The Goldbergs is more than an ’80s nostalgia machine
B+

The Goldbergs is more than an ’80s nostalgia machine

B+

The Goldbergs

Season 1

Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

There are plenty of television programs built around groups of people bonded by circumstance rather than blood. ABC’s comedy lineup examines a more traditional notion of family, and in that regard the network has crafted one of the more consistent, thematically related suite of programs on TV. It only took a few moments of the pilot episode of The Goldbergs to register as part of ABC’s family of family-centric comedies. But while Modern Family still garners the highest ratings, and shows like Trophy Wife and Suburgatory attract more critical acclaim, The Goldbergs might be the network’s most consistent comedic performer at this point. It’s achingly earnest, but earns not only some big laughs but also some emotional moments as well.

It’s easy to call The Goldbergs an ’80s nostalgia piece, but that’s a surface-level reading that undercuts the deeper elements at play. Plenty of viewers have been confused by the program’s steadfast refusal to reveal what year the show takes place. Indeed, when broken down, the cultural references constantly contradict each other. But that’s also beside the point. Created by Adam Goldberg (who also created Fox’s Breaking In) and based on his real-life upbringing, the show is nostalgic for childhood first, the family dynamic at that time second, and the 1980s a distant third. So it doesn’t really matter that toys invented in the middle of the decade show up inside a scene where family patriarch Murray (Jeff Garlin) is clearly watching the 1980 World Series. With Patton Oswalt providing modern-day narration for youngest son Adam (Sean Giambrone), The Goldbergs has license to employ an unreliable narrator, one that gets specific elements wrong but gets the broad strokes right. 

The word “broad” is often applied to this show, and it’s not always an unfair criticism. Both the pilot and last week’s Thanksgiving-centric episode fall prey to the “louder is funnier” school of writing, with each episode turning up the noise so much that you might beg for a commercial. But overall, the show does eschew that ear-piercing decibel level, choosing instead to depict the life of a family that often fights but is not antagonistic towards one another as a default setting. 

That difference is key to understanding the low-key charms of The Goldbergs: These are people who quarrel quite often, but always and ever love one other underneath the hurled invective. The closest current comparison comes from Parks And Recreation, another show that constantly creates conflict between fundamentally good people. It’s something of a staple in The Goldbergs’ structure that the last act features emotional moments between its characters to provide a release valve for simmering tensions. But the underlying appreciation that is demonstrated even when the family is bickering helps those last few minutes feel less like unearned emotional manipulation and more like people remembering how much more enjoyable it is to live in harmony.

None of this is remotely sexy stuff, but it’s utterly welcome all the same. The characters on display don’t break any new ground: the overprotective mother Beverley (Wendi McLendon-Covey), the overwhelmed father Murray, and the oversexed grandfather Albert (George Segal) all exist in many other shows. Similarly, the three children—popular oldest teen daughter Erica (Hayley Orrantia), awkwardly aggressive middle Barry (Troy Gentile), and nerdish youngest boy Adam—are likewise stock characters. The Goldbergs reinvents neither the wheel nor anything else in its construction. But it gives those stereotypes enough personality and spin to breathe dimension into each scene. That specificity can come from the intense, barely contained worry behind the eyes of matriarch Beverly, or the hyper-articulate-yet-never-cloying speech of Giambrone, or the utterly good heart beneath the bravado of Barry. These little elements have added up over the course of the show’s Fall run. Now what you have is not just a series of references to Tron and Night Ranger but one featuring a fleshed-out family with whom it’s enjoyable to spend some time each week.

No one will ever accuse The Goldbergs of being groundbreaking, but that’s not its goal. What may have started out as a way for a creator to pay tribute to the childhood that inspired the show has transformed into a tribute to the types of comedies many current viewers grew up on. Sure, The Goldbergs features blurred-out F bombs that signify that these episodes were written and produced now. But its narrative roots draw from programs such as The Cosby Show and Family Ties, shows that celebrated familial love not as something to be ironically mocked but openly celebrated. The Goldbergs isn’t on the level of those shows, and it may never be. But its roots are welcome just the same, especially at a time in which poor behavior and selfishness are the primary sources of comedy.

There has yet to be a start-to-finish classic episode of The Goldbergs, but the nine episodes that have aired have yielded enough small scenes, finely crafted lines of dialogues (“Where's the woman who gave me life and nothing more?”), and wordless gazes between people to put most new Fall shows to shame. The charm of the program doesn’t rest in its byzantine plotting. It rests with Barry and Adam inventing Ball-Ball, with Albert coming to grips with his mortality, with Erica gazing fondly at her two brothers while they remain ignorant of her presence, with Beverly realizing the dozens of ways in which loutish Murray demonstrates his spousal devotion without her even realizing it. These are real, affecting, effective moments. It’s difficult to believe such moments exist if all you had to go on was ABC’s garish marketing campaign and images of Jeff Garlin walking around in his underwear. But they are there all the same.

Cynicism is easy. Optimism is difficult. The Goldbergs opts for optimism each and every time. That makes an easy target for mockery. But that optimism and fundamental affection for its characters also makes it a welcome part of the overall television landscape.

Created by: Adam F. Goldberg 
Starring: Jeff Garlin, Wendi McLendon-Covey, George Segal 
Airs: Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Eastern on ABC 
Format: single-camera half-hour sitcom 
Entire series watched for review