Red Oaks, one of the new Amazon Studios pilots now available to watch, is executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, but it’s certainly nothing like his current airing television project, the dark early-20th-century medical drama The Knick. Though Red Oaks could sound like a similarly bloody affair, Soderbergh’s never been one to stick to a genre, and the show is a small scale comedy named for a country club in New Jersey where the hero, David, gets a gig as a tennis pro one summer in the ’80s. There’s potential within Red Oaks if Amazon does decide to pick it up—nothing about it is really bad—but it needs to hone in on its most compelling elements.
David, played by Craig Roberts, gets his job at the club as a way of avoiding working for his father Sam (Richard Kind). The pilot opens on David hitting balls with Sam, who berates him for not applying himself. “A C is a Jewish F,” Sam tells him. Sam wants his son to be an accountant, but of course David does better in his class about cinema of the French New Wave. It’s a familiar parent-child conflict, and David’s disillusionment with his parents will grow mere seconds later when his father appears to be suffering a heart attack and confesses that he never loved David’s mother, who he thinks is a lesbian “or at least technically bisexual.” (David’s mother is played by Jennifer Grey, whose mere presence in a country club-set project conjures images of Dirty Dancing. There are no Johnny Castle’s here though.) Sam lives, but thus begins David’s summer of questioning what he wants out of life.
Roberts is excellent at blank stares, but one doesn’t get get the sense that there’s much to David, other than the fact that he doesn’t necessarily want to be an accountant or stay with his super hot girlfriend. Speaking of women, the female characters are for the most part very attractive, but hollow. David’s girlfriend is a big-haired aerobics instructor at the club, who, despite dreaming of being a member of the club with David, is making eyes at a sleazy photographer. It doesn’t much matter because David is enchanted by a mysterious, Anaïs Nin-reading brunette. Other female characters are quick to take their tops off in very public venues. My colleague Melissa Maerz rightly points out the “gratuitous nudity” in her assessment of the show. There isn’t much of a reason for the prevalence of boobs here other than to perhaps give the pilot a false edginess. It gets grosser the more you think about it.
That’s not to say that the males are inherently intriguing either, one of David’s friends is your run-of-the-mill stoner who debates Star Wars and lusts after a much hotter girl. Still, Ennis Esmer makes a lasting impression as Nash, David’s boss at the club, who has a European lilt while throwing around Yiddishisms like schmuck, and Paul Reiser plays the club’s resident jerk whose jerkiness plays out in an unexpected way.
The pilot is directed by David Gordon Green—whose résumé features indies (recently Prince Avalanche, Joe) and studio comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness)—and is co-written by Gregory Jacobs, who has oft-served as Soderbergh’s first assistant director and will be taking on the Magic Mike sequel. Red Oaks could do, however, with some sharpening on all fronts. Its risqué elements could be more clever than just breasts. David’s artistic interests could be more clearly expressed. The show could feel more New Jersey or more Jewish.
Watching the pilot immediately made me think of Adventureland, the 2009 movie starring Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. (Full disclosure: I love this movie.) But like Red Oaks, it featured pot smoking, big hair, and plenty of ’80s signifiers. Unlike Red Oaks, it had a really good anecdote about Herman Melville that completely fits the story and somehow wasn’t pretentious. Adventureland‘s best character was Joel, played by Martin Starr. Joel could have just easily been a stereotypical weird/nerdy best friend—he smokes a pipe after all—but he instead was someone who was both cynical and sympathetic, the type of person you find in real life. If Red Oaks is going to remind viewers of Adventureland—I’m not the only one who made the connection—it maybe should crib more than just the ’80s summer vibe.