Another valentine to the ’80s, “Red Oaks” is a series without many original beats, but which nevertheless assembles its familiar ones in a pretty digestible package. Mashing up “The Graduate,” “Dirty Dancing” and “Caddyshack” into one big bowl of borsht, this Amazon dramedy focuses on a college-age guy at life’s invariable crossroads, trying to figure out what he wants – and doesn’t – while working as an assistant tennis pro at the local country club. Although the writing commits some unforced errors, where else can boomers find a show featuring Exile’s “I Wanna to Kiss You All Over” on its soundtrack?
David Meyers (Craig Roberts, betraying none of his British origins) is a Jewish student at NYU living in suburban New Jersey, who, in the opening sequence, is hitting balls with his father (Richard Kind) when dad suffers a heart attack. Thinking he’s headed to the great beyond, the old man blurts out a series of confessions about regrets and his loveless marriage to David’s equally unhappy mom, played by Jennifer Grey, who, here, has indeed allowed life and society to put baby in a corner.
David’s tennis prowess puts him in contact with the club’s wealthy president (Paul Reiser) as well as his distant but alluring daughter (Alexandra Socha). Meanwhile, David’s high school girlfriend Karen (Gage Golightly) faces her own temptations, with a sleazy photographer (Josh Meyers) chatting up her future in modeling. Elsewhere, David’s best pal Wheeler (Oliver Cooper), a valet at the club, has graduated from dealing pot to cocaine, hoping to impress a pretty lifeguard.
Created by Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi, and counting Steven Soderbergh among its producers, “Red Oaks” (named after the country club) features plenty of coming-of-age staples, and far too many slow-motion shots of guys who don’t look particularly athletic serving and volleying. The show also veers into a couple of unfortunate interludes near the end, including a “Freaky Friday” send-up, where David and dad swap bodies; and an episode in which the protagonist, who moonlights as a videographer, is hired to film homemade porn.
Still, the show’s central conflict – the fact that David doesn’t want to end up an unhappy accountant like his father – is universal and relatable, and Roberts is appealing and vulnerable in the lead. The show also conjures a clear sense of time and place, from the hairdos to the songs, and gets good mileage out of Ennis Esmer as a tennis pro hoping to cash in on his access to the rich and powerful.
Granted, “Red Oaks” (the entire season of which was made available) is the kind of low-octane vehicle that won’t build on Amazon’s step up into the big leagues with “Transparent.” But it’s generally in keeping with that show’s bittersweet, indie-film sensibility, and happens to land at a moment where the ’80s are, almost simultaneously, all the rage, and beginning to grow a bit tedious.
In premium TV terms, the series is probably too derivative to be scored as a clear winner. But in terms of possessing qualities that should inspire the audience that does tune in to stick around until match point, “Red Oaks” serves up a pretty good game.