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Red Oaks, Ep. 1.01: “Pilot” is enjoyable, but capable of more

Red Oaks, Ep. 1.01: “Pilot” is enjoyable, but capable of more
Red Oaks S01E01

Craig Roberts, Richard Kind

Red Oaks, Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Written by Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi
Directed by David Gordon Green
Released August 28, 2014 by Amazon

Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh recently made a new foray into television following his announced retirement from filmmaking to helm all episodes of the first season of Showtime’s The Knick. That’s not the only tv project Soderbergh is involved in, however, as he has also teamed up with filmmaker David Gordon Green, among others, as a producer for the potential series Red Oaks. Following a university student in 1985 New Jersey as he tries to figure out the next stage of his life while working at a tennis club, Amazon and the creators have released the pilot online in hopes of getting a series order. The pilot, while not touching on the full potential of the show, is nonetheless an entertaining episode with a lot of promise for the series.

The tennis club setting, while not necessarily unique in the history of film or television, is nonetheless an interesting and potential-rich location to set the series. The decision to have the staff comprised of university students helps remove any potential issues relating to social classes, and allows for a more light-hearted exploration of the dynamics at play in such a club. However, stretching this out over the course of a series also allows for an in-depth exploration of the characters and how they relate to each other. The pilot hints at one of the possibilities the increased time allows, as it gives David two potential father figures in Nash and Getty alongside his own father. An exploration of how different ideas of success help shape a person’s future and outlook on life is a fascinating idea, and one that Red Oaks is uniquely positioned to explore, should it go to series. The pilot already shows a degree of promise in this direction with the wide range of characters it introduces, and the setting also allows for new characters with a number of different viewpoints to be introduced and fleshed out. How the series takes advantage of this has the potential to be a strong point, if not a highlight of the show as a whole, and hopefully it’s not squandered if the show gets picked up.

Red Oaks s1e1

Craig Roberts, Gage Golightly

The series’ period setting is a bit odd, however, as the pilot doesn’t give any indication of why the creators chose not to set the show in the present. Many of the conflicts faced, from David’s attempt to figure out his life and gain the respect of Getty to Wheeler’s search for respect are universal ideas that could just as easily have been explored if the series had been set in present day. Hopefully setting the show in 1985 will prove to be more than a gimmick should this pilot go to series, as it currently seems to be little more than a reason to showcase 80s aerobics costumes. The show can take advantage of this setting to show not only the changes in fashion and technology, but also how shifting economic winds affect the fate of maturing and established individuals in this time period, a theme that’s not out of the grasp of some of the creative team.

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One of the major negative aspects of this pilot, however, is its treatment of women. Four female characters are introduced in the pilot, none of whom get fleshed out to the degree that other members of the supporting cast do. This is particularly disappointing in the case of Jennifer Grey, who gets only two scenes in the pilot. More importantly, however, with David gaining two potential father figures in the pilot and having a conversation with his real father, the impact of men on his life is clearly outlined. However, David doesn’t get a similar conversation with his mother, and the only other women he interacts with are both set up as love interests. This issue is one the show can easily fix, and hopefully it is given the opportunity to do so, as the pilot is an enjoyable episode despite the issues. If the show were to tackle weightier problems related to adolescence and how growing up and living in the 80s affected people differently, it has the potential to be special. If it continues in the vein it displayed in the pilot, however, it will still be a fun series to watch, and it will be nice to see the show get a greenlight from Amazon, if for no other reason than to see what the creators have in mind for the series’ direction.

– Deepayan Sengupta

The full set of reviews for Amazon’s third wave of pilots can be found here.