This summer, everyone who knew what a streaming service was talked about Stranger Things, a show both praised and criticized because of its setting in and dedication to the 1980s. Depending on who you asked, the Netflix hit was either a loving tribute or derivative, cashing in on ever popular nostalgia. And at a time when streaming shows tend to have a shorter shelf life than the non-bingeable, it was still nearly impossible to go to a Halloween party this year without running into an Eleven or two (or 11).
While Stranger Things captured the pop culture zeitgeist, Red Oaks, another streaming ’80s pastiche that beat Stranger Things to the punch by nine months, was less of a conversation starter. There’s a few reasons for that. Red Oaks isn’t as sexy as Stranger Things, whose first season is fueled by a fantastical mystery. Stranger Things was conceived to feel like an eight-hour movie, so episodes structurally always ended on a cliffhanger. And, of course, Stranger Things heralded the return of Winona Ryder, while Red Oaks touted the return of Paul Reiser.
Although the shows are bonded by a time period and little else, it still feels like a shame that Red Oaks didn’t get what felt like a fraction of the same attention Stranger Things did—though this is anecdotal, considering that there are no viewership numbers to compare—especially because the second season of Red Oaks builds so nicely on what the first season laid out. It’s a more assured show this time around, not so rigidly forced to continue to follow the template of ’80s comedies and coming-of-age fare. Like the last season, what elevates Red Oaks beyond a simple nostalgia trip is the behind-the-camera talent, from heavy-hitting executive producers like Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green to its stable of directors, which includes Green, Hal Hartley, and Amy Heckerling. Red Oaks looks great, and its directors have done a fabulous job crafting a unique visual language for their story from the first episode on.
One of the great things about the movies that Red Oaks pays tribute to is that they end on notes of possibility and hope. The happy ending has been achieved, but what happens to these people after, say Lloyd Dobler gets on the plane with Diane Court or John Bender raises his arm in triumph? In our heart of hearts, we want to believe the path to true love runs smoothly, but the story would inevitably go on and Diane Court may not be so happy that this kid she barely knows tagged along with her to a foreign country.
That idea of what comes next is the real jumping-off point for Red Oaks’ second season. Skye (Alexandra Socha) is living and studying in Paris when David (Craig Roberts) comes to meet her. When he gets out of the cab at her apartment, she gives him that look of pure euphoria and longing that’s familiar to anyone who’s seen enough of this cinematic genre. Life has progressed, even though we are not around to witness it. David’s dad, Sam (Richard Kind), has lost his accounting firm; David has lost his spot at NYU; and Sam and Judy (Jennifer Grey) are separated. The happy, and hopeful, ending promised for David—the girlfriend, the film school spot, the apartment in the city—are no longer within his grasp, and he has to cope with it.
David’s relationship with Skye has deepened, but their problems have similarly become more concrete. While the difference in their class—David’s parents struggled financially throughout the first season, while Skye was the quintessential spoiled artist—was explored previously, the second season looks at how class is not just a surface issue for these two but also a defining part of how they view the world. Skye has the ability to go live in Paris, to rent an apartment in the city, to take risks that David can’t. But she doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—see it that way: What she sees in David is someone who refuses to take a risk for his art or himself. Skye has the luxury of being an artist; David doesn’t have any luxury at all, and that’s what’s stopping him from being anything other than the tennis pro who can shoot a nice bris. Class, and its effects, hung at the fringes of many ’80s teen comedies—particularly the films of John Hughes, who visited these ideas in Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Some Kind Of Wonderful. But such discussions of class were just as much character descriptors as they were actual issues in the movie. Red Oaks has a luxury that Hughes did not. It has the time to ask, “What comes next?”
It’s not like Red Oaks has gotten heavy, though. It’s still decidedly light, and its side plots this season serve largely as comedic set pieces for affable support players. The most memorable remains Paul Reiser, who continues to turn in a nuanced performance as Getty. At one point, he takes David out to lunch and points at all the financial guys dining at the same steakhouse, reminding David consistently that they drive cars that cost more than his parents’ house. He brings him up to his office, where the first thing he points out is his name in giant letters in the entrance. This is Getty’s house, and David best remember that. But then his secretary walks in: Getty’s lawyers are there to discuss an indictment. Getty’s face drops. He’s spent a day intimidating David, reminding him why he’s inherently better than the young man dating his daughter, without ever actually saying anything. And with five words, he’s proven wrong. It’s scenes like these that make Red Oaks more than just a pastiche. It’s a sweet, well-made show. It may not dominate the conversation of the internet, but it’s certainly worth talking about.