What does Red Oaks mean to you? That’s the question being asked of all the show’s characters, as Amazon’s delightful coming-of-age comedy reaches its quietly life-affirming conclusion.
It’s an understated farewell for a show that has always been an understated gem. With just six episodes, down from the usual 10, Season 3 is more an epilogue than a fully-fledged run, but it’s a grace note that gets the music just right. Helmed by indie stalwarts David Gordon Green, Amy Heckerling and Hal Hartley (no other project could so perfectly combine those names), it’s a blast of nostalgic pop telly that is as full of heart and humour as ever. Red Oaks has never been one for irony or wry period jokes: it’s a series that works precisely because it’s so sincere in its love of the 80s and every one of its characters. It’s only fitting, then, that the show should want to spend three more hours in their company, just to give them a proper send-off.
The series’ ensemble is an enjoyably eclectic bunch, and as we catch up with each of them, they’re increasingly spread out: David (Craig Roberts) is now in New York, chasing his filmmaking dream, Nash (Ennis Esmer) is back at the club hitting ground strokes, Sam (Richard Kind) is working at the IRS, Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) is pursuing his teaching qualifications, Misty (Alexandra Turshen) is a dental hygienist, and Getty (Paul Reiser) is in prison. But they’re all brought together by the news that Red Oaks is about to be sold to a Japanese company, who want to bulldoze the place and build property on the land. Getty, most of all, is determined to stop the sale, and so he hires David to direct a promotional video reminding everyone what Red Oaks means to them.
A home, a place to see friends, a chance to get high and have sex. The answers from faces new and old are amusingly varied, but Season 3’s smart decision to anchor everything around the future of the club. There’s a reason it’s the show’s name: it has always been the way that each character has been defined, drawing the boundaries of wealth in a subtle shorthand that makes clear the class lines being crossed at all times, without driving the point home.
After their paths collided at the doctor’s surgery (that universal leveller) in Season 2, Sam and Getty have been more pointedly different than ever, as each one sees their lives go in different directions: Getty’s guilty charge at the season’s finale sees him relaxing behind bars, while Sam is busy with a new romance and dreaming of opening a sandwich bar with his mate, Terry. As the latter makes successful step forwards in his personal and professional life, Getty is busy looking back to Red Oaks, clinging to old acquaintances from the club as his visitors. It’s a treat to see Kind, one of the show’s most joyous of joys, play happy rather than downtrodden, as his waddling walk and face-splitting smile become his normal demeanour. Combined with the new romantic life of David’s mum, who has confidently come out as a lesbian, Red Oaks reminds us in these last moments that for all its looking back to the past, the series is an ode to moving forward.
Cooper’s Wheeler is the epitome of that encouraging, upbeat attitude: a character who could have been a one-note, stoner joke is one of the most likeable in the programme, as he and Misty’s relationship becomes something genuine and genuinely supportive. (“Dude, look at me,” he remarks, as he attempts a workout video. “I’m not exactly Val Kilmer.”) He perhaps thinks too far forward, as he gets caught up in a bizarre arrangement involving a college professor, but he’s never anything less than loving, particularly when compared to the sexist dude Misty faces off against in her workplace. Turshen and Cooper together push their characters and story beyond their genre archetypes into actual, rounded human beings, and seeing that commitment pay off will never fail to be satisfying.
Nash, meanwhile, is hilariously tragic, as he (like many other employees at Red Oaks) contemplates the very real chance of impending redundancy. Ennis Esmer has always been one of the best things in Red Oaks, from his unctuous wooing of widows to his faintly desperate social climbing. Here, he frustratedly tries to learn Japanese, but also finds himself in a tennis match almost playing for a new job: the sight of Nash and his beer belly bouncing across the court is laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s before Esmer’s impeccable comic timing starts serving up the dialogue (Rusty, David’s replacement, is gorgeously described as “half a human taller than you and hung like a white rhino”.) That Nash gets the happy end he’s earned is guaranteed to make you smile.
And amid all of this is David. Roberts remains charmingly naive as our lead, but he’s visibly and audibly grown over these three seasons, cutting a gradually more assured presence. His tennis days are long gone, as he works at a video production firm in the Big Apple. Where he once would have agonised over asking a girl out at his local coffee shop, now, he just does it. Where he once might have panicked about the idea of showing someone is showreel, now, he’s more outspoken about his talent. It’s partly thanks to his new love interest, who works with him at the firm, but what Red Oaks does brilliantly is introduce her without forcing her into a romantic role: they’re a cute couple, but it’s never really about that. And that brings us to the other part of David’s maturity: his ability to choose what to do with his life.
Season 1 and 2 of Red Oaks were, in a way, all based around that 20-something predicament. In Season 1, a relationship with Skye (Alexandra Socha) was once the end goal, but that’s now brushed aside – although they have a brief reunion for a cute reflection on what they’ve both done since breaking up. In Season 2, it became more about his dad and Getty, as David had to choose between the two father-like figures on his shoulders, either continuing as is, or accepting a lucrative job at Getty’s firm.
Season 3 sees David knowing now what he wants – and how to get it. He’s a bit of his well-meaning dad, but also a bit of the successful Getty; he’s a bit of the creative Skye, and a bit of the ambitious Nash; he’s a bit of his care-free mother and a bit of his laidback mate, Wheeler. Over several years, we’ve watched as generational divides have been crossed (that body-swap episode in Season 1 is one of the best character-driven TV episodes of the last decade), class barriers have been overcome, and heartbreak has healed (his interactions with Barry in Season 2 are an endless source of laughter); we’ve seen this young man slowly discover his identity. Angling to direct a dog food commercial here, he’s coming of age not because time has told him to, but because he actively wants to – and the pleasure in watching that character arc complete makes Red Oaks’ third season one of most purely positive TV shows around.
What does Red Oaks mean to you? For us, it’s a chance to say goodbye to characters we’ve grown to know and love. For David, it’s history; a chance to capture his memories on tape. While a boss at the company he works for thinks the resulting footage is funny and kitsch, David’s fondness for Red Oaks is something far more honest – and it’s an affection that we and the club’s members and staff can share. Because only by embracing the past without irony can we really move forward, grab the camera and say to our own lives: action. What happens next we don’t need to see: it’s limited only by our imagination.
Red Oaks Season 1 to 3 are available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.