Amazon made quick inroads with their original comedy-drama Transparent, and several of the elements that made that show such a winner are present in Red Oaks, a charming and slightly offbeat new comedy whose first season just arrived on Prime.
Set in the titular Red Oaks Country Club somewhere outside New York in 1985, the show marries the middle-class satire of ABC's underrated Suburgatory with the '80s nostalgia of the dysfunctional family sitcom The Goldbergs. The first episode quickly sets up its premise: David Meyers takes a summer job at Red Oaks at the insistence of his father, who wants him to make the kinds of connections he'll be able to call on when he graduates uni and pursues his dream of becoming an accountant. Only, that dream actually belongs to David's dad - David is more into French cinema, a degree in which is about as useful as a tennis racket with broken strings.
One fairly mortifying hospital visit later, David does take the job, and from this point the plot becomes more or less background to the eccentricities of the various faces at the club. There's Wheeler, David's overweight friend with an admirable determination to catch a girl who's clearly way out of his league; Karen, David's girlfriend, an aerobics instructor (it's the '80s, y'all!) who is clearly not a personality match for David; and club president Getty, who is quite keen on making David's life very difficult indeed.
All of the above provide plenty of laughs, but it's Ennis Esmer as former tennis pro Nash who steals every scene with absolute relish, whether it's spinning a tale of his supposedly dead wife to two younger women he's trying to pull, or giving David terrible but well-meaning advice about how to survive at the club. Even his accent is quite incredible.
The first episode, although well paced and laced with laugh out loud moments, is not as great as the pilot for Transparent. It's refreshing that David has not been lumbered with a stereotyped personality (he seems well adjusted considering his father just told him his mum might be a lesbian - and yes, they're still married), and Roberts is clearly a talented actor, making subtle use of facial expressions and body language to convey aspects of the character that probably weren't there in the script. But David is almost too much of a blank slate to begin with, or perhaps the characters around him are just considerably more fun, and as he is the show's audience surrogate, a better balance could be found.
The focus on character and comedy over story also makes it hard to see where the series is headed, with only a handful of plot strands that will carry over into future episodes. But these are minor niggles which will presumably be ironed out. What's important is that Red Oaks is funny and gloriously retro, coming off more like a show genuinely made in '85 than a present day throwback.
The music used throughout is also several shades of brilliant, drawing obvious comparisons with the synthpop of the Drive soundtrack, suggesting that almost everybody involved in the making of this show has a genuine love for the era. I'm pretty excited to see how the rest of season 1 plays out, because Red Oaks looks like one of the best new comedies of the past few years. Plus, there just aren't enough comedies set on a tennis court. Isn't that reason enough to watch?
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