And now for something completely different. episode 7 of Red Oaks is both the zaniest departure from the show’s overall tone and a main-line shot of pure comic adrenaline. There are a fair share of in-jokes that you’ll only get if you’ve been watching all along (like a reference to last episode’s sex tape), but generally speaking, this absurd half hour could be plucked out of the series and seen as a something altogether singular and hilarious.
The premise is that David and Sam switch identities after drinking what they thought was whale whiskey at a Japanese restaurant. It’s an obvious homage to the numerous body swap movies of the 1980s like 18 Again! and Big and Like Father Like Son and Vice Versa. (Vice Versa, in fact, was the name of an 1882 novel by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, from which the original premise is derived.) Reportedly the idea to execute the premise on Red Oaks came straight from exec producer Steven Soderbergh — and don’t we all know that when the boss says to do something, you don’t ask any questions. You just do it.
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And they did it right. Hired to direct “Body Swap,” in a brilliant decision (again, I’d guess Soderbergh’s), was Amy Heckerling, the doyenne of ’80s comedies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Look Who’s Talking and the ’90s-defining Clueless. She’s made a few turkeys in her day too (Loser in 2000, for one), but what she brings to this episode is her unbelievable lightness of touch. She’s still able to synthesize a completely exaggerated script into something that feels frothy and uncontrived and effortless. It’s a delight to watch. From the moment that Sam sees Judy drop her bath towel — and screams like he just saw a dog getting hit by a car — my smile didn’t move from my mouth for the next 15 minutes.
Speaking of mouths, Richard Kind’s performance as Sam — or rather Richard Kind’s performance in anything over the last two decades — is the engine of the comedy here. Playing all of the soft, repressed vocal and behavior traits of his son, David (and by extension, the actor Craig Roberts), Kind is for maybe the first time in his career, the straight man. That’s how he stands, too, his posture perfectly upright, his big beluga mouth closed except to whisper confused, half-sure suggestions to David, as they stalk the New Jersey streets together, hunting for the bottle of liquor which they hope can switch them back into themselves.
NEXT: The hunt for whale whiskey [pagebreak]
A non-nebbish, non-squawking, super shy Richard Kind is immediately funny to watch, and there’s something even poignant about seeing this most extroverted of actors rendered into a state of quietude. But it’s actually Roberts here who has the more challenging assignment — to essentially impersonate Kind for an exhausting stretch, with all the physical rigor that implies. His shoulders are slouched, he gesticulates with his hands, his eyes leap out of his head, and his mouth when he talks is open wider than a car truck. It’s also the specific speech pattern of Kind’s that Roberts nails, that ingratiating tone with a huge dollop of unadulterated heart. (If the makers of Red Oaks are thinking smart, they’ll submit this episode for Roberts’ Emmy consideration next year.)
Some of the episodes best lines come from other characters’ reaction to David, while Sam has taken over his body but he still needs to show up for work at the country club.
Valet: “Dude is higher than Skylab.”
Nash: “Why don’t we get you out of sun for a bit, huh?”
Getty: “Are you on pills? You on coke?”
Barry: “Looking a little constipated there, Chachi.”
As the two men search for the whale whiskey, Heckerling achieves a number of cute visual gags by speeding up the film and scoring the scene to Matthew Wilder’s immortally perky “Break My Stride.” If you don’t remember Sam’s near-death revelation that he loves Asian women in the pilot, you’ll be reminded here. “Body Swap” ends a bit of a pat note, with lessons learned and a memory wipe for the characters…which essentially renders the overall impact of the episode moot, especially given the self-conscious depth of everything around it. But if moot was always this funny, I’d order it with every meal.
Matthew Wilder, “Break My Stride”