Red Oaks and the Importance of Narrative Consistency

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...
This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

This is, in part, a review of the new Amazon Prime series Red Oaks. It is also, and perhaps most importantly, a lesson in the necessity of narrative consistency. There will be some mild spoilers, but i argue that I’m only spoiling something rotten–the bruise on the banana that is best cut out and avoided so you can enjoy the rest.

Read at your own risk.

So, a bit of background: Amazon is producing it’s own programming now, shown as part of their Amazon Prime digital video. It’s kind of ambitious, and they have thrown several things at the wall to see what sticks. Some of what I’ve watched has been great. In fact, of the programs that did interest me, they were as good if not better than network programming. And like Netflix original programming, they make the entire season available at once.

Red Oaks is described as a “coming-of-age comedy set in the ‘go-go’ 80s about a college student enjoying a last hurrah before summer comes to an end–and the future begins.” It has a great cast (shout outs to long time favorites Richard Kind and Jennifer Grey as the parents, Paul Reiser as the club president and supplemental father figure, and Teen Wolf alum Gage Golightly as the aerobics instructor girlfriend with epic 80’s hair). It has a fine stable of directors such as David Gordon Green, Hal Hartley, and Amy Heckerling. And the soundtrack is an astounding playlist of music from my misspent youth–some painfully familiar, and some I haven’t heard in 30 years.

Overall, the series strikes a tone of the typical sentimental coming-of-age story. 20-something kid takes summer job, putting him in contact with both peers he grew up with and a new world that is promised by the range of experiences and new contacts made at the job. Red Oaks is not trying to break new ground here.

Nor is it trying to go for a laugh-a-minute sit-com. In fact, it isn’t interested in telling jokes. Yes. It’s funny. But it’s a soft, character driven humor. If it weren’t for fact that episodes were only 30 minutes long, I’d almost characterize this as light drama than comedy. Several of the characters are painted a bit larger than life–the accountant dad who wants the son to follow in his footsteps despite the son being bad at math and uninterested in being an accountant, the chubby best-friend pot dealer/valet in love with the hot lifeguard, the sleazy photographer with his eyes on the sweet and perhaps too-naive girlfriend, the mysterious, worldly daddy’s girl. But despite the reliance on these archetypes, the series remains pretty grounded, telling believable stories you can relate to if you were ever a white kid from the lower-middle class in the eighties.

And here’s where the series fails.

In episode seven, the family goes to a Benihana style restaurant, where father and son are having a failure to connect. Now, it’s only natural things are somewhat strained between the two. The series opens with dad having a mild heart attack while they’re playing tennis and, fearing the end is here, spills everything about his doubts and fears, including details about his unhappy marriage and how he thinks his wife, the mother, might be a lesbian. Further, the son is realizing more and more that there is a big world out there, and being an accountant like his dad is not at all what he wants to do–he just doesn’t know what the answer is, yet, and is feeling trapped.

And then the mysterious old Asian man steps in with a special birthday drink, some kind of liquor with a humpback whale on the label, forcing father and son to share three shots of the “special birthday drink.” We fade to black, and when the characters wake up, they find that they have magically switched bodies.

Imagine the sound of a record scratching to a stop. This is, essentially, what happened to my brain. The fact that this episode was directed by the gifted Amy Heckerling could in no way save it. It doesn’t matter how well acted it is (and both Richard Kind and Craig Roberts do outstanding jobs here), or how well scripted it is (which it isn’t, to be honest). The trust has been broken. For one, the strange, magical Asian guy trope is dated at the very least, if not flat out racist. But also, the rules of the world, set up in the previous six episodes, have been broken, only to be returned to status quo at the end of the episode with no consequences.

It’s such a bizarre choice it makes me wonder if someone lost a bet. Yes, the body-swap story is a classic of the 80’s. But the movies that tell that story are self-contained. They make sense within the fucked-up rules of that particular world. Even the TV show Community knew that when they did a body-swap story during the “Gas Leak” year that was season 4, making the body-swap not a magical occurrence, but a way for Troy to run away from responsibilities while Abed played along for the sake of his friend (and because he always wanted to do a body-swap episode.)

But you can’t introduce blatant magic into the middle of a story that hasn’t even hinted at it, and then pretend it never happened in the next episode. Imagine if they had an episode of Law & Order involving Satanic sacrifice where Satan actually shows up, and then the next episode it’s back to the status quo.

Fuck you, Red Oaks.

Specifically, fuck you episode 7.

Other than that, I highly recommend the series. I love the pacing and the character development. I’m even willing to overlook the manic pixie dream girl/rich daddy’s girl trope as most of the characters are painted with pretty broad strokes. They do some smart things I’m not used to seeing. The friend’s pursuit of the life-guard is a sweet and well done arc. The trajectory of Nash, the tennis pro who is looking to better his situation, was surprisingly charming. The parents coming to terms with what’s going wrong in their marriage was sad and strangely perfect. And Craig Roberts who plays the lead, David, is outstanding. I’ll watch him in anything now.

All in all, it was a great way to spend 4 1/2 hours.

But seriously, skip episode 7. You’re not going to miss anything.

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