We’re in an interesting place in TV right now with half-hour series. There are still your traditional multi-camera sitcoms like Big Bang Theory, and your straight ahead single-camera comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or Broad City. But a lot of what the business is doing in a format that used to be considered exclusively the province of comedy — to the point where Emmy rules classify any half-hour show there — has gotten a lot weirder and harder to classify.
There are a lot of shows that are essentially half-hour dramas, like a Transparent or a Casual. They have their funny moments — just like hour-long dramas like Mad Men or The Wire would — but they’re ultimately serious of purpose. There’s a surprising new wave of multi-camera sitcoms — led by Mom, and followed more recently by Netflix’s The Ranch and the upcoming One Day at a Time remake — that are presented like a Big Bang or Friends and feature lots of big and broad humor, but that are most interesting, and effective, when the story and characters take a turn for the dramatic. And there are all the descendants of Louie, from Girls to Better Things and Atlanta, that constantly change shape and genre however they choose, so that any given episode can be about anyone or anything even tangentially related to the show, and can be heartfelt or hilarious in any given week, without warning. And there are rare, miraculous shows like BoJack Horseman that manage to be side-splitting and tear-jerking often within the same scene.
But the majority of today’s more interesting half-hours tend to be stronger at one end of the comedy/drama divide than the other. Casual has its sillier, more satirical moments, for instance, but is inevitably at its best as a sad character study, while Veep can certainly do small character moments well but lives up to its fullest potential when its characters are slinging profane insults at each other.
All of which is a roundabout way of getting us to Amazon’s ’80s nostalgia series Red Oaks, whose second season debuted last month. It both fits into the current amorphous nature of TV “comedy” and stands apart from the others, in that it’s extremely watchable and likable — especially, I suspect, if you’re of the age to remember both the actual 1980s and the various films of the decade the show pays homage to — without being particularly strong at either the comedy or drama side of things. I enjoy barreling through it each season, even as I find myself wishing it was much funnier and/or went deeper into either the characters or the stakes of their lives.
Season 2 found its young tennis pro hero David (Craig Roberts) still struggling to find a direction for his life, with the added complication of being in a relationship with his season 1 crush Skye (Alexandra Socha), much to the chagrin of her father — and David’s sometime-mentor — Doug Getty (Paul Reiser). We traveled to Paris for an episode — which also gave us a glimpse of winter on a show that, due to its Jersey country club location, is meant to take place in summer — went into courtrooms a few time as Getty was put on trial for insider trading, and even took a road trip for the bachelor party of Wooderson-esque photographer Barry (Josh Meyers). But while characters’ circumstances changed — David’s buddy Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) tried to both start a tutoring business and become a serious romantic possibility for Misty (Alexandra Turshen), while fellow tennis pro Nash (Ennis Esmer, always having the most fun on the show) pondered converting to Judaism so he could wed one of the club’s wealthy widowed members — emotionally there was too often a sense of running in place. David in particular is a cipher by design, which allows other characters to project their own visions of the future onto him, but makes him a less-than-compelling central character the longer the story continues.
Every now and then, the second season rose above the level of pleasant diversion, particularly in its depiction of David’s father Sam (the great Richard Kind) adjusting to life after divorce, and trying to recalibrate his expectations for what’s to come. (This also led to a lovely reunion between former Mad About You co-stars Kind and Reiser as David’s actual father and his surrogate one met and talked about the challenges of parenting and aging.) But a lot of the time, it’s getting by more on its easygoing vibe and the charms of its cast than on anything it’s attempting to do as comedy, drama, or even simple character study. It’s just appealing enough to keep going once I’ve started, especially with the ease of the streaming interface, even though it’s hard to shake the feeling that too often, it’s just… there.
But that very averageness makes it oddly exceptional in today’s TV landscape. Most half-hours have some area or tool they’re particularly good at — or at least that they aspire to be good at — where Red Oaks fits more of the old baseball analytics definition of a replacement-level ballplayer: it does everything just well enough to be useful, but doesn’t really excel at any one thing.
It can be easy to look at the modern state of TV comedy and make like Homer Simpson watching Garrison Keillor:
But a lot of that frustration can be blamed more on how shows get classified — as SNL mocked in its ad about an Emmy-baiting, Transparent-esque depressing “comedy” — than on what they are. Red Oaks doesn’t really rise to the level of some of the other recent hybrid half-hours. But if Amazon decides to take a third trip back to the ’80s next year, I imagine I’ll watch again, even as I’ll keep wishing it could be funnier, or more poignant, or both.
And, if nothing else, it serves as a useful yardstick for classifying TV’s other half-hours: Is it funnier than Red Oaks? Put it over there! Is it more emotional than Red Oaks? Put it over here! Is it better at both? Way over there!
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com