'Red Oaks': TV Review

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Craig Roberts, Paul Reiser and Richard Kind shine.

Come for the '80s nostalgia, stay for the body swap episode and Hal Hartley.

ABC's hit Wednesday comedy The Goldbergs is fueled by a very general and all-encompassing nostalgia for the 1980s. It's about name-dropping the pop culture, politics and technology that made the decade amusing or awesome or awful.

Premiering its 10-episode first season entirely on Friday (Oct. 9), Amazon's Red Oaks is set in the 1980s and has ample love for Back to the Future and Walkmen and vintage sports cars, but more than just honoring a selection of decade-specific references, Red Oaks has its heart in nostalgia for nostalgia itself. So while the country club comedy is doubtlessly inspired by Caddyshack, it's far more a period piece emulating those backwards-looking 1980s comedies that were themselves reflections on allegedly simpler times from years past, things like The Flamingo Kid, but also Porky's, Losin' It and many more.

For storytellers today, the simpler pre-cell phones, pre-Internet, pre-9/11 days of the early 1980s are as distant as the pre-Vietnam, pre-Kennedy assassination, pre-Civil Rights Movement days of the 1950s and early 1960s were in the 1980s — and they can be used for similar reflections on the relative innocence of growing up, for same-as-it-ever-was meditations on class, sex and love.

Red Oaks is also nostalgic for the sort of stories that were generally told in movie form, so it's occasionally a bit disappointing that with five hours to tell their coming-of-age tale, creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs still have trouble servicing all of their characters and justifying their very conventional arc. But the affection for the genre and for the period still carry the day.

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One of the best received of Amazon's August 2014 pilots, Red Oaks features Craig Roberts as David, a college student facing a formative summer working as a tennis instructor at a ritzy New Jersey country club in 1985. David is about to be intimidated and mentored by the club's president (Paul Reiser), befriended by Turkish club pro Nash (Ennis Esmer) and pulled between affections for longtime girlfriend and legwarmer enthusiast Karen (Gage Golightly) and by mysterious rich girl Skye (Alexandra Socha). Meanwhile, David's middle class parents (Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey) are going through changes themselves, as they face middle age and truths about mortality and sexuality.

Gangemi and Jacobs have removed a lot of the extremes that make The Flamingo Kid, with blue collar kid Matt Dillon torn between polarized father figures played by Hector Elizondo and Richard Crenna, so potent. David isn't blue collar, he's just heading toward a career in accounting rather than finance, so rather than a choice between invariably corrupt wealth and invariably salt-of-the-earth poverty, there's only minor conflict. He's not torn between anything, so his choices have low stakes. The same is true with his romantic options, where even with 10 episodes to work with, Karen is a flatly bland character and Skye is a superficially dynamic character.

The show is littered with characters who seem interesting but serve no purpose. Why cast Gina Gershon as the wife to Reiser's character if you aren't going to use her? And it's full of good characters whose relationships are mentioned but rarely shown. Burnout valet Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) and unobtainable lifeguard goddess Misty (Alexandra Turshen) have a cute flirtation, but people keep talking about Oliver and David as best friends when they rarely interact, and it happens that that's a dynamic that David really misses here. But maybe these are things that a second season would address?

For the purposes of the first season, Red Oaks works largely because even though Welsh actor Roberts isn't doing anything resembling a Jersey (or even American) accent, he's a perfect Everyman lead, with more than a touch of Young Dustin Hoffman-style befuddlement. The love story that's supposed to be the spine of the show never really gains heat, but Roberts' varied interplay with Reiser, Esmer and Kind keeps the show going. Esmer is particularly valuable because the Turkish-born Canadian actor is able to go comedically broad in a way that lets the other actors around him stay grounded, but remain funny, a capacity that mustache-sporting Josh Meyers also fills. Reiser relishes adding a little darkness to the imperious Getty and he also provides a valuable thematic tie to Diner, perhaps the best of those backwards-looking 1980s comedies. And Kind, always so valuable in film and TV cameos or guest work, is the best he's been since A Serious Man, a reminder that as good as he is at comedy, he's perhaps even better when he has a big enough part to add dramatic nuance.

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Kind and Roberts are both especially good in the season's standout seventh episode, titled "Body Swap," which is an honest-to-God, half-hour Amy Heckerling-directed fit of whimsy in the vein of Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son and Freaky Friday. If the expansion in length from film to TV doesn't always add more depth, it gives opportunities for flights of fancy like "Body Swap" or the loose Scorsese homage episode "After Hours."

Red Oaks gets so much of the look and feel and rhythms of the movies it's emulating right and that's got a lot to do with the contribution of directors who have personal ties to the decade and its storytelling — like Heckerling — and fellow nostalgia devotees like Dick helmer Andrew Fleming and David Gordon Green. And certain auteurists are going to be positively giddy to note that Hal Hartley directs the season's fifth episode, which includes Jennifer Grey's best work, though it would be a real challenge to put your finger on anything Hartley-esque about the fine episode.

The Red Oak creators are on a wavelength that it probably helps to be on yourself if you're going to embrace this two-tiered celebration of nostalgia. Being on this wavelength distracts from, but doesn't forgive the thin female characters, the blurring of class distinctions and the erasing of race from the conversation. And if you're wavering after a couple episodes, the Amazon binge approach lets you skip ahead to "Body Swap," which I promise you is worth the trouble.

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