I distinctly remember marathoning season 1 of Red Oaks and being disappointed that it wasn’t more Jersey*. Sure, the fictional town and country club were NYC adjacent, but little beyond that would give away its setting. Where were the diners and the Pork Roll? (I know, I know, it’s Taylor Ham up North.)
Funnily enough, that all seemed to change in the second season. Not the diner or pork roll part, but the show did more to establish location with mentions of Rutgers and a road trip to Atlantic City. But even beyond that, David’s season two storyline managed to capture a very specific Jersey vibe of being an underdog, of being in the “shadow of the city” to borrow a term coined by musician Jack Antonoff.
Although Antonoff was referring to his music festival of the same name when he explained the meaning, the phrase nonetheless applies more broadly to the Garden State and its residents:
The term “shadow of the city,” specifically, means what it sounds like. New Jersey is such a unique place because it is literally in the shadow of the greatest city in the entire world. So that creates an unmistakable feeling, good and bad. You’re the constant younger brother. You’re constantly looking through the window at the party. You’re always less.” [Source]
To me, that feeling succinctly sums up what it’s like growing up in New Jersey. (It’s where we get our charming attitude from.) And in the case of Red Oaks, you can see that inferiority complex play out in David’s perception of his relationship with Skye and her family and with his uncertain career path.
Granted, David’s insecurities about his relationship with Skye aren’t unfounded as Getty so directly told him in the second season premier:
You’re a nice enough kid. You’re just not good enough for my daughter. And I don’t say that to offend you. This is not me being an overprotective father. This is just me being a good judge of character. In my line of work, you get very good at picking winners. And when I look at you, that’s not what I see.” (“Paris” 2×1)
Besides delivering a verbal dressdown, Getty is David’s boss and the President of the Red Oaks Country Club. He’s also a Wall Street banker. His family is loaded and David is just an employee. Ultimately, David is on the outside looking in at the world of rich New York City businessmen living the suburban dream in New Jersey.
Not that David wants in on that lifestyle; his dream is to become a filmmaker. But that’s a more achievable dream in New York, not at the local community college. He doesn’t have access to equipment and his recent work is mostly comprised of weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and Bris, not the serious and artsy (aka pretentious) stuff Skye’s New York friends proclaim to create.
With NYU’s film school temporarily off the table, David finds his dreams even more out of reach despite just being on the other side of the river. Even when he thinks he’s found a solution via work at a public access television station, it quickly becomes clear that it wouldn’t be anything more than a stop-gap measure, not a viable way to break into filmmaking. As Travis, his middle-aged sort-of boss from the TV station puts it:
You’re not gonna figure it out here. I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a nice town. You can raise a family here, meet other camera enthusiasts, swap polaroids of your ex-wives. If that’s your thing, great. But if your thing is making movies, it’s not happening in Jersey.” (“The Verdict” 2×10)
And there’s the rub. Jersey is a perfectly fine place to live and work, despite what many would lead you to believe, but like most other cities and states, if you want to be an artist like Skye or a filmmaker like David, it’s not the place for you. It’s just that much more of a tease when you can literally see where you need to be.
But being less doesn’t stop you from striving for more, and like any kid from Jersey, David is both stubborn and tenacious. He doesn’t let Getty dissuade him from being with Skye and despite the numerous roadblocks and doubters, David doesn’t abandon his dream of becoming a filmmaker either. Even with ‘safer’ job prospects on the table, he opts to figure things out by forging ahead.
The season ends with David taking the plunge and moving to New York City, sans any real plans. But with no job and no more college on the immediate horizon, the deck is still stacked against him. If he fails, he certainly won’t be the first, but if he returns home to New Jersey he’ll have to live in the shadow of the city once more.
*By “more Jersey” I do not mean more like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Those shows do not accurately reflect what it’s like to live in the Garden State.