Read our spoiler-free review of Episodes 1 to 5 here.
Amazon’s Red Oaks took no time at all to establish itself as a sitcom with a heart as much as a sense of humour. The coming-of-age comedy evolved into a love letter to the 1980s rather than a spoof, sincerely celebrating the tropes of the period while still mining it for decidedly un-meta laughs. With its confident tone and constant giggles, it’s little surprise that the show has already been renewed for a second season.
If the first half of the maiden run proved the series’ smarts when it comes to adhering to familiar formulae, the second half also proves its ability to subvert them. It’s great to see four of these final five episodes directed by women, as Nisha Ganatra (between this, Mr Robot and Transparent, now one of the more interesting helmers of the small screen around) and Amy Heckerling (who gave the world Clueless) both bring their ear for subtle character and satirical laughs to the table.
Nisha immediately sets the tone with Episode 6, which sees David (Craig Roberts) approached by a Red Oaks club member to film some swinging action – an opportunity that Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), who has had his dental appointments with the woman in question for years, is quick to jump at. A lesser show or movie might use that as a chance for some nerdy wish fulfilment, but the script by Thomas G. Papa, Jr (a Soderbergh veteran) and Ganatra’s direction constantly undermine any potential for steamy action with a cat allergy, a boom mike and some hilariously over-the-top performances by the wannabe smut stars. It’s awkward, it’s funny – and, most of all, it’s completely unexpected.
That unpredictable air only thickens as we venture into the dark nightlife in New York, with David and Skye (Alexandra Socha) heading out for an impromptu date. Their interactions continue to be full of chemistry, with Socha given the chance to develop her character as Getty’s daughter into something more than an unobtainable object. It helps that they don’t do what you expect on a first date, with the show’s free-wheeling pace (embraced by Heckerling) finding time for everything from sincere conversations and flirting to theft and some seriously adult entertainment.
The series’ consistent tendency to underplay any sexiness adds to its overall sweet tone, echoing David’s innocence with its non-seedy content (and, take note male directors of bloke-driven comedies, non-leering direction). If that cosiness is par for the 1980s course, though, Episode 7 is the stand-out achievement of the whole series: a body-swap episode that takes its plot right from the pages of the John Hughes Playbook.
Co-creators Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi credit the idea to Exec Producer Soderbergh – Gregory Jacobs recently directed Magic Mike XXL – but their writing pulls it off in style. Why do David and his dad (Richard Kind) swap bodies? It’s never really explained, but the duo throw themselves into it with incredible agility. Roberts moves with the energy of a middle-aged man who’s just been given a healthy body back, his eyes popping every second and his mouth a permanent grin. Kind, meanwhile, becomes edgy and awkward, his eyes darting around as he’s confronted with marriage counselling with his own wife/mother. Vocally, the pair are even more impressive, imitating each other’s voices and delivery, even as each character tries to impersonate the other one’s delivery; it’s a feat that manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, but, crucially, also carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.
Heckerling, again behind the camera, is key to that balance – she was enthusiastically sought out by Jacobs and Gangemi to direct part of the show – and she throws in just the right amount of guffaws and “aww”s. One minute, she’s parodying The Graduate with a shot under Kind’s sagging thigh (again, not the non-male gaze); the next, she’s choreographing a heart-to-heart between the couple, one that’s informed by chance encounters with both Skye and David’s mum and that also manages to push the characters along. This is the kind of stunt that makes or break a TV series – and it makes Red Oaks what it is.
That’s evident in how much its pays off in the ensuing episodes, in which Kind and Roberts still seem to echo each other for occasional lines, something that reinforces their deepening intimacy. That means that when we arrive at the penultimate Bat Mitzvah episode – a showcase for Josh Meyers’ sleazy photographer Barry, whose hair seems to get an inch taller every time he appears on screen, not to mention Gage Golightly’s semi-loyal (yet still sympathetic) girlfriend, Karen – we’re engaged enough with the characters for the various pay-offs to matter.
As always, things zip along at a likeable speed, but Red Oaks still makes room to flesh out the rest of its supporting cast too: Alexandra Turshen as Misty gets a whole convincing romance with Wheeler in the time that it takes to admire the body-swapping, snigger at the sex scenes and laugh at the spoilt brat paying to have his ceremony recorded. Even Paul Reiser as Getty, the disapproving rich dad of Skye, who could be a one-note cynical douche, shows multiple sides to his spikiness, genuinely seeming to want to help David become an adult. (All the while, Ennis Esmer as David’s other guiding light, Nash, remains the funniest thing in the whole show, endlessly pinching scenes from under others’ noses with his perfectly unctuous presence.)
The season climaxes with that same, keen sense of nostalgia, a warm appreciation of the past and growing up. But the most promising thing about Amazon’s series is that while sitcoms, by definition, generally stay the same overall, with smaller situations unfolding within an unchanging framework, Red Oaks hints that it might mix things up completely for a second season, injecting a more European sensibility. Intelligent and always amusing, the show is a fine addition to an increasingly mature roster of Amazon originals (Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Mozart in the Jungle – it’s telling that its fledgling forays into production, Alpha House and Betas, have both been quietly cancelled). Coming of age is one thing; this is a comedy that’s willing to fly the nest.
All 10 episodes of Red Oaks Season 1 are available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.