The 1980s is an easy decade to lampoon: Simply uttering period-specific phrases like “shoulder pads,” “DeLorean Motor Company,” and “presidential candidate Walter Mondale” should earn a few light chuckles of recognition. Pushing past the easy jokes about garish fashions and outdated pop music is the tough part. In 2001, Wet Hot American Summer proved it was possible to tell Skylab jokes and bring a renewed sense of absurdity to the ’80s; in 2015, David Wain and Michael Showalter showed they could pull that trick off a second time with Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp. Though the new Amazon series Red Oaks doesn’t share WHAS’ surrealist sensibilities, both draw from similar sources of inspiration. Each descends from the lineage of snobs-versus-slobs and gross-out comedies that conquered box offices and video stores in the ’80s, though Red Oaks is more direct in its homage. Witness the staffers-only kegger that takes over the Red Oaks Country Club in the pilot episode, a party fueled by beer, weed, and nudity that would make the makers of Caddyshack, Stripes, and Porky’s proud.
But the ’80s was also the decade of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin, and the collected works of John Hughes, films that cast youthful indiscretions in a bittersweet light—a light that shines all over Red Oaks and its protagonist, David Meyers (Craig Roberts). A bridge-and-tunnel NYU student on his summer break, David begins his tenure as Red Oaks’ assistant tennis pro shortly after watching his father (Richard Kind) suffer a heart attack. The party atmosphere of the David Gordon Green-directed pilot swiftly gives way to a frank coming-of-age story, in which David struggles with not knowing what he wants to do after college, not knowing if his girlfriend (Gage Golightly as the club’s aerobics instructor, Karen) is the right woman for him, and not knowing if his parents (Jennifer Grey and Kind) will still be together at the end of the summer. Meanwhile, he fosters a connection with club president Getty (Paul Reiser) and his daughter Skye (Alexandra Socha), the latter of whom harbors artistic ambitions, just like aspiring filmmaker David. It’s some heavy stuff with occasional leavening, like the exploits of David’s smarmy boss (Ennis Esmer as tennis pro Nash) or an unexpected mid-season detour into body-swap comedy.
In effect, Red Oaks acts as an antidote to the feel-good fantasies that filled the multiplexes in the ’80s and went on to live eternal afterlives in cable repeats. Operating within the “one long movie” school of binge-ready streaming series, Red Oaks’ summer-long arc has enough space to depict David and friends’ personal highs, their crushing lows, and the small-town mundanities that Ferris Bueller didn’t have to stop and look around for. Significant screen time is devoted to the small-time drug operations of David’s burnout buddy Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), who moves from dime bags to eight-balls as part of his attempt to woo kindhearted lifeguard Misty (Alexandra Turshen). But with a nearly five-hour run time at its disposal, the first season can also pause to show why Wheeler might’ve sought this additional source of income in the first place, beginning one episode with a cold open where he plays kitchen-counter traffic cop to otherwise unsupervised siblings (plus a grandmother and a dog).
While extending an enormous amount of sympathy to its characters, the first season only skims the surfaces of their interpersonal dramas. Romantic entanglements feel more like the Red Oaks staff and members glancing off one another; any potential love connection between David and Skye is seemingly scuttled when Skye smooches an older man in episode two, but that’s brushed aside in a quick exchange one episode later. The narrative framework of Red Oaks could use some time in Karen’s aerobics studio: Throughlines like David saving up for a place in New York City or Nash playing the stock market thread the episodes together, but don’t make for taut storytelling. Appropriate to the summertime setting, the events of the season play out in a relaxed, meandering fashion, which softens the impact when the emotional blows finally land. A subplot about Mrs. Meyers questioning her sexuality is so wishy-washy, it hardly appears to be a factor in her fraying marriage.
But those shortcomings make Red Oaks an ideal match for the directorial talent it assembles. With David Gordon Green and Amy Heckerling helming three episodes apiece, more than half the season is placed in the hands of filmmakers whose command of performance, character, and tone can excuse the loosest of plotting. Following Transparent and Mozart In The Jungle, Red Oaks shows Amazon as a place where the texture and rhythms of independent film can seep into episodic TV—even more so than the cable network that started out as the television arm of indie’s snowbound crown jewel. That lack of polish hurts Red Oaks in the areas that typically suck viewers into a TV series, but that makes its main setting feel that much more alive and authentic. Maybe the big moments and the cliffhangers aren’t supposed to be big moments and cliffhangers, because we’re far more likely to remember the small things: Sneaking off to the city after work, listening to Roxy Music’s Avalon on a borrowed cassette, furtive glances between fireworks.
Red Oaks works best as someone’s reconstructed memories of a time that didn’t really happen. The 1980s weren’t a John Hughes movie, but they weren’t David Meyers’ summer at Red Oaks Country Club, either, and neither of those things is a 100 percent accurate depiction of what it’s like to be young at any point in history. The truth lies somewhere in between, in the ineffable elements that Red Oaks absolutely nails. The show takes place in a world where lives are as planned out as a country club’s summer itinerary, but it’s smart enough to see through that illusion. Growing up isn’t a progression from childhood to adolescence to college to marriage and beyond—and Red Oaks acknowledges this, by placing its wedding episode before the bar mitzvah one. And even after that, David has some maturing to do.
Reviews by Molly Eichel will run every other day through October 28