The '80s are the ultimate low-hanging fruit on the tree of American culture. Full of explosive hairstyles, patterns and personalities, Red Oaks, Amazon’s newest comedy offering, takes the fruit but manages to pull it off without bruising its ripe flesh. Instead of being about the '80s, as shows like ABC’s The Goldbergs have recently tried to be, the show tastefully uses America’s blunder years as a pop-art filter, adding even more vibrancy to a wonderfully colorful story.
The brainchild of Oscar-winning executive producer Steven Soderbergh, Red Oaks takes place in an idyllic New Jersey suburb and its country club, from which the show takes its name, in 1985. Our 20-year-old protagonist David, portrayed with awkward excellence by Craig Roberts—whom some of you may recognize from the coming-of-age gem Submarine, or unfortunately, as the fraternity pledge Assjuice in Seth Rogen’s Neighbors—is an archetypical American adolescent, stuck between big city dreams and a small town reality. The show begins as David takes a job as assistant tennis pro to the 1% under the wing of short-shorts clad Nash, TV’s most loveable idiot since Parks and Recreation’s Andy Dwyer, played by Ennis Esmer, former co-host of the Canadian version of Wipeout!
The club is a tremendous, albeit obvious, vehicle for tropic characters, like Herb (Freddie Roman) the wise old curmudgeon, Karen (Gage Golightly) David’s blonde, aerobic-instructing high school girlfriend, and Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) the hilarious and sweaty pot-dealing best-friend. With these classic archetypes on top of the mountain of comic fodder the time period provides, it would have been easy for the show to drift into predictable mediocrity. In the first few episodes of the 10 episode offering the show flirts with disaster, as Roberts seemingly struggled to channel his own awkwardness as a new leading man into his character. However, after the first few episodes, Roberts began to get it just right, carving out a niche that will remind you of yourself at 20, only funnier.
And that’s exactly what director David Gordon Green, of Pineapple Express fame, set out to achieve. David is just the right amount of relatable, just imperfect and emotional enough to feel like you might actually have known him. His big city dreams are personified in the form of the mysterious and sultry Skye Getty (Alexandra Socha). The erotica-reading daughter of the club president (Paul Reiser) is seemingly a mishmash homage of '80s starlet Ally Sheedy’s characters, and it worked; my heart hasn’t throbbed this hard for a love interest since I saw Wargames.
Speaking of '80s starlets, no Jewish millennial’s adolescence would have been the same without Ferris Bueller’s sister, and Patrick Swazy’s dance partner Jennifer Grey. She glows in the role of David’s bored-to-death mother, married to Sam (Richard Kind), a Vietnam vet-turned-accountant who wants nothing more than for his son to take over the family business.
The plotlines are zany, and seamlessly weave subplots between many characters in a way that may be hard to follow at first, unless you’ve had practice watching Game of Thrones, of course. Even though its characters are archetypal tropes, Red Oaks takes what is normally thought of as a weakness and turns it into its strength. By the third episode, you know the characters and are starting to love them for their simplicity, which makes it all the more satisfying each time they surprise you. It's hard not to love the mixtape-worthy soundtrack and costumes that remind you of your Aunt Jodi’s senior picture hanging on the wall at your Grandma’s house, hair teased and scrunchie clad in the class of ‘86. Red Oaks could have very easily fallen into the trap of letting the '80s speak for themselves, boring us with jokes of pet rocks and an MTV that actually plays music videos. Instead, it decided to be so much more, creating a worthy show that puts Amazon’s comedy lineup among the best to binge for (hopefully) years to come.