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Amazon’s campy, evocative ‘Red Oaks’

| Monday, November 2, 2015

red-oaks-web-Susan Zhu | The Observer

Amazon Instant Video released the original comedy “Red Oaks,” a campy, 80s-based summer-fun series, at the beginning of October. The series stars Craig Roberts, the Welsh actor who starred in Richard Ayoade’s indie “Submarine,” who carries over his angsty “not a boy, not yet a man” woes to the small screen as David in this 10-episode series.

The show follows David as he attempts to transition from fulfilling his father’s wish for him to be a public accountant to pursuing his own burgeoning film interests. He spends his summer as a tennis pro at the local country club, Red Oaks, where he also assists the seedy club photographer in documenting club happenings from the most artistic vantage points. As that photographer tells David, “You’re going to want to go handheld so you can get up in there and really see bar mitzvah boy’s reactions.” David’s interest in the arts is furthered when he meets Skye, a moody artsy type reading erotica at the country club who proves a stark contrast to his blonde, complacent longterm sweetheart who consistently brings up their happy future to David’s blank stares.

The casting is reminiscent of John Hughes films — and not just because Skye is a döppleganger to Ally Sheedy’s character in “The Breakfast Club.” We see the good girl, stoner, nerd and recluse archetypes and relationships between the people who “shouldn’t be together.” The country club setting mirrors “Dirty Dancing” (Jennifer Grey stars as David’s mother) and its kitsch acts as a nice replacement for those who are still itching to see more “Wet Hot American Summer” on the small screen (short shorts and scrunchies abound).

The show starts out with a dark twist as David’s father, played by Richard Kind, has a heart attack during a tennis match and utters out his “last words” about the regrets he has about his marriage. The heavy message, and his father’s eventual survival, weigh on David as he realizes where his current path is leading: an accounting career and a mundane marriage.

The cinematography of the show shines in tennis montages set to 80s jams. The Wes Anderson-esque artistry — furthered by period-specific costume design and slow-motion cuts — alludes to David’s future career aspirations as he stars in and furthers each scene. It is also worth noting that Roberts directed his first film, “Just Jim,” in real life earlier this year.

The show serves as a unique coming-of-age story as each character is involved in his or her own journey to happiness and, as such, each character evokes empathy from the viewer. Whether it’s Nash, the optimistic head tennis pro who spends nights in the pro shop exiled by his wife, or Karen, David’s kind-hearted girlfriend who is being pursued by the older, sleazy filmmaker, there are lots of different storylines to which audiences can relate.

The town almost entirely adopts a self-motivated mindset as they become unsettled by their previous settlings. It is as if each character’s development alongside David’s serves to complement and contrast his own narrative. It emphasizes that each person, even in cookie-cutter New Jersey suburbia, has a different outlook on success and definition of happiness: Stock market profits, community college, NYU and free-wheeling to France all hold allure to different characters.

The small town aspect of interconnected characters is reminiscent of “Twin Peaks.” From the place-rooted titles to the dark twists, the small-town themes and layered characters reflect Lynch-ian influences — although the brighter, warmer setting in “Red Oaks” contrasts with the bitter Washington winter of “Twin Peaks.”

We see a growth, or at least an attempt to move out of unhappiness, by nearly every character in the show. (Besides maybe Herb, the 80-something club member full of sage advice: “You know what my dad wanted be to be? A proctologist. You know what I was? A proctologist. And I hated every minute of it … I couldn’t wait for the day I could stop staring up a**holes.”) However, the women’s storylines are developed to a much shallower standard than the guys’. Perhaps this is because the narrative develops around a 20-year-old guy who is, himself, struggling to understand these women’s woes, but either way it proves a sore spot.

We get a standout character in Skye (think back to Audrey Horne from “Twin Peaks”), who somehow makes wedgie-picking look hot, but we are bereft of any insight into her psyche, past “daddy issues” and a desire to pursue art but a lack of self-confidence in her work. We also see an inadequacy of development in David’s mother’s sexual questioning. Perhaps this is due to her putting the issue on the back burner as she struggles to keep her husband healthy and son happy. However, since her wavering stance was addressed it should have been developed, as its stagnation threatens to exploit the issue.

“Red Oaks” proves Amazon Instant Video was not a one-hit wonder with “Transparent.” The series fits multiple affecting character storylines into ten 23-minute episodes, an accomplishment that spreads some plots thin but has enough substance to illustrate an emotive coming-of-age story in a time before Gossip Girls or sub-tweets.

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About Erin McAuliffe

I'm Scene's editor and a senior Marketing & Journalism student. To quote the exquisite Sadie Dupuis, "I'm not bossy — I'm the boss."

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