Nostalgia is a powerful but dangerous tool.
It can evoke sudden, visceral reactions via something so small as a turn of phrase, creating a sense of belonging for everyone who remembers. But it can also lose those who don't know what it's referencing, or simply don't care. Nostalgia can be useful, but using it as a driving force will wear out its welcome — quickly.
Red Oaks, a new Amazon comedy that dropped all 10 of its episodes on October 9, is a semi-autobiographical show from Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. It's clear in every hazy, pastel-tinged shot just how much the team behind Red Oaks was tickled about re-creating one wacky 1985 summer for the members and staff of Red Oaks, a suburban New Jersey country club. The show's production design is meticulous, its devotion to nailing 1985 aesthetics impressive.
In the end, Red Oaks depends so much on paying tribute to '80s films that it forgets to do much of anything else. If its particular brand of Caddyshack-meets-John-Hughes nostalgia isn't up your alley, Red Oaks doesn't work too hard to win you over.
Despite its very best efforts, Red Oaks has no identity of its own — but there are at least some interesting lessons to learn from its attempts. (Warning: Spoilers for the full first season follow.)
Lesson 1: If the entire cast finds your protagonist compelling, make sure your protagonist is actually compelling
Red Oaks does itself an immediate disservice by centering on one of the blandest television protagonists in recent memory. David (Craig Roberts) is a disaffected NYU student with vague dreams of becoming a filmmaker, if only he weren't stuck at home with his squabbling parents (Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey). He takes a job as a tennis pro at Red Oaks, hoping to stave off adulthood just a little longer.
David doesn't appear to have much of a personality beyond a resigned shrug, which makes it difficult to understand why everyone at Red Oaks keeps fighting over the privilege of knowing him best. His smarmy boss, Nash (a charismatic Ennis Esmer), finds David just delightful, and Red Oaks' belligerent and filthy rich owner, Getty (Paul Reiser), likes him so much that he hires him as his personal coach and gives him pep talks about all his apparent potential.
Then there are David's diametrically opposed love interests. There's Karen (Gage Golightly), David's long-term girlfriend and Red Oaks' bubbly blonde aerobics instructor. She represents the steady path of responsibility David could take if he snagged a job at his dad's accounting firm, as has been the plan for ages. Then there's Skye (Alexandra Socha), the artsy girl with a shaggy brown bob who also just happens to be Getty's daughter. She represents rebellion, or something.
Everything about this triangle is exactly as literal as it sounds.
And while we know we're supposed to care about the outcome, and the show tells us that David is torn, there's no reason to actually get invested. There's an attempt to drum up drama, as Karen gets closer to a sleazy photographer (Josh Meyers), but even when David protests, it's clear that he only barely tolerates Karen while he drools over Skye. Neither the obvious writing — boring Karen versus mysterious Skye, come on — nor the acting sells this conflict as particularly pressing, though Golightly at least offers some touching work with what little she's got.
Lesson 2: If you're going to use exhausted tropes, you can hit something great by digging a little deeper
The one romantic relationship that does work in Red Oaks is the slow and steady courtship between stoner valet Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) and the club's resident lifeguard babe, Misty (Alexandra Turshen). Again, the "awkward geek nurses an unrequited crush on a popular blonde girl" setup is as straight up as it can get. Where Red Oaks put David's romantic trysts on autopilot, though, it actually takes the time to develop a realistic, touching friendship between Wheeler and Misty to invest us in the outcome.
Even as Wheeler goes to some desperate measures to prove his worth to Misty, including an unfortunate foray into dealing cocaine (1985!), their relationship is compelling because they seem to genuinely get along. As played with grinning compassion by Cooper and Turschen, Wheeler and Misty make each other laugh. They learn to be comfortable around each other. They let down their guards and trust that the other means well.
The trick here is that Wheeler and Misty evolve past their initial descriptions to become something more when they're around each other — which is exactly what makes an onscreen relationship satisfying.
Lesson 3: Seriously, guys, not all nostalgia is created equal
The most confusing chapter of Red Oaks by a mile is the seventh episode, in which David and his father switch bodies, Freaky Friday-style. As directed by Amy Heckerling (Clueless), this is yet again a completely straightforward homage that doesn't find any further depth.
After David and his father fight at Benihana, a Japanese man with a flowing mustache runs over to make the pair take shots from a bottle of liquor with a humpback whale on the label. When they wake up in each other's bodies, they spend the next day exploring each other's lives and running around town, asking every Asian person they see whether they know the man who did this.
While Roberts is visibly thrilled to cut loose as Kind's cantankerous patriarch, this results in a jarring, cartoonish performance. Even Kind, a seasoned character actor who has proved his comedic prowess time and again, stumbles as he tries to embody the loosely defined David.
The entire episode is a terrible misstep, and not just because the introduction of actual magic tosses Red Oaks into a completely different reality than its down-to-earth suburbia. As with everything else, this "body swap" episode is perfectly content to recycle a piece of nostalgia without updating it at all — even if that means breaking the show's reality and offering just as much casual racism as the original inspiration.
Lesson 4: Not every show is for everyone, but there is nothing more boring than watching something that was clearly made with an extremely narrow demographic in mind
Red Oaks is under no obligation to appeal to everyone. After all, we all have our own tastes, are drawn to different genres, and find specific things to love or loathe in the pop culture we encounter.
The astonishing thing about Red Oaks, though, is that it never — not once — makes an attempt to broaden its scope. This was a show made for Jacobs's contemporaries and the people with lingering affection for this genre. The series never proves why anyone who doesn't directly relate should care.
After watching the Red Oaks pilot, it's unclear whether the series is a strict recreation of '80s movies, or whether it's using their format to tell a new kind of story. After watching two episodes, it's clear there is no twist or self-awareness in Red Oaks' slavish devotion to the era.
Tired, sexist, and outdated jokes are said without irony. "What is he, recovering from a hysterectomy?" an older club member wisecracks to David. "It's a wedding, not a funeral," Getty bemoans to Skye as she marches to the reception in all black, only to have her retort, "Is there a difference?" As David's mom storms away from his father, Sam turns to Karen and sighs, "Do me a favor, sweetie: when you get married, don't become a nag."
The entire series is an unapologetic throwback. That can be fun when the series sticks to pre-cellphone hijinks, a whirlwind trip to '80s New York City, or for the smug schadenfreude modern audiences get from watching train wreck hairstyles in action. But Red Oaks's nostalgia merely duplicates trends and sensibilities that have long since gone out of style. Merely having affection for an era will never be enough to sustain a satisfying series.