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Coming-of-age comedy 'Red Oaks' is, like, totally sincere about the '80s

The air was thick with the smell of freshly cut grass and hair spray.

As dozens of extras clad in madras pants and popped-collar Lacoste shirts tried to stay cool in the sweltering July heat, director David Gordon Green conferred with actors Craig Roberts, Ennis Esmer and Paul Reiser on a sun-drenched tennis court. On the set of the Amazon comedy "Red Oaks," present-day Westchester County was standing in for suburban New Jersey in the summer of 1985 — those heady days of "Back to the Future," Live Aid and Just Say No.

After a few minutes' deliberation over the upcoming scene, a climactic match between Reiser's character, the arrogant president of the Red Oaks Country Club, and his chief rival, it was time to roll: In character as Nash, the club's lecherous tennis pro, Esmer extended his arms outward like a circus ringmaster and asked, "Who among us is ready for some tennis?"

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Amazon is hoping viewers are ready for some '80s nostalgia — if not forehands and serves — when "Red Oaks" premieres Oct. 9 on the streaming service. Created by Greg Jacobs and Joe Gangemi and executive produced by Green and Steven Soderbergh, the series is a coming-of-age tale that hearkens back to the sun-soaked, youthful romps of the go-go Reagan era.

The angsty young protagonist is David Meyers (Roberts), an NYU student with vague ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. For the time being, however, he's busy with a summer job as an assistant tennis pro — one that brings this middle-class kid in close contact with the club's wealthy clientele, including Getty (Reiser), a corporate raider. Naturally, David is also confused romantically, torn between Karen (Gage Golightly), his foxy but boring aerobics instructor girlfriend, and Skye, an adventurous art student (Alexandra Socha).

Along with the beer chugging, pot smoking and sexual high jinks one would expect, "Red Oaks" also delivers some ennui. The pilot, directed by Green, opens with a darkly humorous scene in which David's father (Richard Kind) collapses from a heart attack and, assuming death is imminent, makes a startling confession about his marriage that proves quite awkward when he survives.

"It's a show that's about a lot of tough choices at a time in life when you're particularly indecisive," said Gangemi, resting in the air-conditioned clubhouse during a production break. "We really wanted to set up a character who was at the center of a lot of people giving him unsolicited life advice."

"Red Oaks" is Amazon's latest foray into scripted, half-hour series that toe the line between comedy and drama — an area where the streaming outlet has had some notable successes. It follows five-time Emmy winner "Transparent," which stars Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman who comes out late in life; "Catastrophe," a bawdy romantic comedy that received glowing reviews when it premiered in June; and "Mozart in the Jungle," set in the world of classical music.

The series is partially inspired by Jacobs' summertime stints as, yes, an assistant tennis pro at a New Jersey country club in the 1980s. "I'd been telling anecdotes over the years and Steven had encouraged me to write them down," he said, referring to Soderbergh, the filmmaker he's collaborated with for the better part of the last two decades. With help from his buddy, Gangemi, a screenwriter and novelist, Jacobs reconceived it as a series.

Green, a filmmaker with a fondness for coming-of-age stories dating to his 2000 debut "George Washington," was enlisted to direct three episodes, including the pilot, and has played a hands-on role as an executive producer, helping nail down the tone and weighing in on casting decisions.

"I read it like someone was writing my biography," Green said of the pilot. "A kid who wants to get into film and chase girls? That's kind of the way my life has been the past 40 years."

"Red Oaks" lands amid a wave of '80s nostalgia on the small screen, including the ABC sitcom "The Goldbergs," the Netflix revival "Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp" and even the FX spy drama "The Americans." But the series treads lightly on the potential minefield of cliches presented by the decade; "The Wedding Singer," it most certainly isn't.

For added authenticity, Amy Heckerling, the auteur behind the teen classics "Clueless" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," directed two episodes.

"We wanted it to feel as if it was something from that era, not gimmicky," said Jacobs, likening the series to " 'The Graduate' meets 'Caddyshack.'" (Throughout the day, the references fly as freely as the tennis balls: "The Flamingo Kid," "Harold and Maude," "The Wonder Years" and "Freaks and Geeks" are also cited as influences.)

The goal was to avoid pastiche or making wink-wink allusions to '80s kitsch, like Rubik's Cubes or New Coke, even if the casting of "Dirty Dancing" star Jennifer Grey as David's mother does feel a touch meta. The songs on the soundtrack are deeper cuts by Billy Ocean and Sweet rather than the era's greatest hits, and the hair is big, but "not so big that it distracts from the performance," said Gangemi. "Sincerity is our operating principle across the board."

The period setting also allows for a purity that wouldn't be possible in a contemporary time frame, said Roberts — who was, it should be noted, not born until 1991. "There's a lack of innocence now. Ferris Bueller skips school and goes to an art gallery and everyone's like, 'That's badass.' Now you've got to burn a house down to make an impression."

The series also represents a kind of coming of age for Jacobs, who has worked closely with Soderbergh as an assistant director and producer. Jacobs seems similarly compelled to skip among genres, moving from the stripper dramedy "Magic Mike XXL" to the gritty Cinemax medical series "The Knick," on which he serves as an executive producer, to "Red Oaks."

This breadth of experience has been useful as Jacobs moves into the world of series television. "Having to work fast and for a price doesn't terrify me," he said.

Amazon encouraged Jacobs and Gangemi to think of the 10-episode season as a single, five-hour movie. This approach helped steer the writers away from typical sitcom pacing and toward a long-form narrative that would ideally entice viewers to watch many episodes in a single sitting. Indeed, the streaming service is so committed to the binge-viewing model that Joe Lewis, head of comedy at Amazon Studios, assembled a first-of-its-kind binge table-read before "Red Oaks" went into production.

"We learned things about the story you never would have learned watching episodically or writing episodically," Lewis said of the six-hour experiment. "That's what I love about the platform: It allows you to tell longer, deeper stories."

Amazon's approach has proved enticing to behind-the-scenes talent. "It's an opportunity for independent-minded filmmakers, people that want to do things that are a little weird," said Green, who's dabbled in TV, most notably the HBO series "Eastbound & Down," between directing films. "That's the cool thing about television right now, networks like Amazon are not necessarily just going for ratings or viewers. It's not just the biggest hit, it's what gets people talking."

Reiser, a TV veteran whose experience spans network and cable realms, is equally pleased to be working with an outlet that was, as he puts it, once best known for "books and garden hoses."

"The only hard part," he said, "is explaining to my 80-year-old mother-in-law how to watch it."

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For the Record
Oct. 2, 5:21 p.m.: An earlier version of this article quoted Paul Reiser as saying the hard part about "Red Oaks" is explaining to his mother how to watch it. The quote should have said "mother-in-law."
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