Let's talk about the second season of Amazon's wistful '80s comedy
Crank up the way-back machine. Netflix’s Stranger Things has certainly raised the bar for 1980s nostalgia — so let’s head back to the suburbs of New Jersey in the era of Top Gun, Back to School, “Higher Love,” “Nasty,” and “Your Wildest Dreams.” On Nov. 10, Amazon dropped all 10 episodes of Red Oaks: Season 2 and we’re binging and recapping all the episodes now. There are two recaps per page, so feel free to dig in and read along while you watch.
Episode 1: “Paris”
Amazon’s 10-episode first season chronicled the misadventures of college student and tennis pro David (Craig Roberts) and concluded in a wonderfully elliptical fashion. We saw David’s almost-not-quite girlfriend, the artist Skye (Alexandra Socha), daughter of country club president Getty (Paul Reiser), plant a kiss on David after saying, “Come find me in Paris.” Cue the ecstatic, celestial snyth and strings of Exile’s “I Wanna Kiss You All Over.”
The premiere episode of season 2 finds David having followed Skye directive. The Welsh actor Craig Roberts (whose real name sounds just like an ’80s movie character) begins the episode in tight-close up, looking more like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate than ever.
The whole half-hour is set in the winter in Paris, France and serves almost as a European arthouse short film preamble to the actual series. Best of all, it’s directed by the American independent cinema master, Hal Harley, who helmed last season’s most deeply felt episode (“Fourth of July”) and is back behind the camera for five this season. That’s very good news.
For David and Skye, seeing each other again is also good news. Harley slows the episode’s pace and style to that of a French New Wave film. We see the couple kiss and then with one cut they’re laying lazy and naked on Skye’s French sofa — a stylistic trick taken right from Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut. If you enjoy this episode’s droll, languid style, by the way, check out Hartley’s Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), Henry Fool (1997), No Such Thing (2001), or Fay Grim (2006). You won’t be disappointed.
But when all the anticipation of blissful romance meets the real world of two people actually sharing the same space, there’s naturally unease. And that’s even before Skye’s parents (Reiser and Gina Gershon) arrive unexpectedly at her door, forcing a nude David — she was painting his portrait — to hide behind that same sofa. The tension of the story then escalates past David and Skye’s apprehensive coupling newness and up to David’s more overly complex relationship with Getty.
At a Parisian New Year’s Eve party, once David’s presence is discovered, he is snubbed by Getty, who does nothing to mask the fact that he thinks the young misfit is not quality material for his daughter. Gershon’s Fay Getty, caked in a hard, unsmiling exterior, has a few of the episode’s warmest moments as she acts kindly toward David despite her misgivings. This all, of course, is setting the table for the wistful, longing shadows of Red Oaks that will continue to darken over the next nine episodes, amid the usual sight gags, goofballs, and high-jinks.
There’s also potential for some funny real world irony — especially right now — with the upcoming insider trading trial awaiting Getty and his reference to the U.S. attorney who’s trying to take him down: “That rodeo clown Giuliani.” (As of this writing, the likeliest candidate for America’s next top cop in the administration of President Trump.)
“Paris” ends on an effective downbeat note, with Skye deciding to stay in Paris for six more months on her father’s dime. That’ll complicate things for her and David, for any number of reasons. The episode was written by series creators Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi (and filmmakers David Gordon Green and Steven Soderbergh are still on board as executive producers), and credit Hartley, a great partner in aesthetic and tone, for once again evoking that great, sweet melancholy at the end of this mini-movie hors d’oeuvre.
And in a show already trusted for its smart music choices, “Paris” closes — perfectly — with the throbs of New Order’s “Ceremony,” and the song’s touching, resonating lyrics, “Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time.”
Episode grade: A-
Episode 2: “Memorial Day”
Flash-forwarding six months later, Red Oaks finds its footing back in New Jersey. Over the course of this half hour, we discover what the large stable of supporting characters is up to, now nearly a year since we last saw them.
