As a nerdy, TV and film-obsessed teen growing up in northwest Louisiana, there were limits to who I could discuss my interests with. In middle school, I bored most of my friends silly talking about the latest Alfred Hitchcock movie I’d seen on video. Likewise, though my parents practiced Zen-like patience while I rattled on about all sorts of pop-culture-related topics, it was clear they did not share my extreme enthusiasm for Lost or the films of Hayao Miyazaki. One of our biggest divergent interests, however, was football. My parents loved it, I found it unrelenting and boring.
While at various points in my life, I have envied my friends who grew up with culturally savvy family members—the older brothers who lend you their record collections, the father or mother who introduces you to cool French films, etc.—never once would I have traded my family for anyone else. The fact that they continue to support my crazy, non-medical field-based dreams to this day speaks volume about how awesome they are. What’s more, I’ve actually grown to love football in recent years, and God forbid you ever meet me in a sports bar when LSU is playing a shoddy game.
“Lame Gretzky” explores that curious divide between parents and their children, specifically, the gulf between Murray and Adam. For his part, the Goldberg patriarch can’t quite comprehend Adam’s affinity for amateur filmmaking and video games. Adam, in turn, demonstrates a severe lack of aptitude for sports, especially when it comes to hockey, Murray’s favorite sport. In the wake of several poor performances on his pee-wee hockey team, Adam tries to secure help from Barry who, despite his numerous disadvantages, appears to have genuine skill on the ice. Because it’s Barry, these lessons only result in getting Adam suspended from the team. Rather than be disappointed, however, Murray attempts to be supportive of his son’s peculiar endeavors by acting as the John Hurt character in Adam’s Alien rip-off.
It’s a familiar set-up, for sure, and the emotional arc between Murray and Adam may come across as a tad too reminiscent of the video store B plotline in “The Other Smother.” What helps is that Sean Giambrone and Jeff Garlin have developed enough chemistry to make the somewhat clichéd situation feel authentic. Also, after previously failing as a rapper, ladies’ man and karate master, it’s nice to see Barry actually excel at something for once.
The show’s other plotline involves Erica prepping for her SATs. Under her mother’s supervision, her test scores go way up. The moment Erica expresses a desire to go across the country and attend Stanford, however, Beverly’s overprotective nature causes an abrupt gearshift. Wanting her daughter to stay close to home, Beverly begins giving her vocab cards with fake words. Luckily, Erica is smart enough to not fall for her mother’s tricks and eventually confronts her. From here, we are treated to the standard reconciliation scene.
This plotline promptly returns me to the criticism I had of Beverly near the beginning of the season. Although she has certainly entered into some questionable activities in an ill-fated attempt to protect her cubs, intentionally disturbing her daughter’s test scores feels maybe like a step too far. While I know there’s a huge danger in bringing real-world logic into the sitcom universe, there had to be a more reasonable method of trying to talk her daughter into attending a nearby school (i.e. expensive tuition) than tricking her into bombing the all-important SATs.
Credibility aside, “Lame Gretzky” suffers a bit from just having too many familiar elements woven into its plot. Besides larger plot threads, there’s also some staleness to the jokes, as when Adam triumphantly scores a goal in a hockey game only to realize it was in his own team’s goal. Such a humiliating set piece has been employed so much in recent years, I feel like it needs to be retired for a while.
Of course, any family-based sitcom is bound to touch upon similar plotlines every now and then, but their success or failure is completely reliant on the execution. “Lame Gretzky” is far from a failure but, unlike past episodes, it doesn’t entirely feel specific to The Goldbergs. Often, the material in this episode feels as though it could have come from any family-centric half-hour (and between The Middle, Growing up Fisher and Modern Family, there’s certainly no shortage of those). Then again, it’s a testament to the show’s evolution that even a not-so-stellar episode still manages to provide both the appropriate amount of laughs and warm fuzzy feelings. At this point, the show has that down to a friggin’ science.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.