How Red Oaks Time Travels Back to the 80s

When season one of Red Oaks debuted in 2015, it came at a point in my life when I was at a crossroads. My business had failed, my father had passed away, and I was left wondering where I was headed next.

While I was twice as old as David Meyers, the main character of the show, his journey to find meaning in the next step of his life was poignant and bittersweet.

It’s not often that I connect as deeply with a television show as I did with Red Oaks but it came to me when I needed it most. It not only made me laugh, it gave me hope that things were going to be okay.

Red Oaks was greenlit as an Amazon Prime Original through viewer voting. In the early days of Amazon’s attempt to create original content, they would release a number of pilot episodes on their streaming service that viewers would watch and vote on.

If a show tested well, it got the green light and headed into production. While Amazon has since abandoned this method of choosing their series’, it was an interesting attempt to democratize what made it to air.

Paul Reiser, Craig Roberts, and Ennis Esmer star in Amazon's Red Oaks

A Golden Age of Nostalgia Driven Television

For the past 20 years, I’ve felt like I’ve been living through a period of “historical overdosing.” Douglas Coupland coined the phrase in his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture.

According to Coupland, historical overdosing means: “To live in a period of time when too much seems to happen. Major symptoms include addiction to newspapers, magazines, and TV news broadcasts.”

With so much media to consume, it’s impossible to keep up with everything. These days, I’ve found that most of my attention is given to television. The quality of television programming is outstanding and I’ve found myself more interested in long-form storytelling.

As a fan of nostalgia, there’s never been a better time to watch TV. Shows like Halt and Catch Fire, Stranger Things, The Americans, Black Monday, The Goldbergs, and many others are set in the ‘80s.

While many of these shows use the time period to their advantage, I began to wonder how modern storytelling uses the past as a plot device to interest present-day audiences? Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer this question as I continue to view these shows.

But for the time being, I begin my journey into exploring the past through the present by looking at the first season of Red Oaks; a nostalgic look at a fictitious suburban New Jersey country club set in 1985.

While the series takes place in 1985, it’s more of a plot device than anything else. Luckily, the show never leans awkwardly on the ‘80s. Sure, there are references to ‘80s pop culture and the soundtrack is mired heavily in the period but the heart and soul of Red Oaks lies in its storytelling.

Meet the Cast of Characters

David Meyers – Craig Roberts

Craig Roberts and Richard Kind in Red Oaks

The main character of the show is a 20 year-old college student named David Meyers who works as a tennis pro at Red Oaks. The show follows the ups and downs of David’s life as he attempts to find his direction in life.

David is an accounting major at NYU but longs to leave the boring world of crunching numbers and forge a path as a visionary filmmaker.

Along the way, his father, Sam, tries to steer him into the safe and predictable world of accounting.

Sam Meyers – Richard Kind

But what we learn very early in the series (in the first 3 minutes of the pilot) is that life is unpredictable and we shouldn’t let it pass us by. Sam suffers a mild heart attack while playing tennis with David and attempts to warn him not to fall into the same trap he did by playing it safe and letting the world pass him by.

Sam professes his love to Sun Yi, awoman he knew during the Korean War and let’s it slip that David’s mother, Judy, may be a lesbian (or at least technically bisexual). Sam’s heart attack is the catalyst for the change each one of the Meyers clan will undergo throughout the series.

Wheeler – Oliver Cooper and Misty – Alexandra Turshen

At Red Oaks, we’re introduced to an interesting cast of characters who play a role in how David interacts with the world around him.

His best friend Wheeler is in a similar situation to David. He’s resigned himself to working at Red Oaks as a parking valet instead of pursuing a college education. Wheeler chases after the beautiful lifeguard Misty who is seemingly out of his league.

Nash Nasser – Ennis Esmer

Nash Nasser is the head tennis pro at Red Oaks who attempts to mentor David and guide him through life with words of wisdom. Nash has stumbled through life and finds himself teaching tennis lessons at Red Oaks at the age of 38.

His positive outlook on life and the people he interacts with makes Nash one of the most likable characters on the show (due to Ennis Esmer’s amazing comedic performance).

Doug Getty – Paul Reiser

David is tasked with giving the club’s President, Doug Getty, tennis lessons. Getty is a wealthy businessman who’s made his fortune playing the stock market as the head of a successful Wall Street investment firm.

Getty is a no-nonsense guy who’s tough on David at first but as the season develops we learn he sees a lot of himself in David. Getty becomes a father figure to both David and Nash. Somehow, Reiser humanizes the character and takes him beyond being just a surface level jerk.