David’s bickering parents, Judy (Jennifer Grey) and Sam (Richard Kind), have entered a period of détente, thanks to their divorce, which is made official in the episode’s first scene. Tennis pro Nash (Ennis Esmer) has also split from his unseen wife, giving the ordinary chipper and unusually accented character an Eeyore gloominess.
Amid all that discord, Skye returns home finally to reunite with David. Parking valet and waiter Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) not splitting but still trying to hook up with lifeguard Misty (Alexandra Turshen). She is still cordial with her creepy-stud ex-boyfriend Steve (Nick Bailey), whose Patrick Bateman genes suddenly seem more amplified than they did last season.
And since this is the de facto first episode of the season, as it relates to the tennis club of the show’s title, it also introduces three areas of conflict, which no doubt the story will follow through the end.
First, that David’s ex Karen (Gage Golightly) is engaged to the pornstache photographer Barry (Josh Meyers), with nuptials scheduled for August 23. Who doesn’t love a TV wedding?
Second, that David has been rejected from re-enrolling at NYU film school, even though his parents had offered to fund his education with the sale of their house. Who doesn’t love a coming of age life choice?
And third, and potentially most interesting, in an effort to boot Getty, the club board decides to hold a recall election and remove him from the role of president. Who doesn’t love a new president? (That’s a rhetorical question.) Rather, who doesn’t love a juicy TV courtroom drama, even within a TV comedy? The upcoming trial of Getty is this season’s version of last year’s club tennis tournament. And we might see some of that, too.
Like the season premiere, “Memorial Day” was also written by series creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs and directed by the maestro Hal Hartley. The ground covered here feels a bit too familiar, but that’s also a symptom of reintroducing more than a dozen characters who audiences either have never seen — or if so, not for a year. If not for some of its characters, Red Oaks‘ future is bright.
Episode grade: B
NEXT: Episodes 3 and 4
Episode 3: “Father’s Day”
Nash gets the spotlight treatment in the opening scene of episode 3, as we watch the rotund tennis pro during his forlorn morning routine in his drab Jersey apartment. Nash is quite the sad sack — look for the poignant detail of his jigsaw piece on a sailboat puzzle, which doesn’t fit — but credit to Turkish-Canadian actor Ennis Esmer, who’s created an endearing Falstaffian character with Nash. Esmer is the veteran of lots of TV, including Blindspot, and it’s worth watching him interviewed (like here) just to see the difference between himself and the strange man he plays.
Later, Nash is also seen wooing the Jewish widow (Jessica Hecht) who we saw in episode 2 informing Getty that the club board wanted him out of the presidency. The Nash scenes are highlights of a somewhat disposable episode, featuring a we-know-where-this-is-going subplot about Wheeler turning into a SAT tutor and a rote scene of David and Skye being interrupted by David’s dad, Sam, while they’re getting busy on his couch.
We catch a glimpse of Getty’s tennis nemesis Stan Feinberg, played by former player, onetime coach of Andre Agassi and Any Murray, and Trump-caliber Twitter addict Brad Gilbert. And also another friendly face from the first season pops up: Gail (Ann Carr), the yoga instructor who David’s mom, Judy, had shared romantic chemistry with the summer before. To Judy’s obvious disappointment, Gail is pregnant — yet this subplot also has the feeling of going somewhere, perhaps predictably, yet more than worth it for Jennifer Grey’s nuanced performance as a suburban woman born again.
Sam closes out the episode with a nostalgia-squared situation, watching old 8mm home movies as Billy Joel’s “I’ve Loved These Days” blasts in the background. That’s maybe a bit too on the nose, even for the eternally lovable Richard Kind.
And one other pet peeve, which Red Oaks is surely not the first program to commit. Skye, having just returned from Paris, is depicted as a compulsive cigarette smoker, so much that her father lectures her on the dirtiness of the habit. However, talented as actress Alexandra Socha is in the part, the character is so obviously stunt smoking (and very poorly) that it calls into question why that even needs to be a plot point. No one doubts that smoking is a bad for your health — but faking it so visibly is bad for a TV show.
