Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


2014 TV Reviews Pt 3

Posted on June 11, 2014 at 2:30 AM

I was, originally, going to write a nice thing here about three shows and review their seasons as I always do. I have the other two written, but needed that third. I knew right away it would be The Goldbergs. What I didn’t know is that I wrote way too much about one show to also plug in two other shows as well. So, this week’s review is for one show and one only because it’s that damn good of a show and deserves the spotlight.

It’s hard to write nostalgia. Sometimes it comes across as forced and trying too hard. Other times, it just doesn’t land. Creator Adam Goldberg found the formula: quit writing as you think nostalgia might be to others and just write your own memories and incorporate them organically into a television show. The result? A very relatable and grounded approach to the 1980s in a sitcom format.

I bring that up because you can look at other shows that tried to do the same, and it all felt a bit forced. That 70s Show was less the 1970s and more how a millennial might think the 1970s was from talking to others. With The Goldbergs, it’s in better company along the likes of a show like Happy Days or The Wonder Years: remembering how life was when you were younger and writing it directly and more personally making for a who that not only creates laugh from its era’s pop culture, but finds a lot of heart in the process. The Goldbergs might just end up the best of any of those. No, not because I personally relate to the 1980s but because it’s smart, clever and willing to not be conventional while still staying familiar.

With the Goldbergs, it really comes down to the characters. This is a family first and foremost and a damn believable one at that in their relationships to one another. Their situations in this comedy aren't anything particularly new to the realm of television comedy, it's pretty standard situational comedy stuff,  but the road there most certainly is. A blend of Arrested Development with The Wonder Years with Modern Family, and that’s some mighty good company. The irreverancy of Arrested Development is what really grabbed me at first. It has that energy and drive of that show with the element of uncertainty that anything could happen and go either wonderfully right or horribly wrong.

The nostalgic elements of The Wonder Years was the second element, and boy when this show hits the “feels” button it hits it hard as your childhood, no matter the era, is more or less revisited verbatim. Then you have it all wrapped up with some conventional sitcom shenanigans ala a Modern Family or even other family-based sitcoms like Family Ties or The Cosby Show. Stories are familiar, but they aren’t quite done like this. Not with this sense of, I don’t know…”happiness?” Or just affection of a family unit and the 1980s? It’s hard to put a finger exactly on it.

There's something about this promo still that really hit me, so I had to post it. The fact I look a lot like Adam Goldberg and had a number of Ghostbuster T-shirts in the 80s is probalby it.

The Characters

If you can put a finger on the one absolutely tangible thing to love about the show:  It’s these great characters of this family that make it all relatable. Let’s run down the list:

Adam: This is probably the character that most of my generation will relate to. He’s also the main character, so that has a lot to do with it, but his attitude, the things he likes, his awkwardness at school and around girls…yeah, there’s a lot of people like me that grew up in the 1980s and went through these same cycles. Again, that’s where The Goldberg’s thrives as a show: mixing relatable lives with nostalgia of one’s youth. Adam loves Nintendo, Ghostbusters, Goonies, anything Amblin entertainment really, wants to see Poltergeist, adores the video store, plays with Transformers and GI Joes and He-Man (he has Castle Greyskull…one thing I never got. I did have the Ghostbusters Firehouse though), loves all things Star Wars…hell, he’s even blonde and wears glasses. So did I.

Adam is probalby a couple years older than I was in the 1980s, but the show is, literally, “1980-something” so it’s really a hodgepodge of pop culture things and movies and items all jumbled together - not necessarily an exact date and timeline worked out but more a "sensation" of the period. It’s a trip down memory lane through Adam’s eyes, and like all memories some of the details get lost and things get fuzzy in a way. You just remember the impact and the emotion and the feeling of moments and things. Sean Giambrone is absolutely outstanding as a kid actor. You don’t get kid actors sell their role this well, and like taking a page from the Spielberg acting book, he isn’t so much “acting” as much as he is just “being” a kid.

Beverly: If Adam is our protagonist, Beverly is certainly our antagonist. Not out of meanness or spite, but out of well-intended but ultimately badly-executed love for her family. Sure, it’s a little one-note and sure it does go a bit overboard as she never seems to learn her lesson, but there’s a warmth to her. She loves her kids, period.

But best of all is how it doesn’t pigeon-hole Beverly and the father, Murray. A lot of sitcoms have that old, overdone “father does something, mother is the smart one and gets him out of it despite him being a buffoon.” The Goldbergs plays with the whole matriarch/patriarch dynamic wonderfully, giving both equal footing, both with failures and both with successes on a regular basis as parents who are just trying to make it all work.

