TV Review: Red Oaks Leads Amazon’s Third Pilot Season

Somehow it’s that time of the year again: pilot season. Leading the charge is online retailer Amazon, back for its third year of offering a handful of series pilots, all of which containing the potential to become full series. What this means is that Amazon offers these pilots for free streaming by way of its instant video service, allowing viewers to leave feedback and votes which aid executives in the final decision process.

This year the offerings are at their lowest number, three half hour comedies and two dramatic shows, fill the bill. So, let’s take a look at the comedies first. Although none of these pilots offer the instant grab and hook of last year’s excellent Transparent, writer-director Jill Solloway’s take on an LA family experiencing a change in their patriarch, there is still some things here worth paying attention.

Without a doubt, Red Oaks, from director David Gordon Green (Eastbound and Down) and producer Steven Soderbergh, seems a shoe-in for pickup. Red Oaks is a coming of age tale set in 1985 New Jersey, following David Meyers (Craig Roberts), dealing with an uncertain future and his father’s recent heart attack. David takes a summer job as a tennis pro/instructor at the Red Oaks Country Club, close to his girlfriend, his weed selling friend, and a host of other wacky characters. For those of us hip enough (or old enough), a coming of age story with a country club as a backdrop calls up instant comparisons to Caddyshack, and there’s enough touches of those tropes here to make that an adequate starting point. However, Red Oaks departs quickly from the more cartoonish shades of that film, striking for more grounded faire.

Roberts does a fine enough job portraying the frustration of Meyers, as he tries to find out who he is, but more interesting is Paul Reiser’s cantankerous and wizened take as the country club’s owner, Getty. The pilot’s main action hinges on David winning a tennis match with Getty in an effort to keep his job. More problematic character wise is Red Oaks’ take on female characters. With two exceptions, Red Oaks female population exists mainly to be leered at before they all eventually end up topless for no clear discernable need. The exception to this epidemic are two female characters that show promise, but are woefully underdeveloped in the pilot. For starters is Jennifer Grey, another 80’s throwback, as David’s worrisome mother, Judy, who spends the episode arguing with his ailing father. Elsewhere is a potential romantic interest for David in Getty’s daughter, Skye (Alexandra Socha), who maneuvers about the background, only speaking when David finally approaches her. These are issues that could easily be addressed should Red Oaks make it to series.

Finally, Red Oaks manages to transport us to the 80’s without shoving various cultural milestones of the decade into our faces at every opportunity, whether through dialogue or action. Where returning ABC series The Goldbergs still does this to some extent, although that show has slowly grown a heart over its first season, Red Oaks doesn’t make its setting another character and that’s something of a relief.

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