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Red Oaks Presents the 80’s Without Irony, For Better and Worse

Created by: Gregory Jacobs & Joe Gangemi
Premieres: Entire first season drops @ 12:00 A.M. Eastern on Amazon
Nine episodes watched for review

“You act as if life’s one big summer vacation, and it’s not.”

Most modern period pieces set in the 80’s are primarily concerned with tearing and twisting the fashion, music and culture of the decade into raucous parody. Moonbeam City, which premiered last month on Comedy Central, takes the most neon-soaked elements of the time and filters them through a pseudo-Archer send-up of male ego. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp arrived earlier this year on Netflix, elongating the original film’s affectionate yet unforgiving hopscotch game of genre reference. Now Red Oaks joins the parade of knee-high socks and crop tops, but with a straighter face than many of its predecessors.

Taking the “summer before adulthood” approach, Red Oaks is set at a New Jersey country club in 1985. At the center of the slobs-versus-snobs dichotomy sits David (Craig Roberts), a 20-year-old student at NYU teaching tennis for the summer in his hometown. His father, Sam (Richard Kind) wants him to follow his footsteps into the world of accounting, but his heart yearns for Eric Rohmer films and art history classes. Joining him at the eponymous club is burnout pothead Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), his girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly) and Skye (Alexandra Socha), an Ally Sheedy-type who may end up stealing his affection.

Creators Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi trace these familiar lines with dedication, rarely swerving from the set boundaries or subverting expectations. Wheeler, the pot dealer (intentional, I’m sure) is a deadbeat valet who falls for the stunning lifeguard Misty (Alexandra Turshen) and spends much of the season working to prove and improve himself for her. Karen is roped into a burgeoning modeling career by sleazy photographer Barry (Josh Meyers, who looks like the uncanny valley version of his brother). Skye butts heads with her father, Getty (Paul Reiser), the rich white prick who runs the place.

This struggle between free spirits and expected lifestyles has been explored endlessly in nearly every medium at this point. David’s central conflict, that he hasn’t grown up enough to know what exactly he wants out of life, is a common one. Yet, as the season goes on, Red Oaks worms its way past your defenses and complaints of formula. Very little here is new, but almost all of it is well executed. David’s friendship with the wanna-be playboy head tennis pro Nash (Ennis Esmer) is a classic “bad example mentor/mentee” pairing, but Esmer is so good at the particulars of the character that he finds something new beneath the well-worn. Meyers is clearly having so much fun the McConaughey-lite Barry that you’ll likely forget that he’s a carbon copy of those that came before.

The best skill in Red Oaks’ arsenal is the ability to uncover the sadness pervading nearly every situation. That melancholy isn’t new – Breakfast Club and Risky Business, to name just two predecessors, have it in spades – but it’s still incredibly welcome, and gives a greater edge to the sentimental moments that arrive swiftly late in the season. That’s most evident in the marriage of David’s parents, Sam and Judy (Jennifer Grey, giving both a great performance and the show some 80’s cred). What begins as a cheap joke in the premiere softens into a fairly wrenching exploration of a marriage that simply isn’t working. Sam and Judy clearly care about each other, but they aren’t in love anymore, and the show doesn’t shy away from presenting that heartbreaking conundrum. It helps here to have talent like Grey and Kind, who continues a tremendous year of unexpected pathos.

That talent is evident elsewhere as well, and aids the moments that wobble between highlighted reference points and a strain of the indie-com (see Transparent, Girls, Casual). Reiser is the standout, building upon his great recent work on FX’s Married where he’s found a great balance of deadpan and weariness. That continues here, creating something of a Reiserssance that gives Red Oaks a prime example of how types can be deepened with time and care. Socha, as his daughter, is quite good as well, finding a way to play rebellious without ever wandering into cloying. And Turshen may be the breakout of the series; she recalls Elizabeth Banks at with her comedic timing and heartfelt clear eyes, but finds her own beats to play. She plays sheepishness so well in moments, making blushing something of an art form all its own.

Aiding these performances, and placing them within a meaningful context, is a murder’s row of directors that give Red Oaks a slight but vital visual panache. David Gordon Green sets the template early on, adding just enough deviation from the expected sitcom look to explore how these characters fit into a falsely pristine environment. Others carry that torch throughout. When one episode ends with a stunning series of shots that pan across David and Skye’s faces, you may wonder who could have conceived of such a subtle, powerful touch. Then Hal Hartley’s name appears onscreen. And lending even more credentials for the era, Amy Heckerling shows up for a pair of episodes. One, late in the season, nearly flies off the handles. It’s a stand-alone that takes a weirder and less naturalistic trope of the decade, but Heckerling grounds the experience in the characters and their brittle but meaningful relationships. All I’ll say on the episode’s subject is: Roberts does a mean Richard Kind).

Unfortunately, Roberts doesn’t have much else of an impression to give, because the script never grants him a real character. David is a cypher, which would work better if the show either dedicated to his point-of-view, or lost him amongst the crowd. As it stands, he can be kind and sweet or sarcastic and self-absorbed, whatever the situation calls for. Yes, the purpose of the writing is clear: he doesn’t yet know who he is. But the solution to the problem isn’t making him everyone at once. Roberts does the most he can, but the issue still leaves a whole at the center of the series.

And as much as Red Oaks finds in the familiar hallways of the 80’s country club, they’re still largely borrowing a formula rather than creating much of anything new. The show is eminently watchable, perfect for the binging that Amazon likely hopes for, but this stops the series short of becoming a classic. Coming in the wake of Wet Hot American Summer shows how, despite their vastly different goals, one approach can create a memorable tone and another can fade into the background. Still, that background is a good deal of fun to watch, with enough great performances and moments to keep everything else afloat. Red Oaks isn’t destined to become a classic, passed down from parents to children, anniversaries celebrated ad nauseam on the Internet. Instead, it’s the type of piece that you hazily remember, years later, when you stumble upon one night. You sit with it for a while, occasional lines or character moments setting off a nostalgic trigger. It certainly isn’t a bad night. But then you flip the channel, and it all shuffles back into the ether, ready to pleasantly return the next night when nothing better is on.

Grade: B

 

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.