‘The Goldbergs,’ tanks for the memories
ABC sitcom is purportedly based on the creator's own family
September 5, 2013
Basing a work of fiction on a true story isn’t always a plus. In fact, when an author makes that claim, we often become more skeptical of the work’s authenticity.
That’s a problem with ABC’s new comedy “The Goldbergs.” It ends with a brief segment revealing that the series, a “Wonder Years”-style nostalgicom set in the ’80s, is actually based on the real life of its creator, Adam Goldberg. This revelation provokes more nitpicking than a purely fictional show would.
On the plus side, the autobiographical angle helps distract viewers from the show’s generic nature.
The real-life Goldbergs seem to have been the sort of moderately dysfunctional family that we’re too used to seeing on TV, with a few sitcom-friendly eccentricities. As a result, the comedy is only mildly diverting. If the creator’s family couldn’t provide him with a new comic take on family life, maybe he should have made everything up.
In the premiere episode, airing on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 9 p.m., it’s 1985, at least according to the time stamp on the home videos that 11-year-old Adam Goldberg (Sean Giambrone) is constantly shooting.
In a lift from “The Wonder Years,” the show is narrated by Adam’s grown-up self, voiced by Patton Oswalt. In narration accompanying a home-video montage, Adam explains that his father, Murray (Jeff Garlin), is trying to exercise more and eat and yell less. His overbearing mother, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), drives everyone crazy.
Adam says that his 17-year-old sister, Erica (Hayley Orrantia), whom we first see yakking on the phone, “likes to talk to people — just not us.” And his 16-year-old brother, Barry (Troy Gentile), is “a textbook middle child.”
The children’s grandfather, Pops (George Segal), who, like most sitcom senior citizens, has an age-inappropriate interest in sex, sets off the action by trying to give his old Cadillac to Barry for his 16th birthday. Meanwhile, Pops has been teaching Adam how to flirt with a pretty older waitress.
Beverly tells Barry that he’s too immature and high-strung to drive. Instead, she gives him a locket with her picture in it, “so you can always have your mother near your heart.”
Erica tells Barry, “All the cool guys in my grade wear mom lockets.”
When Barry tries to get Murray to overrule Beverly about his driving, Murray says, “I agree with whatever nonsense your mother just said.”
The narrator tells us that their father’s abusive language was actually a code. When Barry shows Murray a good grade on a paper, Murray says, “For someone so smart, you sure act like an idiot.” A subtitle translates this to “Excellent work!”
Although it may be biographically accurate, the ’80s setting adds surprisingly little in the way of comedy. The script settles for easy references with little wit. For example, Barry gets upset with Murray for giving him an REO Speedwagon cassette.
Some viewers who were alive back then will question some of the references. “The only person who understands me is Flavor Flav,” says Barry, two years before Public Enemy released its first album. Murray makes an allusion to “the circle of life” nine years before the premiere of “The Lion King.” (Those time stamps on old VHS cameras were tricky, so maybe it’s later than 1985.)
Regardless of the decade, the character of Barry seems a little off. He may be the middle child, but he’s also the oldest son, so his beaten-down nature seems off. Sure enough, when we’re shown a photo of the real Goldbergs, we see that the oldest child was a son, not a daughter.
There are many reasons to cast a pretty teenage girl in a sitcom, but it clashes with the show’s purported veracity. Moreover, the character of Erica feels neither more nor less artificial than the fact-based ones.
Adam Goldberg isn’t the first sitcom creator to try to capture something real but find his vision diluted by the great homogenizer that is the pilot process. Let’s hope that that’s what happened and that he wasn’t actually raised by a sitcom family.
Come to think of it, that story could make for an interesting show.
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