Episode grade: B-
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Episode 4: “The Bris”
All hail Amy Heckerling!! The forever unsung director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless helmed one of last season’s high points in comedy and imagination (“Body Swap”) and now she’s back for this episode and the next one, both little gems in the series run.
Take a tiny moment from near the end of the episode to appreciate. Sam is waiting at a bar for his blind date to arrive. He orders some poppers and cajoles the bartender to give them to him for half-price. His date arrives and spots Sam while he’s clumsily lunging for more ketchup. She smiles wistfully and instinctively turns around and leaves the restaurant before he’s seen her.
The scene is not played for laughs. If you want to feel superior to a guy like Sam, there are plenty of other TV show — plus social media — for you to look at. The creators of Red Oaks and Heckerling have a humongous heart for the gawky old buffoon. And Richard Kind’s performance turns even more poignant when Sam drinks too much and ends up humiliating himself on the karaoke mic. And if that wasn’t tender enough, Sam also acquires a cat from David’s ex Karen. Shades of John Turturro in HBO’s The Night Of, perhaps?
Elsewhere, the episode is terrific for also revealing flyaway bits of information about other easy-to-stereotype characters. Fay Getty (Gina Gershon) makes a quick reference to “my waitressing days” while telling her husband that it’s his opposition to David that makes the boy more desirable in Skye’s eyes.
This leads to a formal lunch between Getty and David in New York City and a tour of Getty’s office, where he reveals to David his fear of heights. The fascinating tension in David and Getty’s surrogate father/son relationship has always been the show’s strongest thread. If anything, Red Oaks shouldn’t have waited until episode 4 to explore it.
And of course there’s the bris of the title. You don’t have to ask Heckerling twice if she’d love to show the penile circumcision ceremony in almost graphic detail on the show, complete will razor blade sound effects to die for. Notice the nice touch of ’80s TV star Mark Linn-Baker (Perfect Strangers) as the scalpel-wielding mohel. And on the point of ’80s callbacks, credit to the show’s creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs (The Colbert Report’s Max Werner co-wrote this episode) for making the references pop.
Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters gets a shout-out, so does the Robert Redford/Debra Winger totally-’80s film Legal Eagles — which actually did open in theaters in the same week as Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, a news story mentioned a bit warily by Getty. And the episode ends with the sadly optimistic strains of Glenn Cambell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” (Sam’s karaoke song of choice) and a mention of the ice cream and food chain Friendly’s — which much like this episode, warms the heart.
Episode grade: A
NEXT: Episodes 5 and 6
Episode 5: “Independence Day”
All hail Amy Heckerling: Part 2!! The splendid, light-touch director is once again the behind the camera for another sharp, funny, quietly moving episode of Red Oaks. The show is surely happy — and lucky — to have her, but the quality of these last two episodes begs the question: Why is this woman not making feature films for major studios? Okay, so Heckerling’s career is not one slam-dunk success after another (her most recent film, 2012’s Vamps, underperformed) but that’s true for most directors. (Take a glance at how many tens of millions of dollars Ron Howard’s last two flops lost.) If Heckerling can’t get a project off the ground, that’s not about her. It’s about us. We get the filmmakers we deserve.
This episode, of course, focuses on that most spectacular of summer holidays — and the one in the year, besides probably Christmas, where you feel loneliest if you’re alone. Last season’s “Fourth of July” ended with longing glances between David and Skye. This year, they’re together, but now we see the first real fissures in their relationship as David begins to question why Skye won’t even refer to it as that.
Meanwhile, Richard Kind’s Sam gets another quintessentially great Richard Kind moment in a convenience store, where he is wide-eyed and mouth-agape with fascination at the delicious-sounding flavors of cat food. And then he asks out the woman at the register, only to be rebuffed, though the moment is once again handled by Heckerling with warmth for Sam’s feelings. (Remember that Heckerling also possesses a huge heart and lots of patience for Gilbert Gottfried.) Judy does have a date that goes well with a woman, though she also finds herself sitting next to Gail as the fireworks are busting, growing closer in friendship, if not anything else.
