It took me a couple of episodes to work out what Red Oaks was. It follows the half-hour comedy format (each episode is around 24 minutes, in fact), and it’s a single-camera show, no laughter track. If it’s like anything that’s been on TV recently, that would be Suburgatory, the sitcom about a teenager and her father who move from New York City to the suburbs. But Red Oaks is set in the 80s. David is a (communting) NYU student spending the summer working at the local country club, hoping to save enough to be able to afford to live in the City when he returns to class next semester.
So it’s a fish-out-of-water story, of a regular middle class kid rubbing shoulders with the wealthy. And it’s a coming-of-age story, about a young man finding himself (a bit like The Graduate). It had the pacing of a longer show, like something programmed for 40+ minutes, but no, every episode was short and sweet. But I kept returning to that question: why set it in the 80s?
Of course, there are lots of reasons. The 80s was when the steady post-war improvement in middle class standards of living stopped. When Americans (and Britons) started living on credit and illusions. When the disparity of wealth between the gamblers and hedge-fund managers and everyone else began to bite. So it’s a snapshot of a time when things were starting to go wrong with society, when the first deep cuts started to be felt, but at the same time the smoke and mirrors of what was then called Reaganomics was still fooling a lot of people.
Culturally, the 80s were also the last great decade for the music industry, when new sounds and new technologies meant that the industry was buoyant, and synth pop was in its pomp. And (here’s the point) the 80s was the heyday of a certain kind of movie: which had its greatest expression and created its most lasting impression in the days before the studios started to sink everything into superhero blockbuster movies.
Meatballs, Diner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing, The Unbelievable Truth, Trust: a decade, more or less, of coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water moves. Ensemble casts, great writing, memorable performances, no CGI.
And that’s when I realised what Red Oaks is. It’s an extended 80s coming of age movie. Or even two movies, one and a sequel. And it has that pedigree. Episode 5 is directed by Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust). Two other episodes are directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless), who has also been involved in directing an episode of the aforementioned Suburgatory, which brings us full circle. The cast of Red Oaks is equally special. It has Paul Reiser in it, who not only has successful sitcom pedigree (Mad About You) but was also in one of my favourite 80s movies: Diner. And the lead character’s mother is played by none other than Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s sister before she was in Dirty Dancing), who is unrecognisable from her 80s pre-rhinoplasty self. The strong cast is rounded out by Richard Kind and Ennis Esmer, who looks so much like British comedian Adam Buxton that it freaketh me out.
So you’ve got your stoners parking cars, your 80s-hot girls on lifeguard and aerobics duty, you’ve got your teen movie parents, and you’ve got a (male, natch) protagonist wrestling with whether to follow his father’s boring career and marry his beautiful but unambitious girlfriend or get into something more risky with the arty and apparently spoiled daughter of the richest man in the country club. Nothing new there, but of course it’s something great that we haven’t seen for a long, long time, since Hollywood apparently forgot how to make movies like this without appalling lapses of taste.
Significantly, it was from the Hal Hartley episode on that I was hooked. I’d already decided I was going to watch it through to the end when the director’s name appeared at the end of the credits. While it does at times seem like an extended excuse for yet another 80s music soundtrack, it’s warm, funny, and good company while it lasts. And while I’m not a fan of much 80s music, it really does seem that the music of that decade was made to go on soundtracks.