After an episode long tribute to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off last week, The Goldbergs goes back to basics this week with “Happy Mom, Happy Life.” Initially, the episode’s well-trodden premise—Adam and his girlfriend Dana are assigned to take care of a “baby” (in this case, a Cabbage Patch doll) as part of a school assignment—seems like a big step back in the wake of the epic Ferris Bueller send-up. Given the amount of good will that the show has endeared in me, however, I was willing to accept a less-than-stellar episode. Then, a funny thing happened—despite the fact that this storyline has been done in countless other sitcoms and kids’ programs, the show manages to make it specific enough to avoid the lazy sitcom traps that such a move might have entailed.
As is the case with most “fake baby” plotlines, the situation goes awry very quickly. Not necessarily because Adam and Dana find themselves overwhelmed by the responsibilities of taking care of “Leia DeLorean Goldberg” (though that does come into play), but because of Beverly’s relentless micro-managing. With his girlfriend annoyed that he’s always bowing to his mother’s whims, Adam suddenly finds himself torn in a very Freudian position of trying to appease both Dana and Beverly. Finally, things come to a head when Beverly ends up taking the doll out for fresh air, only to have a dog mistake it for a chew toy and drag it away. In a panic, she attempts to get a similar doll off the black market, i.e. the back of a super sketchy guy’s car (who sells a multitude of other toys along with the “best heroin in the world”). Adam and Dana are not fooled by the knockoff “Lettuce Crop Child” and Adam admonishes his mother for her actions. He even stipulates that, should he ever have a family (with Dana or Molly Ringwald), she can’t behave this way. All it once, Adam wins the respect of both Dana, for finally standing up for himself, and his mother, who realizes the error of her ways.
By now, one comes to expect that Beverly and her “smother” ways will inevitably disrupt the lives of her children. It’s a well the writers have returned to again and again. What’s amazing is that, with only a few exceptions, it has yet to feel too horribly stale. What helps this time around is how her behavior is a subtle mix of legitimately good intentions and bitter jealousy over her youngest son’s relationship. The idea of Beverly trying to passive aggressively undermine her beloved son’s girlfriend is no doubt a plotline that’s been on the back burner for a while, and it’s great to finally see it in action. Unfortunately, most likely due to the time constraints of the show, there’s not a lot that can really be done with it. By the time the episode reaches its final stretch, Beverly and Dana have made their peace off-screen. On the one hand, it certainly makes for economical storytelling. On the other hand, it does rob the episode of further humorous interplay between the two, as in the beginning when Beverly uses Dana’s head to balance herself, while departing Adam’s treehouse.
The episode’s other storyline concerns how the Barry and Lainey relationship is affecting the people around them. Specifically, in spending so much time together, both parties are spending less and less time with their friend groups. Barry abdicates his position as leader of the JTP while Erica finds herself shut-out when Barry gets Lainey tickets to a Heart concert. Desperate for companionship/wanting to make her brother and Lainey jealous, Erica ends up taking Barry’s place as leader of the JTP.
Of course, with the JTP being the immature boys they are, each of them soon develops a major crush on Erica, as indicated by the repeated use of Heart’s “Alone” whenever she accidentally brushes hands (or feet) with them. Things quickly escalate when all three end up intruding on the Goldbergs’ lawn in their best Lloyd Dobler attire, blaring music from boom boxes raised above their respective heads (save for Naked Rob, whose tiny radio is stuck on a Spanish station). Eventually, Barry recognizes the damage, reclaims his position as JTP leader and allows Erica and Lainey to attend the Heart concert together.
Unlike the main plotline, this subplot benefits from exploring a relationship we’ve yet to see before—Erica and Barry’s friends. And while I’m bummed we don’t get as much Barry this time around, the three actors who make up his posse more than make up for his absence. Likewise, the “Alone” running gag serves as one of the best musical cues in the show’s history, especially towards the end of the episode, when it is used to signal the sketchy car guy’s sudden infatuation with Beverly.
Cabbage Patch Kids and Heart aside, “Happy Mom, Happy Life” marks one of the more low-concept episodes of the season. And, like the wonderful “Cowboy Country,” it manages to hold its own without leaning on ‘80s specific humor as a crutch. The one major downside of this installment—I know I will never be able to listen to “Alone” ever again without cracking up a bit.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.