Oct 17, 2016
Good Vibrations: Inside Amazon’s Red Oaks
It’s nearly 12:30 in the morning, and I’ve been on the Midtown Manhattan set of Red Oaks since 6:00. Not that it matters; time is relative, and on this night, it’s gone super quick—binge time quick, to some—as I got a look at how the sausage is made for last year’s most underrated new show.
Walking beneath the high ceilings of the apartment-converted set, previously seen on CBS’ Limitless and HBO’s Vinyl, I see crew members scattered throughout, snacking and chatting with one another while some actors still linger, almost ready to wrap for the day. Craig Roberts, the series’ lead, previously seen in Neighbors, 22 Jump Street, and Submarine, is still on set somewhere, but nowhere within earshot. Earlier in the evening I met Alexandra Socha, one of the lead actresses, but didn’t get a chance to formally interview her. She exits a filming room and is shocked to see me walking in her direction.
“Oh my god! You’re still here?” she asks with a hearty laugh.
Socha warns that she’s probably a bit delirious at the late hour, as we move to a quieter spot amidst enduring set activity. We find an isolated spot next to a piece of wood leaning against a nearby wall, but about halfway through my first question, someone comes over who needs to move that very piece of wood. She laughs again.
“You’re here on, like, our one crazy night where everybody is losing their minds,” she says. “But in general, it’s just a good vibe on set.”
Her words ‘good vibe’ catch my attention. Quickly, I flip through my notebook to something I had jotted down a few hours earlier, sitting with show producers Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi, chatting freely about other TV shows like HBO’s The Night Of—Gangemi hadn’t seen it yet, but was very excited by the premise that I described—and watching takes. I had written those exact words: “Good Vibes,” underlined twice in my near-illegible handwriting.
In essence, that’s what Red Oaks, premiering its second season on November 11, is all about. Evoking memories of genre films from the ’80s like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, the series also shares the benefit of hindsight and a level of similarity with other ‘period’ films of the era like Wet Hot American Summer and The Royal Tenenbaums. The result is a first season of 10 half-hour episodes that can be just as charming and fun as emotionally attaching.
Roberts may or may not have fallen asleep that night, so I arrange to return to the set the next day to chat with the show’s Welsh leading man. David Meyers, as Roberts plays him, isn’t much like the underdog typically found rising to the top in coming-of-age movies. As a matter of fact, he’s confident and well-liked, but simply at an impasse. Also, the actor is not a fan of the phrase ‘coming-of-age’ at all.
“Nobody ever gets to a point where, you know, “Oh, I know everything!” he tells me. “My grandmother is not ‘of age’ yet, I wouldn’t say, because she doesn’t have all the knowledge.”
Roberts is quick on his feet to list off a few different influences on his character: Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale (another ‘80s period piece) and Harold and Maude (“For the staring. I do a lot of staring,” he qualifies.) come first, but the strongest comparison he mentions is Benjamin Braddock, Dustin Hoffman’s stuck-at-a-crossroads titular character in The Graduate. Both are well-adjusted, good-intentioned, and simply looking for guidance. But where they get that guidance, and what road they take once they reach the inevitable fork in the road? Learning that is the point of sharing the journey. As the “audience’s eyes,” as Roberts puts it, both Red Oaks’ David and Graduate’s Benjamin play that role.
David’s character has several father figures, including Richard Kind, who plays his real father, and Paul Reiser, who plays big shot Doug Getty, president of the series’s titular country club, a surrogate father to David, and literal father to Socha’s character, Skye. Reiser is the relative sitcom veteran of the cast, having starred in Mad About You in the ’90s, guested on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and recently headlining his own short-lived namesake NBC sitcom.
For someone who’s been in the business for such a long time—his breakthrough role came in 1982’s Diner—Reiser has quickly adapted to the world of streaming television. “I only hear from people who love it, and I’m always surprised when somebody does, because it seems like it hasn’t really broken through yet. I’m hoping season two helps that,” he says, before detailing how there’s just so much content out there for people to sift through that, naturally, a show will take some time to catch on.
I watch Reiser work his way through a scene with Gina Gershon, who plays his wife, and Socha, and see a master at his craft. He confidently ad-libs different chunks of his lines with each take, and with each take, it works. Gangemi and Jacobs love it, and so do those sharing the screen.
Doug Getty’s setup—he’s abrasive, brash, and rude—is typical of the ‘80s movie villain. But the benefit of a series, Reiser tells me, is that character archetypes can go by the wayside, and they have the freedom for shades of gray and nuance within characters. “You have a season, ten episodes. That’s five hours. That’s two movies.” he says. “And now, with a second season, we’re doing a third and fourth movie, so by definition, you have to make it more interesting and textured. It can’t just be cardboard, ‘Oh, he’s the bad guy, he’s the good guy.’”
