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.
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And it’s in the trusted hands of Soderbergh and Green that the adrift 20-year-old David Meyers finds himself in. He’s the main character here, endearingly played by a well-cast Craig Roberts, whose real name sounds exactly like a fictional ’80s movie actor. In any given scene, he looks either like Dustin Hoffman from The Graduate, Bud Cort from Harold and Maude or James McAvoy’s unchiseled younger brother. Which, crucially, makes us comfortable identifying with him. You don’t doubt that David could have a big-blonde-haired, two-inches-taller gymnastic instructor girlfriend named Karen (Gage Golightly) while also being genuine buddies with the show’s dweeby “Party King,” a slovenly but sweethearted valet named Wheeler (the Jonah Hill-ish Oliver Cooper).
Roberts is Welsh (he starred in the 2010 British film Submarine) but has a natural grasp on David’s neutral suburbanite-Jersey accent, though the success of his performance depends on his talent to stare silently and vacantly as wackier characters talk and gawk around him. Chief among those are his parents, Judy and Sam, played by ’80s movie royalty Jennifer Gray and comedy character actor nonpareil Richard Kind, who’s surname expresses the gawky sincerity in nearly every performance he gives.
Sam’s near death revelation in the opening scene of the pilot — in which he asserts that Judy is a lesbian and that he wishes he’d married an Asian woman — gets further explored in the full season for both humor and depth. And the same can be said, at least in the beginning, for the most intriguing character that Red Oaks wrestles with, especially in the season of the Trump: Mr. Getty (played by Paul Reiser), the rude, rich president of the show’s fictional country club. In the pilot, David beats Getty soundly in a pick-up tennis match, and with consequential results.
(Though the less said about the actual tennis in Red Oaks, the better. All sports are hard to convincingly replicate with amateurs instead of professionals, but tennis is perhaps the most difficult to mimic at a higher level onscreen without CGI. Here it’s an incoherently edited mess, all lunges and weird serves, meant to evoke the scrum of the game without actually showing it. Naturally, there isn’t a single wide-shot of the characters in a rally ever.)
The casting of Reiser, who was already playing oily jerks in movies like Aliens during the time period when Red Oaks takes place, is obvious on its face, but the actor seems very game to uncover something challenging and idiosyncratic and vulnerable underneath his character’s bully surface. The unwilling apprenticeship between David and Mr. Getty is exactly the tightly wound thread of plot that would have been pulled out if the project had been made as a 100-minute feature film instead of a six-hour series.
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Especially since the Getty stuff also involves two other characters worth watching out for — Nash (Ellis Esmer), David’s fellow tennis pro, clinging with a breath of desperation to his glory days; and Getty’s daughter Skye (Alexandra Socha), an aloof art student who hates her dad and clicks awkwardly with David — I’m going to focus the recaps more on that storyline than some of the show’s shallower subplots. The high jinks between pornstache photographer Barry (played by Josh Meyers) and David’s girlfriend Karen is an inorganic strand that seems to exist only to reach the running time — and unfortunately, veers the show toward the mocking and uneven. (And concludes unsatisfactorily, with a gaping plot hole that we’ll get to in episode 10.)
It is, after all, this quartet of characters — David, Getty, Skye, Nash — that the pilot of Red Oaks decides to conclude with. Nash congratulating David on demolishing Getty at tennis and handing over a portion of his winnings from betting on the match. David chasing after Skye to introduce himself by asking about the Anais Nin book she’s reading. And Getty standing in the distance, waiting for her and appearing, just for a quick second in Green and cinematographer Tim Orr’s framing, small.
To add to the affectionate homage, at the end of all 10 recaps I’ll provide a music playlist for all the ’80s songs that were heard in that episode. Here’s what was on the cassette mixtape in the pilot:
Robbie Dupree, “Steal Away,” 1980
The Jetzons, “4-3-1,” 1982
Billy Ocean, “Loverboy,” 1984
Billy Squier, “The Stroke,” 1981
Bill Wyman, “Je Suis un Rock Star”