With the premiere of “Red Oaks,” Amazon is revealing a preoccupation with small-scale ideas teased out in extraordinary ways when it comes to its half hour series. “Transparent” is, at its core, a series about a family. “Mozart in the Jungle” is a workplace comedy, albeit one centered on a New York City symphony orchestra. “Red Oaks” is a coming-of-age comedy, but also a palimpsest of 1980s film tropes.
The latter is more successful than the former. There are increasingly diminishing returns when it comes to watching a 20-year-old navigate between the push of his own desires and the pull of others’ expectations, and David Myers (and more importantly, his portrayer Craig Robert) is too passive and inert to root for.
Spending his summer vacation working at the country club in his New Jersey hometown before returning to NYU to study accounting, David ostensibly teaches tennis to the club members but more accurately learns Difficult Life Lessons. Like sometimes you outgrow your high school girlfriend, and there are rich girls who are unhappy with their families, and one’s parents might be together out of habit more than necessity.
What marks “Red Oaks” as something different is the way each episode toys with recognizable ’80s tics. One episode late in the series — the best of the batch — involves an impromptu nighttime trip to Manhattan, and the neon-infused, blue-shadowed all-nighter recalls everything from “After Hours” to “Modern Girls.” Another — the worst of the batch — puts two characters in a “Freaky Friday” plot.
The series consistently aims at something deeper than most of those movies, but almost always shies away from getting too serious. A subplot about dealing drugs is quickly dropped without anything irrevocable happening; a series-long arc about a tennis match ends with a fizzle.
The performances are equally uneven. Roberts, as befits any ’80s lead, is almost fatally bland; Richard Kind, as David’s pushy father, continues his late-career streak of increasingly annoying, loud performances lacking in subtlety. As David’s boss, Ennis Esmer purrs all of his lines in a near-sing-song that aims for oozing charm but lands somewhere closer to camp. Jennifer Grey, likely initially cast to lend the series some genuine ’80s gravitas, at least has some lovely scenes as David’s tormented mother, though her best moments are left under explored.
As wealthy father and daughter, Paul Reiser and Alexandra Socha are the standouts. Reiser, shedding any hints of nebbish that he might have retained from “Mad About You,” redefines his career as the club president, all machismo and hard advice. And Socha, as his bored daughter tempting David to forget his sweet, determined aerobics instructor girlfriend, is marvelous. She nails the archetype — free-spirited arty girl who leads our hero to understand life in a broader sense — while crafting a character worth caring for.
There aren’t a lot of those in the Red Oaks country club or in the “Red Oaks” series, executive produced by David Gordon Green, who directed the first two episodes. Almost every episode trades on our familiarity with the type — the heavy sidekick, the dumb, bullying jock, the knockout who wonders if she should be with the heavy sidekick instead of the dumb, bullying jock–but that familiarity too often comes perilously close to breeding contempt.