Crank up the way-back machine. Netflix’s Stranger Things has certainly raised the bar for 1980s nostalgia — so let’s head back to the suburbs of New Jersey in the era of Top Gun, Back to School, “Higher Love,” “Nasty,” and “Your Wildest Dreams.” On Nov. 10, Amazon dropped all 10 episodes of Red Oaks: Season 2 and we’re binging and recapping all the episodes now. There are two recaps per page, so feel free to dig in and read along while you watch.
Episode 1: “Paris”
Amazon’s 10-episode first season chronicled the misadventures of college student and tennis pro David (Craig Roberts) and concluded in a wonderfully elliptical fashion. We saw David’s almost-not-quite girlfriend, the artist Skye (Alexandra Socha), daughter of country club president Getty (Paul Reiser), plant a kiss on David after saying, “Come find me in Paris.” Cue the ecstatic, celestial snyth and strings of Exile’s “I Wanna Kiss You All Over.”
The premiere episode of season 2 finds David having followed Skye directive. The Welsh actor Craig Roberts (whose real name sounds just like an ’80s movie character) begins the episode in tight-close up, looking more like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate than ever.
The whole half-hour is set in the winter in Paris, France and serves almost as a European arthouse short film preamble to the actual series. Best of all, it’s directed by the American independent cinema master, Hal Harley, who helmed last season’s most deeply felt episode (“Fourth of July”) and is back behind the camera for five this season. That’s very good news.
For David and Skye, seeing each other again is also good news. Harley slows the episode’s pace and style to that of a French New Wave film. We see the couple kiss and then with one cut they’re laying lazy and naked on Skye’s French sofa — a stylistic trick taken right from Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut. If you enjoy this episode’s droll, languid style, by the way, check out Hartley’s Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), Henry Fool (1997), No Such Thing (2001), or Fay Grim (2006). You won’t be disappointed.
But when all the anticipation of blissful romance meets the real world of two people actually sharing the same space, there’s naturally unease. And that’s even before Skye’s parents (Reiser and Gina Gershon) arrive unexpectedly at her door, forcing a nude David — she was painting his portrait — to hide behind that same sofa. The tension of the story then escalates past David and Skye’s apprehensive coupling newness and up to David’s more overly complex relationship with Getty.
At a Parisian New Year’s Eve party, once David’s presence is discovered, he is snubbed by Getty, who does nothing to mask the fact that he thinks the young misfit is not quality material for his daughter. Gershon’s Fay Getty, caked in a hard, unsmiling exterior, has a few of the episode’s warmest moments as she acts kindly toward David despite her misgivings. This all, of course, is setting the table for the wistful, longing shadows of Red Oaks that will continue to darken over the next nine episodes, amid the usual sight gags, goofballs, and high-jinks.
There’s also potential for some funny real world irony — especially right now — with the upcoming insider trading trial awaiting Getty and his reference to the U.S. attorney who’s trying to take him down: “That rodeo clown Giuliani.” (As of this writing, the likeliest candidate for America’s next top cop in the administration of President Trump.)
“Paris” ends on an effective downbeat note, with Skye deciding to stay in Paris for six more months on her father’s dime. That’ll complicate things for her and David, for any number of reasons. The episode was written by series creators Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi (and filmmakers David Gordon Green and Steven Soderbergh are still on board as executive producers), and credit Hartley, a great partner in aesthetic and tone, for once again evoking that great, sweet melancholy at the end of this mini-movie hors d’oeuvre.
And in a show already trusted for its smart music choices, “Paris” closes — perfectly — with the throbs of New Order’s “Ceremony,” and the song’s touching, resonating lyrics, “Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time.”
Episode grade: A-
Episode 2: “Memorial Day”
Flash-forwarding six months later, Red Oaks finds its footing back in New Jersey. Over the course of this half hour, we discover what the large stable of supporting characters is up to, now nearly a year since we last saw them.
David’s bickering parents, Judy (Jennifer Grey) and Sam (Richard Kind), have entered a period of détente, thanks to their divorce, which is made official in the episode’s first scene. Tennis pro Nash (Ennis Esmer) has also split from his unseen wife, giving the ordinary chipper and unusually accented character an Eeyore gloominess.
Amid all that discord, Skye returns home finally to reunite with David. Parking valet and waiter Wheeler (Oliver Cooper) not splitting but still trying to hook up with lifeguard Misty (Alexandra Turshen). She is still cordial with her creepy-stud ex-boyfriend Steve (Nick Bailey), whose Patrick Bateman genes suddenly seem more amplified than they did last season.
And since this is the de facto first episode of the season, as it relates to the tennis club of the show’s title, it also introduces three areas of conflict, which no doubt the story will follow through the end.
First, that David’s ex Karen (Gage Golightly) is engaged to the pornstache photographer Barry (Josh Meyers), with nuptials scheduled for August 23. Who doesn’t love a TV wedding?
Second, that David has been rejected from re-enrolling at NYU film school, even though his parents had offered to fund his education with the sale of their house. Who doesn’t love a coming of age life choice?
And third, and potentially most interesting, in an effort to boot Getty, the club board decides to hold a recall election and remove him from the role of president. Who doesn’t love a new president? (That’s a rhetorical question.) Rather, who doesn’t love a juicy TV courtroom drama, even within a TV comedy? The upcoming trial of Getty is this season’s version of last year’s club tennis tournament. And we might see some of that, too.
Like the season premiere, “Memorial Day” was also written by series creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs and directed by the maestro Hal Hartley. The ground covered here feels a bit too familiar, but that’s also a symptom of reintroducing more than a dozen characters who audiences either have never seen — or if so, not for a year. If not for some of its characters, Red Oaks’ future is bright.
Episode grade: B
NEXT: Episodes 3 and 4