The maddening thing about “Red Oaks” is that it’s not all bad. If it were, it would be easier to dismiss it. But the Amazon Studios comedy, which debuted today, is executed with a lot of flair and sophistication--a nearly deceptive amount of sophistication, really. One of the biggest tells of prestige television is just how much money has been spent on the production, and “Red Oaks” has the recognizable names and high production values to prove its pedigree. Richard Kind, Jennifer Grey, and Paul Reiser are in the main cast; attached producers and directors include Steven Soderbergh and Amy Heckerling. And the setting—Red Oaks, a Jewish country club in suburban New Jersey in 1985—is meticulously rendered, with the kind of attention to detail that only the familiar view of hindsight can deliver. Walkmen, VHS tapes, big hair, blue eyeshadow, aerobics and a thorough misunderstanding of the dangers of date rape: “Red Oaks” offers the whole nine yards of ’80s minutiae, in an appealing and approachable format.
The problem is that “Red Oaks” is only minutiae, really. It’s a love letter to the ’80s, with all the aimless sentimentality and wishful thinking that the medium implies. Because the Amazon Studios model is to drop every episode at once, the 10 episodes of “Red Oaks” are less like a traditional sitcom and more like a long, meandering movie, split into bite-sized chunks. This feeds into “Red Oaks'” backwards glances, too; “Red Oaks” feels like mash-up of “Dirty Dancing,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Say Anything” and “Pretty in Pink.” Just to seal the deal, Jennifer Grey—a star of two of those films—is a series regular for “Red Oaks,” and Alexandra Socha, another regular, is a dead ringer for Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club”(albeit playing a role that is essentially Molly Ringwald's character in “The Breakfast Club”). Music rights for the era appear to have been too expensive to purchase, but otherwise “Red Oaks” is pitched and lobbed directly to whatever algorithm suggests John Hughes movies, in rapid succession, as you comb through streaming options.
The series follows David Myers (Craig Roberts), an awkward-but-not-too-awkward NYU sophomore who has taken a summer job teaching tennis at Red Oaks. His girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly) leads the aerobics classes; his stoner friend Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) works valet. It being a country club—and David still being quite young—“Red Oaks” is populated with weirdos of every stripe. Such as: the “artist” who takes an interest in “photographing” Karen; David’s out-of-touch mom and dad; the filthy-rich club president; and, of course, the club president’s untouchable, damaged and alluring daughter, Skye. [This is Socha—who in addition to behaving like Claire from "The Breakfast Club," and looking like Sheedy, has a name that sounds awfully familiar to fans of “Say Anything.”]
Roberts as David is a serviceable hero, in that he’s mostly a blank slate; the only characteristic he seems to have, besides being good at tennis, is being interested in filmmaking. (I wonder if any of the show’s producers identify with David.) The narrative, such as it is, follows the arc of the summer, as David fools around with Karen, falls for Skye, wins the respect of Skye’s father (Paul Reiser) and comes to terms with his parents’ loveless marriage (played with typical dramedy by Richard Kind and Grey). There are times where the sophistication of the show creates sublime little juxtapositions—for example, there’s an episode where two different sets of people go on dates, and the half-hour offers us two parallel nights on the town without making much of a fuss about the device. And especially with some of the minor characters, like Wheeler, Karen, and Nash (Ennis Esmer), “Red Oaks” offers a rich sympathy that neither apologizes for nor judges them as they go on adventures David barely knows about.
But mostly, the story is scattered and unfulfilling—a portrait of youth that doesn’t quite go anywhere, a collection of disjointed vignettes that follow nearly every predictable story beat in cinema. It has a lived-in quality that draws in the viewer—but once there, the furniture turns out to be covered in plastic, shrink-wrapped against the encroaching forces of time. “Red Oaks” is mired in nostalgia, both carefully rendered and just as carefully unconsidered. It’s comfort food for a certain class of individuals—the individuals, probably, that Amazon hopes to reach with “Red Oaks.” But the show offers merely an airless hall full of mirrors; there is no vision or thematic content to this show aside from scene-setting. “Red Oaks” is just reflected memories and the vague outlines of coming-of-age movies.
This is most apparent in the way the show treats its female characters. It seems quaint to drag the term “male gaze” out of the film theory classroom, but I cannot think of a more perfect example than “Red Oaks,” which was created by and is largely produced by men. “Red Oaks”’ female characters are interesting, but the show struggles to give them interiority; they are all just about licking their lips while running around in their swimsuits and leotards, and it’s all the camera can do to listen while they talk. Each one of the female characters is tangled in a relationship with a man or men who are not as chivalrous or heroic as the main characters—pretty lifeguard Misty (Alexandra Turshen) is with a jock who doesn’t pay attention to her; Skye has several toxic flirtations with older men; Karen is too credulous of the advances of lecherous photographer Barry (Josh Meyers), who is after her to “pose” for him. The camera watches, with barely concealed indignation, as these women are ensnared by these men; the camera waits, with barely concealed impatience, until they see the error of their ways and embrace the nice guys. (David is the nice guy for both Karen and Skye; Wheeler is the nice guy for Misty.)
Even David’s mom—Judy, played by Grey—is stuck in a weird, sad relationship. The pilot introduces the Myers family in the midst of father Sam’s heart attack. It’s minor, but it forces everyone to reevaluate. As he’s collapsing, Sam tells David that he’s always believed Judy to be bisexual, or a lesbian. This is then left to percolate, uncomfortably, for the next several episodes, until barely becoming a C-plot late in the season. Judy’s appreciably repressed and kooky, but there’s still something so painful and strange about the plot point—as if it is supposed to be funny, when it feels anything but. Indeed—to bring out another dusty term from the film theory classroom—I don’t think “Red Oaks” passes the Bechdel test. If it does, it’s mere seconds against what is a five-hour series. There is a glass wall past which the show does not even attempt to pass; I got the impression it would be too much of a distraction from the main purpose of “Red Oaks,” which is to manufacture nostalgia.
It’s not that I don’t understand it. Our happy memories of the past are a security blanket; even some sadder ones can be looked back on fondly as difficulties now surmounted. When you’re 20, the world looks quite different than it does at 40, or 50, or 60. It’s not for nothing that David’s most formative conversations happen with his father or Skye’s father; “Red Oaks” is at least partly about being the same age as your parents once were, and remembering what they tried to teach you.
But nostalgia is not just an emotional refuge. In the scope of a story, it is—like everything else!—a political act. There is so much casual exclusion and marginalization in “Red Oaks”—so many dropped threads that could have challenged the characters and the audience with a little more courage. The way we tell the stories of our past is fundamental to the way we think about our present and our future; that is at the root of America’s divide between red and blue. “Red Oaks” paints a past that is just a closed-ended cocoon for some man’s injured feelings. I have come to expect more complexity from television.