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Red Oaks recap: Pilot

Amazon time-warps back to 1985 for a (mostly) unironic comedy.

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Red Oaks

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
run date:
Craig Roberts, Jennifer Grey

Thanks to Amazon Studios choose-your-own-adventure programming strategy, the Red Oaks premiere was already seen 14 months ago. Viewers voted among the five pilots offered gratis and this comedy about college student working at a New Jersey country club in the summer of 1985 was selected, along with Hand of God (which debuted last month to poor reviews), to get a full season order.

No need to exhaustively go over each plot point of the episode, since it was reviewed not once but twice by EW back in 2014. But the basic concern among those who enjoyed Red Oaks was about its tone. Was it an affectionate and unironic homage to those ’80s movies like Dirty Dancing and Caddyshack and Summer Rental and anything by John Hughes? Or was it a condescending spoof of those very films?

The involvement of executive producer Steven Soderbergh and director David Gordon Green automatically buttressed the case for the former. The admittedly gratuitous female nudity in this pilot, which both EW reviews groaned about, is mostly absent in the episodes to follow — to your relief or disappointment. It’s possible that even without ratings restrictions of the MPAA (the show is liberal with language), the creative team wanted to keep Red Oaks from being confused with a puerile Porky‘s sequel.  

Soderbergh, the tremendously influential indie filmmaker, has been vocal in recent years about his retirement from feature movies in favor of TV projects like Showtime’s The Knick. It was while working on that show that his long-time assistant director Gregory Jacobs (who made last summer’s Magic Mike XXL) showed Soderbergh the script (co-written by Joe Gangemi) for Red Oaks. According to a press release for the show, Soderbergh responded this way: “I said, ‘This is ready to go, let’s find a director.’ We very quickly agreed to approach David because the humor was sharp without being mean, and we felt he would understand and appreciate that.”

“Sharp without being mean,” in other words playing fair and not falling into the trap of superiority when lampooning or satirizing underdog characters, is a Soderbergh specialty. Watch his 2013 HBO film Behind the Candelabra and marvel at the warmth with which he depicts a total kitsch figure like Liberace.

Green began his career directing small-scale human dramas like George Washington (which came out in 2000, the same year as Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich and Traffic) before reinventing himself as a director of dude comedies—with substance and some heart—such as Pineapple Express and HBO’s Eastbound & Down. He loves using impeccably framed close-ups and the slow zoom-in during dialogue scenes, a stylistic curlicue handed down from Robert Altman, which gives Red Oaks a sincerely welcome cinematic feel. And for a true test of his tonal skills, watch Pineapple Express and then watch — or rather, don’t — The Interview, which he didn’t direct. The Interview lumbers and trudges and labors in its attempt to be funny. Green is not a comedian by nature, and so what he brings to Red Oaks is not sledgehammer punchlines but a carefully disguised light touch. He likes the people he puts on screen.

NEXT: So about Red Oaks