Amazon’s Red Oaks Is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

Craig Roberts (left) and Paul Reiser in Red Oaks. Photo: Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios

Amazon’s new comedy Red Oaks is so likable, I wish I liked it more.

Overseen by filmmaker David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), with episodes directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Hal Hartley (Trust), and Gregory Jacobs (Magic Mike XXL), it's about an incoming college sophomore named David (Craig Roberts of Submarine), who spends the summer of 1985 working as an assistant tennis pro at Red Oaks, a New Jersey country club with a mostly Jewish clientele. Like the main character of another current ’80s comedy, ABC's The Goldbergs, David wants to be a filmmaker, an ambition that contradicts the wishes of his father, Sam (Richard Kind), who suffers a (thankfully not too severe) heart attack in the pilot's first scene and spends the rest of the series recovering. "There are a lot of wealthy people who are gonna remember you down the road when they pay you to do their taxes," he tells David, which doesn't set the young Scorsese wannabe's own heart racing. 

At the club, David hangs out with his girlfriend, Karen (Gage Golightly), and his wisecracking, weed-dealing best friend, Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), and drifts into the orbit of assorted potential mentors. These include the tennis pro Nash (Ennis Esmer), David's boss, whose main claim to fame is that he beat Jimmy Connors when Connors was 12, and Getty (Paul Reiser), a snarling yuppie stockbroker whose first line of dialogue in the series is a terse order to Wheeler, who's parking his sports car: "Don't park it in the sun, or under a tree, or any place where a bird can shit on it." David worries that Karen, an aerobics instructor, is spending a little bit too much time around the resident photographer, Barry (Josh Meyers, channeling Wooderson-era Matthew McConaughey), a mustachioed stud who says, "Capisce?" instead of, "Got it?" and brings her Orange Juliuses without being asked. Fortunately, there's a potential non-Karen romance in the offing, courtesy of Skye (Alexandra Socha), who smokes, gives everyone the side-eye, has short hair, and paints men in the nude in her studio. David's father returns home but takes up smoking again, and his dissatisfied mother, Judy, seems increasingly trapped, even suffocated by their marriage; Sam muttered a lot of things when he collapsed on the tennis court, including that his wife is probably really bisexual or a lesbian, and right away you wonder if there's something to that. (Judy is played by Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing; wouldn't it be weird if this show were set in 1987 and the family went to see Dirty Dancing?)

Red Oaks doesn't have a whole lot in the way of plot, and I don't get the feeling it's pretending that it does. But season one (which I've seen most of) still feels repetitive, even if you factor that in — and after a while the repetitiveness goes through a curious cycle, at first seeming rather endearing (the show is set during a summer vacation among upper-middle-class-to-rich people, anyway, so how thrilling could it be?) but ultimately becoming frustrating, as you watch David get pulled into a series of moral tests that aren't all that testing, involving stakes that aren't that big, and settling on more or less the same epiphanies. Red Oaks gets subtler and then wilder as it goes along — a body-swapping episode late in the season is so good, and so unlike the rest of the show, that you might wish it had come earlier, and that the entire show had demonstrated that level of invention.

And yet, like a lot of shows that would seem to have everything going for them but don't quite jell, I suspect the problem here is that Red Oaks is a story better suited to a stand-alone film, or perhaps a much shorter one-season series, and feels needlessly protracted when stretched out.

After a certain point you realize that, as a viewer, you're mainly just sitting on the sidelines at Red Oaks country club, watching well-off white people smoke pot and have sex and indulge in light banter. As amusing as that could be in limited doses, it wears out its welcome quickly if you want something to, you know, happen. The characterizations are a bit thin as well. Sam and Judy never seem like much more than their plot predicaments, David remains a smart but rather hapless ingenue in the Benjamin Braddock–Joel Goodman mode, and all of the women, more so than the men, come across as projections of male anxiety and desire rather than complete individuals, which might not matter as much in a knockabout sitcom but matters a great deal here. Skye, in particular, never feels lived-in, despite the best efforts of the actress who plays her. She's a bundle of characteristics in search of a personality — she could be Mary Stuart Masterson's character in Some Kind of Wonderful by way of an old-before-her-age Mrs. Robinson, saying things like, "I don't date," with a world-weary air — and she sports a name that, like many touches in Red Oaks, is an homage to the '80s coming-of-age genre. There's too much self-aware dialogue that positions itself as dialogue — characters introducing their motivational speech by saying they're about to make a motivational speech, and that sort of thing; it might be fine if we were watching something like Community or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, but the more naturalistic filmmaker here is at odds with that kind of approach, and the tension between the tone of the writing and performances and that of the direction never resolves in a satisfying way. Many episodes peak with cross-cut montages scored to '80s pop hits that suggest deep, meaningful connections between subplots but never deliver, and end up feeling merely busy.

There's a gently mocking sensibility in some of the comedy bits, and it's quite pleasing. And the performances settle into a nice, relaxed groove, particularly Reiser’s, whose character at first seems too much of a one-note money-grubbing caricature of the ’80s jerk but develops more shadings in time. Still, Red Oaks shouldn't be at the top of anyone's list of must-sees, and it might reignite the arguments among David Gordon Green's growing fan club as to what, exactly, he wants out of cinema. He started out making slightly dreamy dramas and romances like George Washington and All the Real Girls, which were strongly influenced by ’70s masters like Terrence Malick; then, with Pineapple Express and Your Highness, he took an unexpectedly lucrative left turn into proudly dumb, slobby comedies, not unlike the ones he probably gorged on as a teen back in the ’80s. Red Oaks often feels like an attempt to reconcile those influences, but it doesn't work, maybe because it's not possible, or maybe because the idea of stretching out Caddyshack to ten episodes seems so weird on its face that any show that tries to do it had better bring more invention than Red Oaks can provide.