In his review of the new Amazon original comedy Red Oaks, Mike Hale of The New York Times noted, correctly, that it “manages to be of the ’80s rather than about them, an affectionate and startlingly authentic evocation rather than a satire or a dissection.” That’s certainly true, and it places this show in the burst of good, new post-Mad Men period dramas like Masters of Sex and Zodiac. But neither Hale’s review nor anything else I have read about this show’s wonderful ten-episode season describes its true achievement: Red Oaks helps solidify the teen comedy—which originated in the ’80s but has grown past that decade’s clichés—as a genre of its own, as enduring and lovable as the Western, or noir, or horror.
Set in 1985, Red Oaks is about the many summer romances of one David Meyers, played (but not overplayed) with uncanny suburban Jewy perfection by the Welsh (!) actor Craig Roberts: his romance with his hot, nice, but conventional girlfriend (the unbelievably named actress Gage Golightly); his bromance with a stoner buddy played by Oliver Cooper (his fine work as Levon, David Duchovny’s son, in the final season of Californication, made us suspend disbelief that a pudge who looks like early Jonah Hill could be the progeny of Captain Black Tee himself); and his incipient, unfaithful romance with the mysterious, artistic daughter (Alexandra Sochar) of the president of the tennis club where David works.
To anyone who has earned tenure in ’80s film studies (the Ph.D. is awarded after answering exam questions about Michelle Meyrink, Martha Coolidge, and Judge Reinhold), it’s easy to spot the plot points that Red Oaks takes, lovingly, from ’80s movies. Chief among ITS influences is Caddyshack. Where Caddyshack was set at a golf club, Red Oaks is primarily set at a tennis club (with a douchey golf pro thrown in for comic relief, a textbook example of the anxiety of Harold Ramis influence). In Caddyshack, the working-class caddy is trying to land a college scholarship from the asshole club president (Ted Knight), while in Red Oaks the working-class tennis pro is trying to win a big cash bonus from the asshole club president (Paul Reiser). In both Red Oaks and Caddyshack, there is a lovable elderly member who recognizes the club prez for what he is (Rodney Dangerfield; Freddie Roman), a jiggling blond hottie or two, golf cart–based humor, and so forth.
Beyond the Caddyshack ur-text, there are important allusions to The Breakfast Club (the artsy vixen is a dead ringer for Ally Sheedy, in looks and temperament), Say Anything, and, most overtly, the transformative, second-generation teen comedy Dazed and Confused. Josh Meyers’s lecherous Barry is basically a slightly less ephebophilic Wooderson. And in the July 4 episode, Oliver Cooper delivers, almost verbatim, Rory Cochrane’s “George toked weed” monologue, a triumphant riff about George Washington being an O.G. pothead. Red Oaks is set about ten years after Dazed and Confused, and with enough pot smoked the viewer can pleasantly surmise that the theory that originated in Austin, Texas, in 1976 had made its way to suburban Jersey by 1985.
But those classic John Hughes, Martha Coolidge, Cameron Crowe, and Amy Heckerling movies—what we think of as canonical ’80s movies—have in common, among other things, a total focus on young people: parents and other adults don’t exist, or they exist as caricatures and cautionary tales. In that regard, Dazed and Confused, otherwise a very different movie, is typical of the genre. And here is where Red Oaks diverges in an important way. By treating David as somebody in genuine relation to his parents—played sympathetically by Richard Kind (A Serious Man) and Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing)—Red Oaks will put you in mind of shows like The Wonder Years and My So-Called Life, which focused on young people but, in eschewing madcap excess, offered genuine, careful portraits of real family dynamics.
Red Oaks does something that I take to be quite new. It refuses to choose between the exaggerated ’80s tradition, comprising both the fantasy-world buffoonery of Caddyshack and the parent-free escapism of The Breakfast Club, Real Genius, etc., and the more homely, earnest, naturalist tradition of The Wonder Years (and, one might add, Boyhood). Instead, Red Oaks insists that we can have it both ways, by turns parent-free and under their thumb.
And isn’t that what the teenage years are actually like? Sometimes you’re at home with the grown-ups, being grilled on your future plans, but then you get a license to drive, blaze up a doobie, or meet out at the diner, and all bets are off. Life gets fun. Pretty in pink. Definitely not better off dead.
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