The cast ranges wide, as well. Apart from the core cast on set that day, there’s a standout turn from Ennis Esmer (who has a background in improv from the Second City) whop plays tennis pro Nash and is a big brother figure to David. Josh Meyers takes a Wodoerson-esque turn as the slightly-too-old-to-be-there photographer. Project X’s Oliver Cooper plays Wheeler, a drug dealing goofball friend of David’s who sees his own B-plot throughout the run. ’80s icon Jennifer Grey plays David’s mother, and Gage Golightly plays club yoga instructor Karen. In season two, John Hodgman also joins the cast as a special guest for half of the episodes.
The timing for Red Oaks couldn’t be much better. Its November release date comes hot on the heels of a summer where ‘80s homages became hip again, thanks to Netflix’s Stranger Things and it’s numerous Spielberg/Ambln homages. People are hungry for more of it in a world that’s embraced the return of music on Vinyl and ripped denim. Independent filmmaker Hal Hartley will return to direct five of the season’s ten episodes, as will Clueless and Fast Times director Amy Heckerling, and Pineapple Express’ David Gordon Green.
The first season of Red Oaks did things that aren’t being done elsewhere on television—combining humor and style, and mixing nostalgic comedy with drama. Nothing else on TV or streaming is quite the same. And, oh man, the music. It’s perfect. Jacobs and Gangemi make sure to talk about that with me. Songs are hand-picked on a situational basis, and must evoke a memory or feeling. The second season’s trailer is paired sublimely with Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” Try not to get slightly emotional when you hear it.
Sights for the new Red Oaks season are set even higher, with big plans to dive more deeply into the characters themselves. “I think it feels like it’s stepping out of adolescence.” Roberts tells me. “People use the word ‘Dramedy,’ but I don’t even understand that. Life has Drama and Comedy, and I think that’s what’s the best. I mean, my favorite stuff is the stuff that’s sad, but then also very funny at the same time, and I think that’s what this holds. It’s a nail-bomb. It has a lot in it, and a lot of laughs, too.”
Roberts compares the show’s second season to The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach’s 2005 divorce character study. He’s not far off, even down to the main character. His performance gives off very Eisenberg vibes. Why can’t this 25-year-old thespian follow the same path as his former co-star (The Double, 2013)? Eisenberg may be an accomplished writer, having published stories in The New Yorker and his own book of short stories, but Roberts is no slouch off-screen himself. Gangemi and Jacobs rave, as Roberts films a scene, of his remarkable feat: he directed his first feature film, Just Jim, which he co-starred in with Emile Hirsch, between the filming of the first and second season, and is getting ready to shoot the follow-up after season two wraps.
When I ask how the experience directing has changed his on-screen manner, he gives me a rather thoughtful answer, detailing how much more he feels for the director, the importance of asking questions, and the conscientiousness of time. “…but also, I’ve learned how limited my skills are,” he tells me. And because I do not share his same conscientiousness of time, and am nervous talking to him, his self-depreciating joke flies ten feet and 90 miles-per-hour over my momentarily ignorant head—at least until I hear it later on playback. “Like, it’s not much there,” he says in a deadpan tone. “Having acted and directed myself. It’s pretty depressing.”
But being the professional he is, Roberts answers my next question as if I hadn’t just missed his joke, and tells me that his career highlight to date has been improvising with Jonah Hill on the set of 22 Jump Street, in which he had a small part.
The professionalism of the cast is something remarkable, and for being such young actors—Roberts is 25, and Socha is 26—it’s off the charts. In season two, it sounds like that maturity could flow into the content as well. “To me, season two is what happens after the ‘80s movie ends,” Socha tells me, as we continue talking next to a random piece of wood in the middle of the night. “It feels more like the characters, the younger ones, are really having to look at what their lives are going to be, and really having to really think about the adults they need to turn into.”
With Red Oaks, Roberts, Socha, and the rest of the cast have found a tremendous starring vehicle for themselves, one with the support of a streaming giant for a network, and experienced producers. Did I mention Steven Soderbergh is one of them? He and Jacobs—who directed last summer’s Magic Mike XXL—are longtime producing partners, so Soderbergh is credited here as an Executive Producer. With all of that thrown into the mix, plus a nice, hearty helping of “good vibes,” Red Oaks season two might just have hit upon the right recipe for a breakthrough.
Photos Courtesy Of Amazon Studios
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