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January 10, 2017

Paris Calling

When the storyline heads to the city of lights, so too go the cast and crew of Red Oaks.

Benji Wilson
  • Christopher Raphael

Amazon Studios has been on something of an old-style European Grand Tour.

While the third season of Mozart in the Jungle ventured to Venice, Red Oaks — an 80s comedy set in a New Jersey country club — proceeded to Paris to film an episode of its sophomore 10-part season, which debuted November 11.

It’s uncommon for a show set in a specific milieu — in this case, a pompous club — to break out of its boundaries. But when the gawky teen tennis coach on Red Oaks, David (Craig Roberts), falls for Skye (Alexandra Socha), she heads to Paris — and so does he.

For creator–executive producers Greg Jacobs and Joe Gangemi, there were two good reasons to shoot on location: it felt right, and Amazon executives said they could.

“Workplace comedies came about in the network world as a cost-effective thing,” Jacobs explains. “You set up your little world, and then you stick with it. We had the idea with Amazon to expand the world beyond the parameters of the country club.”

But permission to travel is not the only freedom granted to the writer-producers by the streaming service.

“Amazon said to us, ‘People tend to watch these [episodes] in twos and threes. So you don’t have to feel obligated to tell stories that wrap up every episode. They’re going to watch them anyway,’” continues Jacobs, whose fellow exec producers also include Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green.

“That changes the tempo of the storytelling a little bit. You can allow a storyline to play out over a longer time than the classic sitcom, where you always have to set up and resolve [the story] in 22 minutes.”

Joe Lewis, Amazon Studios’ head of half-hour and drama series development, says the company’s mission has been no less than to re-invent the definition of television.

“We want to lead the charge to figure out what the future of storytelling looks like,” he says. “This series is designed to play as a five-hour movie, taking advantage of the unique nature of our distribution.

"I think it [and Mozart in the Jungle] are taking chances on every page to reinvent what long-form storytelling can be.” In this case, without the strictures of broadcast-network comedy, the jokes are written differently, too.

“We don’t start with the punch lines and then work backwards,” Jacobs says. “And we don’t have the demands of some networks, which include a certain number of jokes per page. That is an art form, and it’s impressive when people can do it on shows like Modern Family.

"But [here] the story is first, and the jokes are the last piece of the puzzle.” What made Red Oaks work in its first season was the fine line it walked between spoofing 80s coming-of-age comedies and still being a great retro comedy in its own right.

“We never wanted the laughs to be about the props and the brick-size cellphones,” Jacobs says. “The fun thing for us about season two,” he adds, “was, it’s not just David or the kids finding themselves — even the grownups are discovering who they really are.”

And self-discovery in the world’s most romantic city is hard to beat.

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