Red Oaks exists in that realm of comedy where it’s not a drama — you don’t have a character like Barry who is going to say things like, “This cassingle is so boss” if you’re looking to make a drama — but it also rarely has comedic setpieces either, much in the same way that Transparent isn’t a drama but you rarely laugh out loud at it (director Nisha Ganatra is a veteran of the Amazon critical juggernaut). But “Swingers” was the funniest episode, in the traditional sense, of Red Oaks’ run.
Red Oaks has this mix of caricatures and characters that “feel real” that works sometimes — Nash remains complex even though he can lunge on a chair and describe his Allah-given legs — and sometimes it doesn’t — I got a kick out of Barry at first, but his shtick wears thin, and he’s one of the few characters that keeps hammering home that this show takes place in the ’80s (hence the cassingle remark). The Blums worked because they weren’t as ridiculous (as Barry is), and their level of caricature put David and Wheeler in a funny situation. Their outsized personalities had a function. Nash’s characterization even has a function — to mask the inherent sadness of his character. Barry’s has no function, he could still woo Karen even if he didn’t mention cassingles.
But that function was phenomenal. The Blums (played by James Waterston and Rachel Feinstein, the latter is a regular on Inside Amy Schumer) are so committed to their task. They won’t start the, uh, action until David says action. Yet, they open the door in their dental uniforms, holding their cat (I have not laughed harder at anything in this series than the mentions of the cat: “I want to shake you hand, I’m Mittens!” “Hi Mittens!”). But put the camera on them, and they get to be free. Karen experiences the same freedom, even if it’s a considerably more hesitant freedom and will likely not turn out well for her in the end. The presence of the camera does not just imbue the subjects of each shot with a degree of freedom, but the ones wielding it as well. David seems passionate and interested, committed to giving the Blums the best sex tape that money can buy (“Apparently, they liked the video I shot of the Cornblatt wedding”). The same power is given to Barry. Holding a camera, he can convince Karen to take her top off, in the name of art or beauty or whatever he whispers into her ear. But as soon as the artifice of the camera is gone, when he goes in for the kiss, she rejects him. She’s still with David.
I have not been the biggest fan of Wheeler since the beginning. He feels cut off from the main action, living out a story that gets a lot of attention but has no connection to our hero, David. This was the first episode where they spent a measurable amount time together, rather than short conversations in passing. I wish this episode had come earlier if only because I would be more invested in his character. But like the Blums, who he is inside his house is so very different than who he is outside of that. The opening scene where he took care of his little brother and sister were more illuminating than anything else he has said this season. We didn’t need to learn where his parents were, we didn’t need to know why he was in charge. Here’s a guy whose job it is to make sure grandma’s still breathing and get lunch in knapsacks, but when he steps outside in his uniform and lights up the joint, all of those responsibilities melt away.
This would not be an episode of Red Oaks if it did not feel tragic in some way and the tragedy in “Swingers” came in the form of a look. Skye, at one point, sees her dad sleeping by the pool. Earlier in the episode, Getty laments the gulf that has grown between them — they might not have been close but they were close-ish and that’s what matters to him. When she spies him splayed out on the pool chair, she tenderly looks at him and takes off his glasses, folding his book away, like a parent would do for a sleeping child. This is directly contrasted by David, who comes home from shooting the Blums. Sam is on the couch and David looks at him with this look of intense pity and sadness. Sam is unhappy and is doing nothing about it. David does not want to end up on the couch.