Before I give it a go, let me just say that “Red Oaks” is a difficult series to describe. Heaping on superlatives could work, and I’ll undoubtedly get to that soon, but they can’t tell the full story. Partly, that’s due to the giddy feeling drawn out after bingeing a few episodes, but the casual critical practice of inserting positive adjectives between story descriptions would do the new series a disservice. Here, let me show you.
“Red Oaks” — a charming coming-of-age story from Amazon Studios — tells the tale of young David (Craig Roberts, who positively nails the layered portrayal), an NYU student trying to make enough money with his summer job as a tennis pro to pay for a place in the city next semester. He plans to move in with his girlfriend, Karen (Gage Golightly), who works with him at the country club as a fitness instructor, but he’s also having doubts about his future.
His father (the routinely excellent Richard Kind) wants him to join his accounting firm after graduation, but he’s got his eye on shooting video (a hobby he earns some spare money for at the club) and finance. The latter option is strongly influenced by the club’s owner, Mr. Getty (Paul Reiser, in a smarmy, human and very funny performance), who takes David under his wing with a harsh tone and playful competitive nature as the two train for a winner-take-all tennis final.
Series creators Jacobs and Gangemi infuse a delightfully surprising air to each episode, throwing in ’80s hallmarks like outrageous side characters, apt musical numbers, sex, drugs and even a body-swap episode. Nostalgic older viewers should be in heaven as they flash back to the best of their heyday, while young binge watchers will still identify with the universal themes of growing up.
Everything stated in those past three paragraphs is true — “Red Oaks” deserves every bit of its blatant praise — but what’s missing is the zsa zsa zsu; the je ne sais quoi; the unidentifiable allure of the show. It feels a bit Soderbergh-ian — which is fitting, considering his involvement as well as Jacobs’ history with the esteemed director — that the series blends gleefully fun moments with some heavy stuff. Would you guess by the above plot description that “Red Oaks” is framed around a would-be deathbed confessional by David’s father? In the opening scene of the pilot, Sam tells his son how he thinks he should’ve married an Asian woman from his time at war and that David’s mother — his wife — is probably a lesbian.
Yet somehow the episode and series transitions smoothly from such a life-changing event to a joke about what was a very mild heart attack. His Dad overreacted. Things go back to normal. And in that development, “Red Oaks” finds its groove; examining some of our most difficult life choices under the feigned guise of normalcy — aka, what the majority of our world does every day. David knows something he doesn’t want to know, both in what his father told him and in where he wants his life to go, but he’s too afraid — or too committed to making sure everything appears okay — to just go for it. The choice between security and passion is one we all face at some point and in various ways. “Red Oaks” has decided to tackle it in a unique manner — seriously, there’s a body-swap episode and it just works — that feels deeply familiar.
Jacobs and Gangemi have made sure it feels like a real choice, too. Viewers may find themselves being pulled in different directions; rooting for David to choose one path vs the other. Considering the amount of fun to be had at this country club — where Ennis Esmer, as the club pro, Nash, is an absolute joy among a full cast of exemplary performers — we may selfishly wish for more of the same in Season 2. But like our young protagonist, “Red Oaks” has a bevy of options in front of it, and all of them are worth exploring with old (and young) pro’s like these.