As winter drear approaches, let the summertime possibilities of Amazon’s Red Oaks enchant you with the promise of a warmer and more adventurous time. Produced by Stephen Soderbergh and David Gordon Green, the show follows David (Craig Roberts, likely best known for Richard Ayoade’s Submarine), an NYU student teaching tennis lessons at the local country club in his New Jersey hometown while on summer break in 1985. David’s world is shifting. His parents (none other than Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey) are on the verge of divorce, his high school sweetheart is both distracted and looking for a bigger commitment from him, and his job involves rubbing elbows with the local elite, which gets him into more than one situation where he doesn’t understand the social terrain. Admittedly, I’ve grown weary of so many bildungsromans that focus on sensitive boys like David, and the show definitely has a few problems, but I still found myself charmed by Red Oaks’ summer hopefulness. Season two was released on Amazon today, and if you haven’t watched the first season yet, here are a few reasons why the show is worth giving a chance.
Over the course of season 1, David slowly blooms into the film-appreciation intellectual art student he’s meant to be as he steadily sheds the skin of the nebbishy, nervous future accountant that his father wants him to be. In the first episode, David’s summer quest and search for purpose and identity are summed up by one of the older patrons at Red Oaks Country Club, Herb (Freddie Roman). When David asks Herb what his father wanted him to be and what he became, Herb responds to both questions with: “Proctologist,” then adds, “I hated every day of it. I longed for the day when I could stop staring up assholes.” And thus, David’s central question for the series is set: will he continue on a traditional path and settle down as an accountant following the American dream, or will he strike out with something riskier that he really loves?
In the actual ‘80s, David’s friend Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) might have been played broadly as the goofy stoner kid obsessed with chicks. And while there’s a lot of that with Wheeler in Red Oaks, Cooper doesn’t play him as a broad character joke but someone with heart. Even as he becomes the Party King and tries to get with Misty (Alexandra Turshen), Jersey’s hottest blonde lifeguard dating a stereotypical ‘80s douchebag, he has a sweet vulnerability that makes you want to see him win.
Well into season one Red Oaks experimented with its form and paid tribute to another 1980s teen film staple by doing a body swap episode. David and his father switch bodies after a fight and too much Japanese whiskey. The episode sees them, of course, getting the other one into trouble without understanding their world, and while that could easily go into cheese territory, Red Oaks makes it work by cutting the conflict with the understanding and admiration David and his father gain for each other. To top it off, it’s directed by that master of the classic teen genre, Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless). Which isn’t to say the writing isn’t without its problems. The catalyst for the swap is a Japanese mystic who works at a sushi restaurant, and the characters carries with him the fetishized Orientalism of the time period, playing like the Asian version of the Magical Negro trope. Still, the episode takes a huge risk by doing something so patently ridiculous, but Heckerling, the cast and writers are able to pull it off.
My favorite parts of the show are definitely its more rom-com-ish elements. When David meets Skye Getty (Alexandra Socha) and remarks her paintings look similar to Alice Neel’s, it’s clear they’ll have more of an affinity for each other than David and his current squeeze, but of course it’ll take the whole summer for them to get there. When they finally run off to see a foreign film in the Village, they spend a marathon day surprising each other with their sophistication. When Skye takes David to a random art party, he dances willingly, leaving her to remark that’s unlike most guys. “Well, I’m not like most guys,” he says and delves into one of the shows more charming sequences, involving a break dance circle and some limited skill.
In true ‘80s homage, many episodes make generous use of the montage in a style that’s both ironically self aware and totally sincere. If you loved the tournament montage in Karate Kid or the dancing of Footloose or any John Hughes movie, Red Oaks has some gems for you.
Correction: Originally this piece said that Freddie Roman had passed away. He hasn’t. He’s very much still alive. Sorry, Freddie!
Erica Lies< /a> is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in
Splitsider, Bitch, Rookie Mag, and The Hairpin.