“Man, I loved the ‘80s,” an adult Adam Goldberg (voiced by Patton Oswalt) intones over a montage of clips from Back to the Future, The Karate Kid and early MTV as The J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” plays in the background.
Indeed, it’s this kind of sincere love that infuses the tone of ABC’s new single-camera show The Goldbergs. And though the idea of a show centered on the wacky antics of a dysfunctional family is about as fresh as moldy bread, the show’s pilot executes this set-up with enough heart and comedic dexterity to overcome the more clichéd trappings of its premise.
As per its opening lines, the show is firmly set in and entrenched in the ‘80s. How ‘80s is it, you ask? Let me put it this way—the show’s requisite emotional wrap-up is soundtracked by REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
But on to the show itself. In a sufficiently punchy opening courtesy of director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, King of Kong), the adult voiceover of Adam introduces the main players. There’s the anger-prone patriarch Murray (Jeff Garlin), overbearing mother Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), eldest child/token exasperated teen Erica (Hayley Orrantia), doofy yet sensitive middle child Barry (Troy Gentile) and Adam himself (Sean Giambrone) as the precocious, pre-teen baby of the family, a boy prone to always filming his family with the oversized camcorder.
If there’s an overarching theme in the first episode, entitled “Circle of Driving,” it’s that of transition. In terms of story, the episode’s plotlines tackle two topics inherent to any coming-of-age property: learning to drive and sexual discovery. As the insecure Barry attempts the all-too-familiar process of negotiating with his parents for a car, Adam scopes out his crush—an attractive waitress from the local pancake shop—with the help of his charming, if slightly lecherous grandfather Albert (George Segal). On a more emotional front, however, the episode also delves into how Beverly, having bossed around the children their whole lives, must try to temper her motherly instincts and let her children live their own lives.
An easy parallel for the show, and one that many have alrady frequently pointed out, would be The Wonder Years, yet a much more apt comparison would be Everybody Hates Chris, the Ali LeRoi-run UPN/CW program based on the memories of comedian/co-creator Chris Rock. Like Chris, The Goldbergs is propelled by semi-autobiographical events from the life of its creator—in this case, Fanboys screenwriter/Community producer Adam F. Goldberg. Similarly, the show features a mixture of heightened family interplay with more metatextual humor sprinkled in for good use. One of the pilot’s best gags, for example, involves the use of subtitles in translating the underlining sentiments behind Murray’s frequent angry outbursts.
Despite the show’s many charms, however, it’s ultimately the kind of pilot that mostly yields occasional chuckles as opposed to full-blown belly laughs (some of Garlin’s antics excluded)—admittedly, not exactly the most reliable or fair critical barometer, especially since comedy is far from an objective art; nevertheless, it’s all we’ve got.
Perhaps a more notable fault is how the Adam character seems cast as a passive observer in his own show. In fact, several scenes play with Adam simply sitting or fiddling in the background. When he does take front stage, however, the character is played a bit broad, with Giambrone really hammering home the precociousness. This might not be as big an issue if everyone else weren’t playing their roles at such a similarly broad level. Returning to Everybody Hates Chris, each episode would feature Chris playing the sensible, straight man to the more exaggerated characters around him. The Goldbergs has no such down-to-earth, anchoring character, particularly in the case of Adam, which could very well cause bumps later down the road. That being said, this judgment only comes from viewing the first episode, and comedy pilots are frequently not indicative of future quality—see the 30 Rock, The Office and Parks and Recreation pilots. Hence, I’ll give the creators the benefit of the doubt, as the show may just need time to soften its rough edges and pinpoint and sharpen its comedic voice.
In a nice little twist, the ending juxtaposes clips from the episodes with video-footage of Goldberg’s real-life family members. Here, we see in some cases that lines of dialogue are taken verbatim from Goldberg’s childhood documentations, indicating that the real-life Goldberg has tons more stories and misadventures involving his family unit that he’s raring to unleash. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it goes down.