Skye – Alexandra Socha and Karen – Gage Golightly

Craig Roberts and Alexandra Socha star in Amazon Prime's Red Oaks

Of course, no good summer show about a young man looking for his path in life would be complete without some sort of love triangle. David is dating the club’s aerobic instructor, Karen, who is attending college to be a nurse.

Their relationship stagnates as they learn they’re growing apart as individuals. Enter Skye, Doug Getty’s beautiful young daughter. While Karen wants to stay in the suburbs and start a career as a nurse, Skye longs for a more bohemian artistic lifestyle in the city. Can you see where this is headed?

Judy Meyers – Jennifer Grey

David’s mother (played by the wonderful Jennifer Grey) rounds out the cast as Judy, a woman whose life has revolved around taking care of David and Sam. But as David grows up and prepares to move on with the next step of his life, Judy’s identity as a wife and mother is in question.

Realizing that Sam’s business is failing and with mounting medical bills due to his heart attack, Judy begins a journey to find herself.

‘80s Pop Culture References

While the show uses the ‘80s more as a plot device than a plot driver, there are plenty of pop culture references sprinkled throughout the show. Some of my favorites:

  • Amy Heckerling (of Fast Times at Ridgemont High fame) directs a bonafide body swapping episode in which David and Sam switch bodies and hilarity ensues.
  • Wheeler laments the fact that the time travelling device in Back to the Future is a DeLorean.
  • Getty asks David to join him at his home to play tennis against some colleagues. David asks, “What exactly am I doing at your home?” Getty responds, “We’re going to watch Falcon Crest and whack each other off.”
  • Nash leads a conga line at a wedding while Culture Club’s “I’ll Tumble For Ya” blasts on the soundtrack.
Amazon Video Dancing GIF by Red Oaks - Find & Share on GIPHY
  • David returns home and his father tells him there’s a Sergio Leone marathon on they can watch together. Sam excitedly proclaims, “Up next, Once Upon A Time in America with Robert DeNiro playing a Jew.”
  • David’s parents are going to therapy and then to see a movie with Wilfred Brimley and the aliens called Coconut or something.
  • Richard Masur has a small role as Sam and Judy’s marriage therapist.
  • As the club prepares for Fourth of July, Getty confronts a server taking kebabs to the grill and chastises him. “Where are we, Beirut? This is the 4th of July! Get some hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad. Things Reagan would eat.”

The Music

Throughout the show, the soundtrack blasts out an interesting mix of both mainstream and obscure tracks from the ’80s. You won’t find Michael Jackson or Madonna on the soundtrack but you’ll recognize many of these tracks.

The songs you don’t recognize will eventually find space in your head to rent. Here’s just a small sample of some of the music found in season one:

Why You Should Watch

The main reason to watch Red Oaks is the cast. This is an incredible cast of characters who have come together. The show is funny and has a lot of heart.

The relationship between David and his father is complicated (as any father-son relationship is) but endearing. While Sam seems like a crotchety old man stuck in his ways, his love for his son is always there. This is never more present than in the episode “Body Swap.”

The incredible Richard Kind gives Sam a gruff exterior while still showing vulnerability and kindness to his family.

To be completely honest, I was never a huge fan of Paul Reiser before I saw Red Oaks. Now, I think he’s not only a very funny comic but an extremely gifted actor.

As I mentioned, he humanizes Getty beyond a villainous jerk. While his character is a wealthy Wall Street magnate, he genuinely loves his wife and daughter.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the tremendous talent working behind the camera on Red Oaks. Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green served as executive producers.

Green also directed three episodes in the first season. Hal Hartley directed one episode and Amy Heckerling manned the helm for two episodes.

Red Oaks was never a huge show for Amazon but the streaming service stuck by it. At the end of the first season, I was worried the show would be canceled. Luckily, Amazon gave the show a second and truncated third season.

If you haven’t given Red Oaks a chance and are looking for a sweet and funny show set in the ‘80s, look no further. But don’t expect a flashy show relying on ‘80s tropes to get a cheap laugh. Red Oaks isn’t that show. It’s set in 1985 but it could very easily have been set in 2015.

Either way, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself rooting for David, Sam, and Judy to find their way.

**All three seasons of Red Oaks are currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Mark Wilson

President of the Mr. Belvedere fan club. Creator of the Cult Pop Cult newsletter: a weekly email of bizarre and funny links for people interested in retro pop culture. Join the cult at: https://cultpopcult.com
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