We don’t know the viewing statistics for “Red Oaks,” but unless every single Amazon Prime subscriber is watching, it’s safe to say Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi’s brilliant coming-of-age comedy is under-seen. Despite the nation’s recent over-infatuation with nostalgia-driven films and TV shows, somehow audiences overlooked this inventive and insightful gem last year — perhaps because it was one of the few period pieces not totally reliant on ’80s references to sell its story. And while skipping “Red Oaks” may have been an unfortunate error of omission then, it’s a grave mistake now.
Aside from the sheer enjoyment that comes from watching the delightful and whip-smart comedy, there’s a case to be made for “Red Oaks” as the most significant nostalgia-infused TV series currently streaming — especially as its Season 2 release is just days after the most dividing event on America’s calendar. Following an election that’s guaranteed to infuriate half the country, the disappointed and relieved masses together can find comfort and inspiration in “Red Oaks.” For it’s not merely a comedy about one kid trying to find his way in the real world, but a story that demonstrates our country’s opposing beliefs in order to unite us behind them.
Never is this paradoxical unification of opposing mindsets more apparent than in Jacobs and Gangemi’s excellent follow-up season. Backed by a horde of iconic indie filmmakers including David Gordon Green, Steven Soderbergh, Gregory Jacobs, Amy Heckerling and Hal Hartley, “Red Oaks” remains universally identifiable in Season 2, delving into the complex and quickly closing opportunities facing a college-aged kid who’s trying to decide what to do with his life.
But it also effectively hones its focus on the core families from Season 1: the Meyers and the Gettys. David Meyer (Craig Roberts), still establishing a plan after leaving NYU and coping with his parents’ divorce, opens the season in Paris. There to spend time with his girlfriend while they figure out their future, Skye Getty (Alexandra Socha), David is presented with the first of many choices by episode’s end, and — even before his mind is made up — it’s clear his decision will define his life moving forward.
As David continues to figure out what he wants and the best way to obtain it, these seemingly small choices are given proper gravity. Those who’ve lived life long enough know the weight of one’s choices at this age, and the show treats them with similar foresight. (David is even a bit more self-aware than your average young’n.) He may be too inexperienced to fully understand what each move means to his future, but that’s why his parents — and Skye’s — are there to remind him, as best they can.
That being said, Sam Meyers (Richard Kind) and Judy Meyers (Jennifer Grey) don’t exactly have all the answers themselves; only advice they can give based on their successes and failures. All parties are keenly aware of the motivations behind their outlooks without losing the human rationale for holding them. Sam wants his son to take advantage of every reliable financial opportunity, as is fitting for an IRS agent, but as a middle-aged, middle-class divorcee, his life lessons are tinged with melancholy. Judy’s are similarly so, but she’s more self-aware of where she stands, even as she enters a truly new world of dating.
Then there’s the Gettys. Led by an expanded arc for family patriarch (Paul Reiser), the Gettys prove not only to be a fascinating foil to the Meyers, but an honest example of misplaced priorities mixed with the best of intentions. Rich and unashamed to flaunt its benefits — namely, privilege and security, in that order — Mr. Getty subtly embodies the contradictions within what appears to be a straightforward U.S. of A. success story. Reiser proves particularly adept at portraying the nuances within Getty’s continually abrasive confidence, drawing out empathy for a character who, on paper, deserves less than the thought of forgiveness.
A scene between Mr. Getty and Mr. Meyers perfectly encapsulates the series’ larger topics without betraying the intimacy of its presentation (and has the added benefit of Richard Kind and Paul Reiser sharing the screen). The two fathers, businessmen, husbands and men of a certain age share a candid discussion about status, revealing more about each other than to each other, with the added benefit of a level playing field. Without spoiling anything, I can say the setting is what brings them together, but it’s a conversation that resonates beyond the room.
Broader still, the series uses its time period to illustrate generational divides that still affect a broad swath of Americans today: There’s a father who found satisfaction and security in a boring job and a son who seeks creative fulfillment in the financially unreliable arts industry; a mother who’s still discovering herself at age 50 and a husband who thought he had it all figured out at the same age; a daughter trying to break free from a world ruled by money and parents who only see reality in dollars and cents; young lovers desperate to survive together while being drawn to opposing paths of “success.”
Financial independence, emotional satisfaction and family values serve as firmly established themes deeply explored throughout Season 2. Various characters incorporate each of these threads into their individual stories, but “Red Oaks” respectfully represents differing attitudes without losing the unifying strand between parties: We’ll all go through it, and no one really knows the “right” way to live. In doing so, “Red Oaks” bonds us together in an understanding of what we have in common instead of what drives us apart. It’s what we need today, in this moment, but delivered in a way that doesn’t constantly remind us of it.
Now that’s what I call a period piece everyone can get behind. So start bingeing.
“Red Oaks” Season 2 premieres Friday, November 11 on Amazon Prime. Season 1 is streaming now.