While nearly all the cast members of season 2 are carry-overs from season 1 — even the leather dude Ricky (Caleb Wells), who Sam met at Gail’s barbecue last July 4th — there is a refreshing new character in the form of John Hodgman’s video production manager Travis. Hodgman is a familiar face to fans of the Daily Show and his podcast (for a great example of his quickness and humor, check out this Brooklyn Academy of Music conversations with John Cleese), and this type of tricky punch-line dialogue simply works coming from him. A very funny joke about David Cronenberg, explaining why his horror film Shivers is “profoundly Canadian,” might just have been written by Hodgman himself. (Series creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs are credited here, along with Eastbound and Down‘s Shawn Harwell.)
As the fireworks begin and the episode ends, we get an expectant closeup of Misty as she’s contemplating her friendship with Wheeler, but much more meaningful and touching is the long look we get of Paul Reiser’s Getty as he sits all by himself, not even looking up at the spectacle. We wonder what he’s thinking about. Certainly about his daughter and his wife, who’s alcoholism is not treated here as a TV sitcom joke. And he’s thinking about what terrible things Rudy Giuliani is going to do to him. Join the club, dude.
But he’s also thinking about David. “It’s like The Graduate, but gay,” Wheeler hilariously says to David earlier in the episode, summarizing Getty and David’s unique and evolving relationship. We look at Reiser’s ever-familiar face and ponder these things — all the while we’re treated to OMD’s 1983 masterpiece “Of All the Things We’ve Made” from their magnificent album Dazzle Ships. “Of all the things we’re said/They’ve always worked before today.”
Episode grade: A
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Episode 6: “Old Flames”
Hal Hartley is back as director for an episode that begins with the season’s strongest and most daring opening scene, but then can’t quite maintain that momentum. In a sequence lasting four minutes — which doesn’t seem like much unless you realize that’s practically a fifth of the whole episode — Getty enters a church in downtown Manhattan and confesses his sins to a priest (Michael Cumpsty). The fact that Getty is an atheist Jew doesn’t get in the way of the spiky and nuanced writing in the scene, as he drops his guard just enough for us to see the vulnerable, frightened man underneath the bluster.
We also see Gina Gershon’s Fay Getty talking to David at the courthouse, revealing another softer side of herself while speaking about her and her husband’s humble upbringings. Gershon, who appears in eight episodes this season compared to four on the first, is the ideal actress to decode the cracks in Fay’s exterior. Though somewhat difficult to cast, she’s proven herself over three decades to be equally adept at drama (The Insider, Killer Joe), noir (Bound), action, (Face-Off), camp (Showgirls), and comedy (check out this spot-on impersonation of our First Lady on Funny or Die), and one other thing. She knows how to smoke on camera.
But the episode lumbers in other areas. As Wheeler’s hot-for-teacher SAT student, actress Juliet Brett gives off slight Barb in Stranger Things vibes, but the subplot doesn’t have much authentic pop. Neither does Skye’s segue into a David-alienating, coke-bumping party girl, or her false interaction with a mean-faced, clichéd art critic.
While Sam finds himself bittersweetly pining for his old Korean War flame Soon-Yi, David ends up kissing his ex Karen, who had conveniently come to his dad’s apartment to drop off cat toys. Richard Kind biting into a fried chicken wing and muttering, “Oh, mother of God,” though, could easily serve as a successful KFC commercial.
Red Oaks music choices are ordinarily so spot-on and deserving of a soundtrack compilation — but Hartley and company deserve a little ding here for the tune that ends this episode. Of course, there is no musically serious person in the world who doesn’t swoon over Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music’s exquisite, gorgeous, religious “More Than This.” And, of course, the temptation is overwhelming to use the song in all sorts of movies and TV. But we all know, come on guys, that Bill Murray already did it.
