Amazon’s ‘Red Oaks’ might have worked better as a comedy

Ah! Those hot ’80s summers working at the country club: pressed linen, tennis lessons, and serving chilled lobster by the pool. Hustling for tips during the day and skinny-dipping in the sixteenth’s water hazard by night. Losing love—but finding it again in the place least expected.

If you believe the films, everyone was somewhere in this enclosed little world, from Joe Quarterback bronzing high up on the lifeguard chair down to the slackers bussing tables. And if you weren’t the staff, you were the guest: charging a steak sandwich … and a steak sandwich to the Underhills’ account or meddling in the lives (and abortions) of the dancers.

But I wasn’t there. And neither was Craig Roberts, the star of Amazon’s new series Red Oakswho’s Welsh and probably “came of age” slicing leeks and feeding scrums rather than tennis balls to 50-year-old accountants. Yet the depictions of these places have inundated our collective conscious so thoroughly that it doesn’t seem to really matter whether you were there or not; you just know it.

The reason why the country club/upstate summer resort still intrigues is the same reason why it’s one of American entertainment’s go-to frameworks. It comes with a built-in ensemble cast of characters whose job titles dictate their personality and never need interact more than the screenwriter needs them to. And it contains a palatable level of tension borne out of the limited social stratification found at the club.

And so, since everyone we follow comes from the same sort of families, the major differentiation between the characters comes from age and from the ability to show the protagonist’s potential paths through the prism of others (the stressed millionaire, family man, or free-spirited drop-out). This makes it the perfect landscape for youthful introspection.

The music is stirringly evocative, and the saturated greens and pinks of refined ’80s living transport us.

Red Oaks is no exception. Roberts’ David is in the summer of his sophomore year at NYU and is reluctant to tread the path that his father (Richard Kind) has laid for him: becoming a CPA. So, despite having the swing of a rusty robot, he finds himself as the assistant tennis pro at the country club, where he comes into contact with the other men whom he could one day become: Paul Reiser as the club president and Ennis Esmer as the tennis pro.

And along with the expected tribulations of love, it’s all pretty predictable stuff—it even nods to its predecessors by casting Jennifer Grey as David’s mother—if done with a certain panache. The music, as you’d expect from Eastbound and Down’s David Gordon Green, is stirringly evocative, and the saturated greens and pinks of refined ’80s living transport us.

However the fact that it’s more dramedy than pure comedy continually draws us back to a type of program that we have seen so many times before. That’s not completely a bad thing, as there is something quite comfortable about re-entering a world that feels so familiar. But it’s a world that, if not played entirely for laughs, appears dated and at odds with everything that happens outside the club’s gates.

While David’s moment at the crossroads is supposed to be monumental, a period of grand, life-shaping significance in retrospect, it’s all so very safe. While the kooky characters will attempt to distract you, essentially David is faced with a life that will be enjoyable or one where he will be rich. He is in a position where everything is possible. As decisions go, it verges on the trivial, as therefore does the heart of this program.

Screengrab via Amazon Instant Video

Tom Harrington

Tom Harrington

Tom Harrington is an entertainment reporter whose work for the Daily Dot focused on webseries and streaming entertainment. He's reviewed series on YouTube and Netflix, and he was approximately four years ahead of the curve on comedian Joe Pera.