Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Goldbergs: “Livin’ on a Prayer”

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In the ever-crowded TV landscape, it never hurts for a new series to have a gimmick, and when The Goldbergs premiered last fall, it had one that ABC couldn't resist playing up whenever possible: It was set in the ’80s.

When in the ’80s? Well, that bit has always been left intentionally nebulous. No, actually, that’s not quite true: It’s not so much nebulous as it is that the series exists in its own pocket universe—where more or less everything that happened in pop culture between the beginning of 1980 and the end of 1989 can and will take place at any given moment if it happens to be conducive to a fun storyline. Yes, that’s the sort of thing that causes continuity freaks to completely lose their shit, but… well, it would be inappropriate to say “it’s only television,” as television pays my mortgage. Let’s just say that, on a list of things worth worrying about, the chronological accuracy of The Goldbergs is pretty low on the totem pole.

More importantly, as we delve into the season finale of the series’ first season (and in case you haven’t heard the news, yes, there will be a second season), it’s key to remember that, for as much as The Goldbergs enjoys offering entertaining tributes to the pop culture of the ’80s whenever the opportunity presents itself, the reason the series has increasingly become a must-see sitcom is less because of episodes that pay homage to The Goonies or feature Lazer Tag as a key plot point—although those were both pretty great—and more to do with its character development. It’s got a lot of heart, this show, and most of the stories it’s been telling about growing up and being part of a family would be effective in any decade.

Case in point: This very episode, which—were it not for the use of the Bon Jovi anthem which provides its title—could just as easily take place in 2014.

Take Murray Goldberg’s storyline, for instance. How many of us have been shocked to discover that our dads were actually interesting, once upon a time? Adam and his siblings have spent their lives presuming that their father was just an uncomplicated, relatively mundane guy. He lives a life in which ABC stands for “Always Be Comfortable” (hence the dropping of his britches as soon as he walks in the front door), sleeping in his easy chair constitutes a hobby, and an exciting Saturday night involves watching Fantasy Island. But in fact, he was once in the Army, used to wait tables with Lou Reed, survived a plane crash, and—in the revelation that drives the episode—set a record at his high school for the most free throws in a row (79).

After his record is broken, Murray’s high school opts to honor him for his achievement by inviting him to a banquet and and springing for a night’s stay in a downtown hotel. While he’s less than enthusiastic at first (“Here’s the thing about that: PASS!”), Beverly basically drafts him into going. In the end, it turns out that he probably should’ve gone with his instincts—after finally finding some excitement for the event, he hits the court at halftime and thoroughly embarrasses himself. But his initial decision to attend provides Barry with what briefly serves as the perfect opportunity to throw a big party to impress his dream girl, Lexy Bloom… or, you know, to at least get her to realize that he’s not actually Gustav, the school’s resident Swedish exchange student. Better yet, it’s a Pops-sanctioned party, since he admits: “I've been tracking your highs and lows this year. You need this.”


While the party starts off pitifully slow, it fulfills standard sitcom expectations by becoming a rager in short order, thanks to Erica playing the dutiful big sister and asking her friend Lainey to spread the word. Unfortunately, it soon starts raging a little too hard for Erica’s liking—hardcore partiers show up with beer in hand, kids run upstairs and raiding Beverly’s closet to turn it into a sweater party (oh, it’s totally a thing), and, if you’re playing Party Bingo at home, someone even puts a pizza on the turntable. Meanwhile, Adam’s dutifully filming every last moment of it, seeing his earlier prediction coming true before his very eyes: “This is gonna be my Risky Business!” All told, it’s everything Barry could’ve ever hoped for in a party—except for the fact that no one knows it’s his party (they all think it’s Erica’s farewell function for Gustav) and Lexy’s lips are locked some other guy.

So when do the episode’s two storylines collide? Not long after Murray decides that he’s had enough public embarrassment for one night and opts to head home, with a disappointed Beverly in tow. Barry has a sweet, heartfelt curbside chat with Lainey—I smell a girlfriend for Barry next season!—and decides to go inside and make his presence as party host known to the assembled masses, when his parents pull up and lose their collective minds. That’s when things take a slightly unexpected turn: Barry tells his dad that the party is basically going to be the best moment of his high school career and that he can’t just shut it down outright, and Murray, reflecting on a combination of his own experiences and his son’s general incompetence at sports, agrees to a compromise where Barry has 10 minutes to make his mark and create a moment that no one at the party will ever forget. And so he does, using “Livin’ on a Prayer” and some sweet-ass dance moves—after which Lainey provides him with a moment he won’t forget, doling out a kiss-slap-kiss combo to make Lexy jealous (even though her “wait, did I actually like that?” eyes reveal a set-up for season two).


In the end, Barry gets grounded but is still happy with the way things went, Murray decides that maybe sharing his past with his family is better than trying to relive it, and Adam offers a closing line that’s both a giddy fuck-you to the continuity freaks and a perfect summary of the series as a whole: “When it comes to my childhood, I may not always remember exactly when something happened or exactly who was there, but I do know that it was 1980-something… and it was awesome.” It’s a great way for the series to end its freshman year, and with the fall providing the series with a move to the best of all possible timeslots for a family sitcom (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., between The Middle and Modern Family), the future’s so bright for The Goldbergs

Nah, I can’t quote Timbuk 3. Even for The Goldbergs, that’s just a little too ’80s.


Stray observations:

  • Barry wants a party where kids are jumping off his roof and into the pool. The problem: They don’t have a pool. The solution: He’s bought an inflatable one, which he promptly passes on to Adam to blow up. Of course, Adam giddily replies, “I’m gonna go grab my inhaler and get started!”
  • Roger McFadden brought Bugles to the party. Too bad they’re for hot chicks only.
  • “Move over, Aunt Rose’s 50th: This is the hottest party this dining room has ever seen!”
  • “It was a very common shooting style!”
  • Nice to see the character of Nitrous again, and ever nicer to get that callback in the last moment to his last appearance.
  • “Time’s up! Get the hell out of my house!” “And leave my ******* sweaters!”