Look — “Red Oaks” is, as art goes, pretty inessential. It’s not a subversion of the ’80s movie archetype, nor is it an homage, either; it is almost literally an ’80s movie, only extended into a 10-episode TV show.
In its first season, which aired last year, “Red Oaks” went out of its way to establish just how committed to its milieu it was. Of course it was set in a country club full of white people in suburban New Jersey. Of course the best friend is a stoner named Wheeler (Oliver Cooper, “Project X"). Of course the primary love interest is both the boss’s daughter and a doppelganger for Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club.” Of course our protagonist doesn’t want to be a CPA like his dad, but a filmmaker instead.
The new season begins with the requisite premiere in a foreign country: David (Craig Roberts, “The Fundamentals of Caring”), now enrolled in a nearby community college after dropping out of New York University, visits Skye (Alexandra Socha, “Royal Pains”) in Paris, and the two of them are having a wonderfully romantic and artfully shot vacation until Getty (Paul Reiser, “The Paul Reiser Show”) — Skye’s father and David’s previous employer at the titular country club — surprises the two of them.
The crux of the episode is this awkward tension between David and Getty, but the standard “overbearing father” plot tropes eventually give way to the thematic well “Red Oaks” is, and has always been, more concerned with dipping into: namely, David’s inability to grow up.
And while the series eventually returns to its status quo — “Red Oaks” as a concept is inherently incongruent if it’s not summertime at the country club, and so by the second episode, it’s May 1986 and David’s back to work — the show seems incapable of asking more searching questions. What does it mean to become an adult? How does one follow one’s passions?
These issues are constantly addressed (albeit through the prism of the white suburban experience), but they’re just as easily denied any pointed analysis. And while new plotlines are inevitably planted — Getty’s ongoing legal troubles, David’s ex-girlfriend’s impending marriage to perhaps the most persistently loathsome and irritating character on television — “Red Oaks” is all too eager to return to its comfort zone, both temporally and thematically.
But perhaps it’s unfair to critique this show for complacency. The John Hughes movies that “Red Oaks” takes its cues from are, after all, more or less built on the foundation of mood over depth. The coming-of-age teen comedy isn’t always the most probing, but it’s often the one that sticks around longer in the heart. It’s a pastiche of tropes, sure, but those tropes are eminently pleasurable. “Red Oaks” seems like the product of some sort of Amazon computer algorithm that parses data from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and "Say Anything…” and then spits out an ’80s teen movie, plotlines expanded and stretched into the capacity of 10 episodes. This doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch.
The production values, as is characteristic of period shows on streaming services, are noticeably high, and while the cast, save for Ennis Esmer (“Blindspot”) and Reiser, isn’t particularly great, the actors are at least watchable. Each character is little more than a tired archetype, of course, from the thinly sketched female characters down to the old, white Reagan acolytes that populate the country club.
But, for better or worse, “Red Oaks” is surprisingly empathetic toward all of its characters. It’s unbearably cheesy at times, but it successfully conjures an era in which being a trader on Wall Street was an ideal to aspire to, but being into Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut was edgy and interesting. The issue is in the show’s triviality. It is — for lack of a better term — a guilty pleasure, a series that offers nothing more than inconsequential, decent escapism, and is content to do so.