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Review: Amazon goes retro with ’80s-set country club comedy ‘Red Oaks’

Senior Television Writer
10.08.15 5 Comments

Amazon

If any man alive has the right to argue for TV's recent ascension over movies, it would be David Chase. But “The Sopranos” creator has never seen it that way, telling me a few years ago that the only obvious advantage he thinks TV has is that “there”s more of it, and you can get into more detail. I guess maybe this is what it comes down to: in a television show, you can spend a lot of money on very little small things about people.”

That ability to expand stories and drill down on characters has always been TV's greatest strength, but it's been particularly obvious with the migration of indie filmmakers to TV over the last few years. Shows like “Transparent,” “Girls,” “Togetherness,” and Hulu's new “Casual” could have easily been made into 90-minute movies that played the festival circuit; instead, we get longer versions that really take their time exploring the characters and their stories, in a way that feels richer than the feature version that premiered at Sundance probably would have.

Amazon's “Red Oaks” doesn't quite fit into that same category, even though its 10-episode first season (I've watched them all; they'll start streaming tomorrow) features episodes directed by David Gordon Green, Amy Heckerling, and Hal Hartley, is produced by Steven Soderbergh, and co-created (along with Joe Gangemi) by Soderbergh's longtime assistant director (who stepped into the top job for “Magic Mike XXL”) Gregory Jacobs.

Despite that roster of talent behind the scenes, it's not a quirky dramedy about Angelenos experiencing deep existential ennui, but an homage to '80s summer movie comedies like “The Flamingo Kid” and “Caddyshack” (tonally, more the former than the latter), suggesting what those films might have been like if they had five hours to play with to follow their young heroes as they moved through the lavish country club world.

While it's entertaining throughout (particularly if one has distinct memories of both the era and the specific films in question), it doesn't add up to quite as much as some of those other series do. Jacobs, Gangemi and company do a good job structuring each episode to have either its own story or some kind of event (summer, it turns out, has many occasions that lend themselves well to this) to make them function as standalone entertainment, even if the accumulation of incident doesn't suggest by the end that this story was better served as a TV show than it might have been as a film.

Our man here is NYU student David (Welsh actor Craig Roberts, so great in “Submarine”), son of middle-class Jersey parents (played by Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey, whose presence is a hat-tip to yet another '80s resort film in “Dirty Dancing”), trying to raise money to get an apartment in the city by spending the summer of '85 as a tennis pro at Red Oaks, a local country club with a wealthy (and predominantly Jewish) clientele. David's girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly) and pot-dealing best friend Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) already work at the club, and the place offers a pair of potential mentors in Nash (Ennis Esmer), a veteran of the professional tennis circuit (he boasts of having played against a very young Jimmy Connors) using his position to get frequent tastes of the good life, and Getty (Paul Reiser), a Wall Street big shot serving as the club's president.

David's parents and Karen all picture him following his father into the accounting field, settling down here in the suburbs and perhaps joining Red Oaks himself one day. David, who doesn't say much(*), seems to have other plans, and this eventful summer starts pushing him towards those and away from what his family wants.

(*) Some of his laconic nature seems fitting for a character who struggles to articulate what he wants out of life. But some of it just seems a way of covering for Roberts' difficulty in maintaining an American accent in anything but the softest of tones.

So we follow not only David's assimilation into Getty's world – and perhaps into the heart of Getty's rebellious daughter Skye (Alexandra Socha) – but troubles in his parents' marriage, Wheeler's pursuit of his longtime crush Misty (Alexandra Turshen), Karen's flirtation with club photographer Barry (Josh Meyers, going very Wooderson), and Nash's attempts to make a buck and convince the club members to look at him as anything but the hired help. All those subplots help fill all the extra time, and are certainly more complex than they would be in a “Red Oaks” movie. (Grey and, especially, Kind, are wonderful – between this and “Inside Out,” Kind is having a hell of a year straddling the line between comedy and tragedy.)

It's the battle of David's soul, and future, that feels least-suited to this elongated approach. The season (particularly if watched all in one burst) begins to feel repetitive in that area by the second half. The creative team seems to have recognized that as well, because things get even more amusingly referential in the second half just to fill time. There's an episode called “Body Swap” that, when I saw its name in the DVD menu, I assumed was going to be some kind of metaphor for how two of the characters wish they had each other's lives, but no: it is an honest-to-God body swapping episode, which is both the season's funniest installment and its most tonally out of keeping with all the others. (The swap also does wonders for Roberts, who becomes much more verbally dextrous when he's playing another character in David's body.) The next episode isn't quite as insane as that, but it's still called “After Hours,” and loosely modeled after the Scorsese movie released in the same year in which “Red Oaks” takes place.

The whole story comes nicely full-circle by the end, and all the hijinks and heartbreak are accompanied by a fine soundtrack of '80s tunes that haven't been overplayed in other period movies. It's fun (if only occasionally of the laugh out loud variety), and if Amazon makes more of it, I'll happily watch. But it's so obviously modeled on movies of the '80s that I kept waiting for the moment when “Red Oaks” turned into more than the sum of its individual episodes, and outside of the parent subplot, it never really got there.

Soderbergh has shifted his focus entirely to television (his engrossing Cinemax drama “The Knick” is back next week), and has talked about how the movie business has become too “fear based” for most of the projects he wants to do. You can imagine a studio head giving a hard pass to a retro film in the vein of “The Flamingo Kid,” whereas in the Wild West that is Peak TV in America, some outfit will always be happy to get into business with Soderbergh and his people. They've made a show good enough to be worth Amazon's investment, but one that hasn't yet fully taken advantage of the things TV can do better than movies.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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