Red Oaks, a new comedy from Amazon, arrives with a hell of a pedigree. It’s produced by Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green, Green directs the pilot, and it’s created and written by long-time Soderbergh associates Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. (Jacobs also directed this summer’s Magic Mike XXL.) Future episodes are directed by people like Amy Heckerling and Hal Hartley. Set in a country club in New Jersey in the mid-’80s, the show openly evokes movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Caddyshack and The Flamingo Kid, and with a consortium of creators who understand both comedy and drama behind it, there’s a lot of hope that it’ll fall into the same realm of bittersweet nostalgia as beloved comedies like The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks.
The first episode, which initially aired during one of Amazon’s pilot periods over a year ago, hints at the possibility of that kind of mix of comedy and drama, but also whole-heartedly embraces what’s expected of an ‘80s teen sex comedy. It’s got the nudity, the sex, the drugs and the flippant disregard for authority, and because it’s a premium television show in 2015 none of it is surprising. What’s weird is that those old ‘80s teen movies have felt more and more transgressive since at the least the early 1990s, as teen movies became increasingly clean and conservative. (Some blame John Hughes for that, and the brief run of filthy American Pie knock-offs at the turn of the century was just a blip on the larger teen movie landscape.) If Red Oaks was released as a movie today, and pitched squarely at teenagers, it would feel like a refreshingly edgy homage to those old comedies; because it’s airing in a context where you expect adult material, even in shows that don’t really need it, it merely feels like a refreshingly faithful homage to those old comedies.
All the archetypes you’d expect from those movies are here: the everyman lead who sees through the bullshit around him; the out-of-touch, slightly pathetic parents; the stoner best friend; the “good girl” who’s starting to realize her own sexuality; the artsy hipster who rejects it all and promises the lead an escape to a more interesting life. Craig Roberts (who I’m professionally obligated to mention was so good in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine) is fine as the lead, David, an NYU student who doesn’t want to become an accountant like his dad, but he’s given little to do but react in the first episode. The stand-outs are Richard Kind as his anxious and ailing father and Paul Reiser as the uptight Wall Street banker Getty, who’s the president of the country club. Kind has specialized in sad losers for years now, and here he threatens to break your heart as much as he did in Inside Out, but in a very different way. Meanwhile Reiser fully embraces the assholish tendencies that his characters usually tend to struggle with, and it leads to his most intense and believable performance yet.
The best part of the pilot, though, and the strongest argument to stick with the show is Ennis Esmer’s turn as Nash, the club’s tennis pro and David’s boss. Esmer takes a role that could’ve just been a surrogate for Chevy Chase’s obsequious golfer in Caddyshack and turns it into something that’s both funny and actually kind of poignant. Nash retains a chipper exterior while saying and doing whatever it takes to ingratiate himself to the selfish, snooty clientele that could probably have him fired at any point. He regularly mortgages his self-respect for a job but retakes what he can when he can, showing David how to maximize this potentially horrible situation. Esmer is Turkish, and although Nash’s nationality isn’t specified in this first episode, he clearly recognizes that David will have more opportunities in life than he does, and that while he might be David’s boss for this summer, in the long run David could easily wind up being one of the Polo shirted swells bossing Nash around the club. None of this said, but it’s understood by Esmer’s performance and his interactions with Roberts’ character, and that relationship is immediately the most interesting thing about this show.
That’s just half the cast, though, and the rest don’t make nearly as strong of an impression. They still feel like stock types going through predictable storylines. That’s fine at first for a show pitched clearly as an homage, and if the pilot didn’t end in a big, raucous party we’d have a right to be disappointed. Hopefully as the season progresses there’ll be time to better develop David’s friend Wheeler (Oliver Cooper ) and girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly), for the pervy photographer Barry (Josh Meyers) to turn into something more than a Matthew McConaughey impersonation, or for Getty’s daughter Skye (Alexandra Soche) to become a real character and not just an ‘80s-era alternative kid rebelling against her dad’s materialism. Hopefully women are presented as something other than just potential sex partners.
There’s a strong basis for a show here, and unlike a lot of pilots the creators seem to already intimately know the world they’ve created. There’s still a lot of room to grow, though. With these creators, and with actors like Kind, Reiser and Esmer on board, it’s hard to imagine Red Oaks shriveling up.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.