The Goldbergs has been sold as the post-millennial The Wonder Years, except the show is set in the 1980s and features a very loud Jewish family, headed by dad Murray (Jeff Garlin) and mom Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey). The show is narrated by an adult Adam (voiced by Patton Oswalt), who is played as a child by Sean Giambrone. Adam also has two siblings, older brother Barry (Troy Gentile) and his sullen sister Erika (Haley Orrantia). Also on the show is George Segal as the eccentric grandfather.
I missed the pilot, so I don’t know how the characters were introduced, but that’s not necessary – they are all such extreme cardboard cutouts that even the most oblivious viewer will catch up in like, four seconds. The plot has the teenaged Erika growing up and facing the kinds of issues her dad finds completely alien. So the way he deals with this new development in his family dynamic is to just ignore his daughter. Beverly is also unhappy with the rapid aging of her children, particularly her youngest Adam. So each parent goes toe-to-toe with their wayward kid, tying to assert his/her parental authority and to stymie the growing up process.
With Adam, all this manifests itself in back to school clothes shopping – a tradition Bev has honored for years. Unfortunately for Adam, her idea of hip clothes for a seventh grader is a puffy sweatshirt with a cartoon train, with a matching train conductor’s hat. Segal’s cool grandpa comes to the rescue getting the kid some cooler clothes – and when I say cooler, I mean cooler according to what creator and writer Adam F. Goldberg thought was cooler when he was a kid: acid washed jeans, a polo shirt, and a Day-Glo windbreaker. This sets off a duel between mother and son, with results so predictable and sappy, I thought I stumbled onto an episode of Full House.
The far more interesting storyline dealt with Murray’s discomfort with his daughter becoming a young woman. While hardly a new terrain for sitcoms, the father-daughter disconnect is dealt with rather intelligently and with a lot of good humor. Intent on bonding with his growing child, Murray drags Erika to the roller rink, as if she were 10, and the proceeds to treat her like a child, plying her with promises of nachos, candy, and an unsuccessful stab at winning her a stuffed unicorn from one of those claw machines. With her guard down, Erika starts to share. A lot. And Murray is completely unnerved and lost, reverting back to his “ignorance is bliss” mantra, insisting that the two spend the rest of their Daddy Daughter Day in silence. Their story ends on a happy, wistful note, as well – and as with Bev’s and Adam’s plot, it’s obvious that there will be some kind of resolution. But because the interaction between Garlin and Orrantia is pretty deep and complex, you won’t mind the paint-by-numbers denouement of their story line.
From the trailer, I understood that oldest son Barry was the protagonist of the pilot, but in this episode, he’s shunted off to the side, more of a punchline than a contributing character. That’s a shame because Goldberg does something pretty intriguing with him. Ostensibly in a “rap club” (a priceless line from Garlin), Barry is actually a closet roller skater, spending clandestine afternoons showing off his skills on the rink, and feeling confident. Despite merciless teasing from Erika and Murray (which, to Goldberg’s credit could’ve devolved into immature homophobia, but didn’t), Barry’s confident in himself, and brushes off their taunts with his head held high. Being yourself when others make fun of you about something isn’t easy, so it’s kind of nice to see that Barry doesn’t seem all that bothered by his family’s disdain.
Judging from this episode, The Goldbergs is a pretty shallow, but fitfully entertaining show. I do have to agree with the critics when they say that it’s loud – EVERYTHING IS SHOUTED!!!! This is the kind of short-sighted vision mainstream America has of Jewish people – they’re loud and demonstrative with their emotions. Unfortunately, writer Goldberg (who based the show on his childhood) is only too happy to affirm that stereotype. The show also loves that it’s about the 1980s – the episode opens with a quick montage of TV dads: Conrad Bain from Diff’rent Strokes, Tony Danza from Who’s the Boss? and Joel Higgins from Silver Spoons. We also get huge visual cues – VHS! Star Wars memorabilia! E.T. movie poster! Big hair! Slap bracelet! Instead of being folded gently into the story, we’re kind of assaulted with 80s trivia. If the show wants to emulate The Wonder Years, it needs to take a hands-off approach when including dated tropes of the time period – not everyone lived like they were starring in a Duran Duran music video, and a little subtlety wouldn’t hurt.
But the show isn’t all bad. Underneath all of their shouting, both Murray and Bev are good parents – that loving, but gruff parental mode perfected by Roseanne Connor in Roseanne. Bev, especially brings to mind Barr’s character, with her fierce and sharp wit. I love Wendi McLendon-Covey and think she’s a fantastic comedienne – she’s the best thing on The Goldbergs, even if she saddled with a character that runs the gamut of every TV sitcom mom. I don’t think The Goldbergs will last beyond its first season, but I do hope that if it does disappear, McLendon-Covey will have a future in television, because she deserves a first-rate starring role in a tailor-made vehicle, and not a supporting role in a so-so cookie cutter sitcom.