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This fall season will not be a banner year for sitcoms, but one of the new offerings that stands out from the pack is ABC’s coming-of-age series The Goldbergs, which is fueled partly by nostalgia, partly by the great Jeff Garlin‘s constant yelling and partly by some outstanding writing. A strong cast doesn’t hurt, either.
ABC, which seems to throw a lot of stuff against the wall each fall, has something special here. Adam Goldberg has mined some of his personal memories, affixed a strong allegiance to all things ’80s (though you don’t have to know the era astutely to get all the jokes) and created a family that you not only want to laugh at and with but, more importantly, root for. The Goldbergs are a working-class family just trying to make it through the day without getting any of their kids killed. There’s a lot of love — as much love as yelling, it should be noted, though it might be less obvious — and plenty of stories for each kid and both parents.
In short, a perfect series to tuck behind Modern Family on Wednesdays. Except that The Goldbergs airs tonight, after the high-octane, highly anticipated premiere of Agents of SHIELD, which is, in fairness, probably not aimed at the same audience. But it appears that ABC believes The Goldbergs is strong enough to anchor a solid hour of comedy, as it sits in front of Trophy Wife, which features another dysfunctional family (with less yelling but enough quirk to see a possible connection). The SHIELD crowd may not stick around for the next hour (which then leads in to another drama), but in the era of the all-dominant DVR, Tuesdays from 9 to 10 looks pretty solid at ABC.
While a comfy slot behind Modern Family would have been nice, you can see that ABC perhaps thinks that The Goldbergs has a lot of the elements that made Modern Family popular. It’s kind of like a more modern and more Jewish Wonder Years with a ton of funny coming-of-age moments mixed with a dose of sentimentality (leavened by Garlin’s expressively wondrous yelling). Patton Oswalt does the voiceover narration. The pilot notes that in the 1980s, it was a different time: “There were no peanut allergies or parenting blogs. Just a whole lot of crazy.”
The series kicks off in 1985. You’ve got mother Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) working just the right mix of overbearing love, guilt and the kind of common-sense approach to money that ends up pretty much embarrassing everybody. There’s also Murray (Garlin), who would rather not be bothered, but if he has to step in and parent, he’s going to be all in and it’s going to be his way or no way. The kids are set up for sitcom-ready plotlines. There’s Erica (Hayley Orrantia), who at 17 is the oldest. And the only girl. There’s Barry (Troy Gentile), who is combative and defensive as the middle child and seeks nothing more than to have his own car to put some distance between him and the family. Lastly, there’s 11-year-old Adam (Sean Giambrone), a future film director who documents his family with enough video coverage to rival a modern-day reality series.
The pilot revolves around Barry possibly getting a car (but of course it’s snatched away because Erica is the oldest). But Pops (George Segal) has a plan to help out Barry with some wheels. There’s nothing groundbreaking here — you can predict that Beverly is going to have none of this car business and that Murray will be something of a disaster as a driver’s ed father. (“Do not hit the kid in the back [seat] — that is way too advanced!”) But even as the familiar contrivances play out, the jokes — be they verbal or visual — are always there to nail the scene. There’s a running gag of trying to decipher, with subtitles, all the love Murray means to convey to his kids when it just sounds like anger and yelling. There’s the stray quick-strike that’s deadly: “Who runs like that?” Murray yells about one of his kids. And there are the endearing moments as well, but they’re less sugary than warm: “You know what? I don’t say it all the time. But you’re not a total moron.”
Between McLendon-Covey and Garlin nailing the parents, everything else is really gravy. As the narrator, Oswalt gets all the funny lines that speak mostly to nostalgia and the humor that comes from the way we were, how goofy the era looks in retrospect and all the love that seemed a little bit like torture at the time.
Here’s to The Goldbergs not only bringing back the ’80s but adding some much-needed laughter to the fall lineup.
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