Let’s face some unsavory facts: the first season of “Stranger Things” is over and the show won’t be back until 2017. If you’re anything like me, there’s a gaping Eggo waffle-shaped void in your soul where Eleven and the rest of the Hawkins, Indiana gang used to reside. Was it the best new television series of 2016? Yes. Was it a wildly inventive breath of fresh air while lovingly calling back to the ‘80s-era horror and sci-fi pop culture made iconic by Stephen King and Steven Spielberg? Absolutely. Is there the aforementioned rupture in your very being that may or may not lead to the Upside Down? Oh, you bet your sweet Demogorgon there is! But does it need to stay that way? Not by a long shot.In times of great sorrow and impending doom, the Jewish people have always turned to a higher power for guidance. When Haman sought to destroy us, Esther fasted while Mordechai draped himself in sackcloth and ashes and took the streets as a sign of mourning. When the Greeks ransacked the Beit Hamikdash, the Jewish Holy Temple, the Maccabees still lit the menorah as a sign of faith. In each case, the Jewish nation received salvation: Haman’s plans royally backfired and the oil miraculously lasted for eight days.
What I’m trying to say is this: One should never lose hope, even in the darkest of times. Amazon Studios’ “Red Oaks” is another ‘80s, coming-of-age series that packs some serious Jewish overtones, making it just the remedy to turn to in these “Stranger”-less times.
Luckily, the show recently released its second season on Amazon Prime so you can binge your heart out, much like I did when I finally decided it was time to take a look into the world of a bizzaro country club populated almost entirely by Jews. These clubs, while wholly inclusionary today, were not always so happy or even willing to offer membership to Jews and Catholics. Because of this, we sometimes think of country clubs as highly exclusive places where rich, uptight WASPs go to play golf and lounge by the pool, where white-jacketed waiters bring them overpriced cocktails and chilled lobster ceviche that can be paid for with the simple flourish of one’s signature.
A Jewish country club is an intriguing idea in and of itself. Simply put, it’s as much a main character as it is the eponymous setting of “Red Oaks” (like Central Perk in “Friends”), and it’s here in Season 2 that we return to the ballad of character David Myers, tennis instructor and novice filmmaker. David is played by an actor who is nebbish personified, Craig Roberts. (Nebbish translation: Yiddish for a person, especially a man, regarded as pitifully ineffectual, timid, or submissive.) He’s finally shacked up with the girl he’s been pining after the entire last season, who also happens to be the free-spirited bohemian daughter (Alexandra Socha) of the country club’s president, Doug Getty (Paul Reiser), who is a total jerk.
Side note: I got to meet Paul Reiser at length this past summer, and he could not have been a nicer, funnier, and all-around not-at-all-like-his-character human being; not surprising because in the show he’s just, you know, acting. Still, he plays his part so well that you’d think his bullying demeanor as Getty comes naturally, and I’m here to tell you that’s just not the case. Moreover, Reiser (who will be in “Stranger Things” Season 2) was pitch-perfectly and nostalgically cast, considering his breakout roles came from some of the most well-known films of the 1980s such as “Diner,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” and “Aliens.”
Getty can be a total bully, but he’s a guy that you love to hate and, in terms of this season, he’s facing a war on two fronts. As a man who like control over everything – from his daughter’s love life to his Wall Street investment firm – he finds things slowly slipping out of his grasp. He’s under investigation for trading fraud and the club board is trying to unseat him as president due to his “embarrassing” legal troubles. Can he win back the presidency and avoid jail time? The second season does a tremendous job at balancing Getty’s precarious situations.
In a way, David finds himself in a similar situation. His parents are divorced, NYU has no room for him in their film program, and his relationship is in danger of hitting the rocks like a ship in choppy waters without a lighthouse to guide it. David is torn between his mother and father, torn between his rejection from NYU and his hazy future that he now must face, and torn between his quaint hometown in Jersey and his girlfriend’s hippy dippy pretentious art scene in Manhattan like Tony Manero trying to comprehend the grown-up world of Stephanie Mangano in “Saturday Night Fever.”
In a way, “Red Oaks” is like a parable for the 1980s as a self-contained, naive decade of neon-colored leotards, flamboyant hairstyles, and synth-pop. In the mid-80s, the world was rapidly changing with the AIDS epidemic and technology on the advance. By the time the 1990s rolled around and we marched toward a new millennium, the over-the-top partying of the last thirty years (i.e. hippies, free love, disco, drug use, the Safety Dance, etc.) was beginning to peter out. People needed to sober up, grow up, and step up to take control of their lives and the growing problems of the world.
Yet, in the midst of this commotion, the country club is the only place where things make sense, at least for a little while, because things are simpler at the club. Characters return there again and again, despite their mounting problems, to teach a tennis lesson, smoke a joint, whip up a cocktail, go for a swim, or try to curry favor with a wealthy Jewish widow.
In the periphery, we see bar mitzvahs and brises going on at the club, true representations of the show’s recurring theme: growing up and hitting those important watershed moments in our lives. Despite the varying ages of “Red Oaks” characters, they all have some growing up to do; they just need to take the necessary steps, which lead to some wacky hijinks. At face value, it is a follow-up to famous teen movies from the 1980s, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles,” but a little more mature in my humble opinion with a hard undercurrent of Jewish ethics to boot. Values like honoring one’s parents and derech eretz, proper manners, are a recurrent theme, given the generational gap portrayed in the show.
So, there you have it. “Red Oaks” is a comedy, to be sure, but there’s more under the surface, including profound lessons about life and Judaism While you’re waiting for “Stranger Things” to come back, I urge you to give this show a chance and let it be your salvation, restoring your faith in modern television like a lit menorah, especially since Hanukkah is coming up. As the Yiddish saying goes, “Onkuken kost kain gelt” or “It costs nothing to look”– unless you count the Amazon Prime subscription.
Josh Weiss is a senior at Drexel University in Philadelphia, studying Communications with a concentration in Public Relations.