Episode grade: B
NEXT: Episodes 7 and 8
Episode 7: “The Anniversary”
Anarchic comedy has been in shorter supply on this second season of Red Oaks. “Body Swap” has itself been swapped for a quieter, tamer depiction of suburban discontentment and malaise. The creators perhaps realize that they’re on the same streaming provider as Transparent, and thus pivoting accordingly. And despite the quality of this season (not to mention this quite good episode), it’s an honest relief to hear the brilliant meta-joke that Wheeler makes in his car with Misty.
They’ve just seen James Cameron’s summer hit Aliens, which is playing along with these other three-decade-old titles like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the aformentioned Legal Eagles at the local multiplex.
Misty says that she won’t be able to sleep that night. “So good, right,” Wheeler says with a bounce in his seat, and then adds, hilariously, “I totally knew that Weyland Corporation dude was evil when he turned up in that tan camping vest.”
This episode focuses mostly on that evil dude in the camping vest. Getty and his wife Fay are feted at Red Oaks for their 25th wedding anniversary, which Skye come home from NYC (via taxicab) to attend. Fay’s excessive social drinking comes to a literal tipping point when she falls into the club’s pool. David helps to fish her out and drive her home. And back at the house, Getty moves his last chess piece by offering David a job at his company. This is complicated business because it seems obvious that Getty’s offer is sincere, not simply a gesture to alienate the young goofball from his daughter.
Though that works, too. In one of the season’s best dramatic scenes, David and Skye have their first real adult argument, one that shatters their relationship. “We both know it’s not tips paying your rent or your nice clothes or your taxis to the city,” David shouts (with Roberts’ Welshness slipping out ever so slightly). “It’s your daddy’s credit cards.”
Elsewhere, David’s real dad participates in the show’s sweetest subplot, which tops even his softening to his new feline friend. Sam drives to Scranton, PA (with little Gracie purring in the passenger seat), to visit his girlfriend from the Korean War days. Sam discovers that she died two years ago.
No one wears his heart on his sleeve like Richard Kind, but he doesn’t play Sam’s reaction to the sad news as crestfallen. Instead Sam, after humorously deducing that he couldn’t possibly be the father of her grown son (Raymond J. Lee), spends the afternoon bonding on the front porch with the man. Bravo to the show for down-shifting to include this lovely moment.
Episode grade: A–
Episode 8: “Lost and Found”
Preservation of memories via short videos was a very real thing even before Vine and Instagram. And so David wistfully labeling the super-8 film from his Paris trip to visit Skye kicks off this episode, which is suffused in longing for yesteryear. That’s not a surprise with indie director Gregg Araki behind the camera — a filmmaker whose best work (Mysterious Skin, The Doom Generation) has always focuses on the emotional journey of young people on the uncertain road to their future.
Araki would seem to be a nice fit for the mission statement of Red Oaks, though his auteurist approach here doesn’t gel with the episode’s ribald tone. Several scenes do play beautifully, including a graceful interaction between Sam and Judy, when the latter comes over to help out in searching for his lost cat. And there’s a very strong scene for Nash in the late minutes, as he looks out at the ocean at night and laments for the life that might have been.
But the situation’s main narrative thread is as implausible as last season’s “Body Swap,” just nowhere near as fun. Barry (Josh Meyers) recruits a crew, including David, Wheeler, Nash, and gold pro Skip (Nate Smith), to join him for a bachelor party in Atlantic City to see magician David Copperfield at the Trump Taj Mahal. High-jinks ensue when Barry falls out of Wheeler’s car while they’re all driving on the Garden State Parkway, eventually landing in and escaping from the hospital.
The goose chase for Barry doesn’t reveal much, but Araki overcompensates with an episode chock-full of swooping camera movements, pans, zooms, and more intense director-to-camera cinematic close-ups that have ever been seen on an Amazon show ever before. Perhaps for a reason.
