pregnant wife Sherri (Cash), while Jeff’s living the slacker dream, working at a coffee shop while having uncomplicated fun with his girlfriend, Noelle (Zazie Beetz).

The first problem with “Brewery Brothers” and “Hop Dreams” is that they do nothing to make those who don’t home-brew their beer understand why, exactly, home-brewing beer is such a fascination for those who love it. It mostly just follows Matt as he mopes around, hoping for someone to jog him out of his lethargy.

There’s also hardly a better example than this pair of episodes of just how crucial it is for something loosely improvised to have actors who can fully engage with their characters. Jonigkeit is just so joyless that it’s almost impossible to understand why everyone around Matt keeps telling him he could do better.

Then there’s the fact that the best parts of either episode belong to Cash, who brings so much immediate warmth to Sherri that her indignation at being labeled the boring stickler — for questioning the validity of Matt investing in an illegal garage brewery mere months before they have their first child — is an incredible relief.

So if home-brewing is your thing, maybe these episodes will give you something to work with. Otherwise, skip, and hope Cash gets more to work with next time.

The Best: “Vegan Cinderella”

Chase (Kiersey Clemons) and Jo (Jacqueline Toboni) have an instant connection.
Netflix

This chapter is an unusual one in the series, which largely focuses on married couples or aging skeptics. “Vegan Cinderella” — a terrible name we’re all just gonna have to live with for now — follows an early-20s queer girl named Chase (Kiersey Clemons) as she struggles to be “good enough” for Jo (Jacqueline Toboni), a strictly vegan activist.

Clemons and Toboni are great together, from the second their characters lock eyes at a concert, to the stumbling and ecstatic night of sex that follows, to the clumsy and sincere attempts to connect with each other in the weeks afterwards.

Clemons in particular gives Chase more dimensions than many more well-known actors do throughout Easy. In her hands, Chase isn’t just nervous and excited, as the plot requires, but funny, a little selfish, and a lot eager to please. Chase is a fully formed person because Clemons embraces more aspects of her than an outline could, and then acts the hell out of it.

To be clear: I’m not calling “Vegan Cinderella” the best because it’s not about married couples, who can be fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, and everything in between with the right material. (See: I Love Lucy, Roseanne, Bob’s Burgers, Friday Night Lights, and on and on it goes.)

I’m calling this episode the best because it has a clear story and completely engaged actors — not to mention the fact that it represents the very best of what Swanberg’s approach can achieve.

Obviously, Swanberg isn’t a young woman — queer or otherwise — and so his insight into what that might mean is naturally limited. But by giving his actors the bones of the story and letting them speak for themselves, Swanberg’s “Vegan Cinderella” feels far more authentic and richly felt than it likely could have if he had scripted it out.

If the rest of Easy were half as willing to go outside its comfort zone, the series as a whole would have been twice as compelling.

All eight episodes of Easy are currently available to stream on Netflix.

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