First look Amazon Prime TV review: Red Oaks Season 1 (Episodes 1 to 5)
Ivan Radford | On 07, Oct 2015
It’s not often that a TV show feels fully-formed in its first episode. A typical series takes a few weeks to reveal its characters, to find its voice. Red Oaks is not one of them.
Amazon’s latest original show is the VOD service’s first out-and-out comedy since its early days with the mediocre Alpha House – while its flagship series, Transparent, is amusing, it contains more than its fair share of drama. So it’s important for Red Oaks to stand out – and it certainly does that.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age story, the show follows David, a student who gets a summer job as a tennis coach at the titular country club. And, sure enough, there‚Äôs everything you’d expect from such a premise: the potentially unfaithful girlfriend, Karen (Gage Golightly), the tight-laced parents, the stoner sidekicks. But Joe Gangemi‚Äôs and Gregory Jacobs‚Äô script doesn‚Äôt rely on the tropes of the 80s movies: it plays with them.
There’s a certain debt, you suspect, to director David Gordon Green, who is no stranger to coming-of-age stories – and has a real knack for getting great performances out of good young actors. He helms three of the first season’s episodes, including the superb pilot, and is an Executive Producer, alongside Stephen Soderbergh.
The result is somewhere between The Graduate and The Breakfast Club, but there’s a sincerity to the sass: this is less a satire of the period and more a love letter to it. Self-awareness is not a term that these kids have heard of. When David gets a job with a sleazy photographer, who has an eye for hitting on his girlfriend and a habit of pronouncing “gorgeous” as “jorgeous”, his boss’ hair manages to be laughable without being ridiculous. And when stoner sidekick Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) tries to hit on the club’s token hot girl, Misty (Alexandra Turshen), it comes with a huge dollop of sentiment – Turshen is allowed to grow past the cheerleader stereotype, while Cooper’s head-over-heels suitor is endearingly sweet, making possibly the strongest subplot in the whole show.
That believability owes as much to Amazon as it does Green and Soderbergh. The site has made a name for its hands-off approach, allowing its creative talents to get on with their jobs with minimum interference. As a result, the whole of Red Oaks has this loose, genuine vibe. The fact that it’s not constrained by linear broadcast requirements, meanwhile, allows for more nuance than you’d find in a tightly-edited sitcom.
“Tonally, you can blur the line between comedy and drama a lot more when you don‚Äôt have a test screening audience telling you what‚Äôs funny, you know?” Green told us when we interviewed him about the show last year. “You can go subtle, you can go with letting a moment breathe. It‚Äôs certainly a new experience, but it seems like a really good operation over there, really cool executives letting us do our thing.”
Joe Lewis, Amazon’s head of comedy, reportedly encouraged the cast to do a binge table-read before shooting – to try and nail the tone of an online show over a traditional programme. There’s something not unlike Transparent in the way episodes are structured: we see David’s girlfriend being wooed gradually over the first half of the season, the breakdown of their main relationship occurring without short bursts of plot and sudden cliffhangers. Ditto for David’s fledgling romance with Skye (Alexandra Socha), who turns out to be daughter of one of the club’s richest members, Getty (Paul Reiser). Throughout, it‚Äôs a treat to see a leading role that showcases the Submarine star, a part that allows him to build on his likeable, neurotic presence. His wide eyes are wonderfully terrified, but he is also sarcastic and assertive; far from the cardboard cut-out loser he could have been. Socha is every bit his match, toying with him as much as Reiser’s douche-bag dad.
As the easygoing arcs unfold, each familiar beat becomes something entertaining and fresh. When David‚Äôs dad suffers a heart attack in the opening scene, Richard Kind wastes no time in subverting your expectations (the word “Orientals” comes up), a move that turns lazy schmaltz into laughs. Later, a scene involving him and his wife (Jennifer Grey) gate-crashing a romantic night between David and Karen is side-splittingly funny, with Kind’s facial expressions alone worth one month’s Amazon Prime Instant Video subscription.
David is flooded by endless advice from the seniors around him – each tidbit more useless than the last. “You know what we did to find ourselves back in my day?” asks one elderly client. “Killed Nazis.” The biggest laughs, though, come from Ennis Esmer‚Äôs unctuous tennis coach, who steals almost every scene he‚Äôs in, sucking up to the rich customers before dispatching withering asides in a delightfully plummy voice. ‚ÄúWho wants to be the bedroom wife?‚Äù he calls to two scantily clad girls, before telling them his skin smells of cardamom and Drakkar Noir. How he keeps a straight face is anyone’s guess, but it brings a gentle note of pathos to his desperately sycophantic employee, as he tries (and fails) to grease his way up the social ladder.
Ambling along without any huge revelations, Red Oaks finds its rhythm quickly and comfortably settles into it. If anything, it’s a shame it’s so well observed so early on: the pilot is so good that the laid-back episodes that follow are almost a disappointment. But between the leg warmers and charmingly innocent love stories of the period, this tennis training/growing pains/social divide comedy just keeps serving up the laughs. If the seasons’s second half can be this consistent, Amazon may finally be coming of age as well.
All 10 episodes of Red Oaks Season 1 are available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.