Episode grade: B
NEXT: Episodes 9 and 10
Episode 9: “The Wedding”
Director Gregg Araki is back for much less aestheticized episode, though his challenge this time is how to generate audience interest in the nuptials of two characters that they don’t really have much investment in. And though we won’t be seeing a Karen and Barry spin-off series anytime soon, the episode of course isn’t really about them. Instead, it’s a fine opportunity to drop in on conversations between the other characters — though this is the second episode in a row without an appearance from Paul Reiser’s Getty. His absence is felt.
(In other observations, a passing reference to the wedding scene in Brian De Palma’s lurid, bonkers Scarface is too clever not to include a link here.)
Among the one-on-one highlights: David’s dance with his mom Judy, where he politely asks her not to give him any advice; Nash’s rabbinical, fate-embracing chat with Mark Linn-Baker’s Hebrew soothsayer; a plastic conversation about “soul searching” between lifeguard Steve (wedding crooner of the Stephen Bishop lite-FM hit “It Might Be You”) and a non-falling-for-it Misty; and an offer from Travis to David for a job at the public TV station.
That last one leads to a heated confrontation between David and his dad Sam, who begs his son to see clearly and accept the job offered by Getty. There’s obviously some projection of desire going on when Sam tells David, “This could set you up for a very comfortable life.” The talk escalates into “I need you to get off my f—ing back” territory.
Sam storms off, but later that night he gets a bit of good news when the convenience store clerk Agatha (Kathy Searle), first seen in episode 5, comes knocking with a surprise. Actually two, since she first returns Sam’s beloved kitty Gracie and then accepts his sweet lonely heart offer to stay for some wedding cake. “You have a heart condition,” Agatha says dejectedly, then shrugs, “I have asthma.” Nobody’s perfect!
Not David or Skye either, who finally see each other again when he visits the NYC bar where she’s working for a friendly but fraught encounter. He gives her a short film from his Paris visit eight months earlier. “Seems like a lifetime ago,” she sighs. And staring at each other in the red neon glow of the bar, they each exert just the right amount of non-energy to confirm for each other that it’s all over. If there was anything else to say, the would’ve said it.
To quote Ian McEwan, “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed — by doing nothing.”
Episode grade: B+
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Episode 10: “The Verdict”
The end of summer, as daylight shrinks shorter and a chill takes over the air, are always received with an appropriate dose of melancholy. So, too, the end of Red Oaks, which concludes with a clean but daunting slate for our young protagonist David, who faces a road much less certain than he did at this time last summer.
In the final moment of this season capper — and maybe a series capper, depending on Amazon’s plans — director David Gordon Green captures the sense of anticipation and poetry as the jobless David emerges from a café into the streets of Manhattan. He turned down both job offers from Getty and Travis and is scanning the trade papers for help wanted ads. On the soundtrack: the great 1983 cheering anthem “I Still Believe (The Great Design)” by ’80s and ’90s band the Call.
And that’s not even the best moment of this finale, which is quality all the way through but peaks early with a wonderfully written scene (credit series creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs one last time) between Paul Reiser’s Getty and Richard Kind’s Sam, David’s two fathers who naturally are overly polite and a bit cautious in each other’s company. The setting (symbolism alert) is the waiting room of a doctor’s office — and the subject of both man’s mortality is on the coffee table along with expired magazines.
Both men are going to be okay: Sam, whose bad heart is exacerbated by his painful divorce and even Getty, who finds out a few scenes later that he’s been found guilty in his insider trading trial. Nash, too, treated to a yacht party for his birthday, is also going to figure out a way to manage as he enters his 40s. And Wheeler, off to study in the Ivy Leagues despite catching the girl of his dreams, is seeing a road where there wasn’t even a path before.
The question mark about David is so perfectly open ended that you’d almost flinch to see his journey explored any further. Certainly if Gangemi and Jacobs wanted to close with a more classic cliffhanger, they would have written him to accept either of the two jobs offered. But perhaps — here’s the point — there’s something even more exciting and intriguing and unpredictable out there in the dirty, crazy New York City. And the world. Red Oaks: Season 2 came along at exactly the right time to remind us that, no matter how freaky the future looks, everything’s gonna be alright.