Speaking of that other parental unit:

Murray: Murray is the big lovable lug that is probably letting his wife get away with too much and can't put his foot down when needed.  Not his fault, it's obvious Bevelry is in control of this family and for better or worse, he lets it go. Jeff Garlin has always been a favorite actor of mine thanks to Curb Your Enthusiam (which, by the way, I just realized is about friggin 15 years old now. Wow).  He plays his role of Murray with balance: insecure, but also most certainly the father figure. He leaves his wife to do most of the heavy lifting, and she damn sure tells him about that which gets him off his ass more than once. He’s also very uncomfortable around his own kids, again leaving Beverly to inform him and tell him about them.

In other words, he’s kind of your typical dad. Like Beverly, he loves his kids. Unlike Beverly, he’s really not all involved until the time comes to be involved. There’s a great balance between Beverly and Murray in another area: Beverly sees her kids as flawless. Murray sees his kids as “well…they’re alright I guess.” It’s fantasy versus realism, and both really learn from each other as a result.

The other two main characters are Adam’s siblings. One is based off of Adam Goldberg's real-life brother, Barry. Truth be told, Barry’s a bit one-note. He’s written as your older brother trying to figure out life and girls, and that’s really about all he has going for him. He’s exactly what you think an older brother would be like: often beating up on his nerdier younger brother (out of love, mind you) and is into sports and has seen Karate Kid way too many times. That being said, Barry also has some of the best and most memorable lines of the show. And nobody can deny his flow…

Barry is cliche, but in a good way.

The more interesting of the siblings, though, is Adam’s sister, Erica. She has a little more going on, mainly because she’s nearly an adult and really going through that transition of growing out of playing with her siblings and really loving Rick Springfield and more into wanting to be taken seriously by her parents and friends. There's an entire episode about just that: Return of the Jedi is out and she and Adam have seen the other movies, even re-enacting them, but that's when she was younger.'s not as easy a thing for her to do.

Her stories center entirely about responsibility and the uncertainty of her future and trying to do what’s best for her versus what her mother thinks is best for her. Erica is probably, next to Adam’s nostalgic romps in recreating scene from Aliens and The Goonies, the most fun and interesting character because she actually has a lot to do and a ton to say. Also, she’s the most down-to-earth one out of the bunch, and you need that “straight man” against all these crazies.

Erica isn't always "ha ha" funny, but that's why she works, and it's exactly what the show needs to balance itself out against the eccentric others.

Oh, but then there’s Pops. Pops is the grandfather, and Pops is a guy who’s 80 but still thinks it’s the 60s and he’s cool as hell. Well, he still is cool as hell, and Adam’s affection (the creator/writer and the character) for his grandfather is readily apparent. Pops is played by George Segal, and he’s having the time of his life as this wannabe gigolo who’s really enjoying retirement.

Who are you gonna telephone? The ghost-fellas.

Pops is, without question, the heart. He's not overly interesting or anything, but he's cool, and fun, and Segal plays him wonderfully.

Now those are your characters, and I can't say anything bad about them to be honest, but there's still other elements:

The Nostalgia

In a way, you watch The Goldbergs in two ways. Well, I do at least. One is the stories and characters. They’re funny. They’re sweet. But then you watch on that other level. You know how in the really good animated movies, like those from Pixar, both adults and kids get different things from them because it works on various levels (also see “unassuming depth).  With the Goldbergs, that other level is like watching VH1’s Pop-Up video. You look at the clothes, the stuff in the background, hear the slang and music…and you say “I used to have that” or “my parents had that."

I guarantee, you will say that every episode.

Where The Goldbergs also shines is its roots in the pop culture of the 1980s. NES carts are blown into, Bon Jovi and REO Speedwagon are sang along with, ET, Public Enemy and Whitensake posters adorn walls, bad 1980s furniture and fashion are seen in plenty. It all feels real. It all feels “lived in” in the similar way the family in Poltergiest or ET’s homes felt real and lived in. Hell, you’ll have just as much fun looking at the background stuff in sets, seeing toys from your youth or saying “I used to have that on VHS.”

A perfect example of this, and I’m choosing only one here, is a scene with Adam and, I think, Erica in the family den. The den is a friggin mess, just stacks of junk and things everywhere. But I looked in the background and saw, under laundry and stacks of magazines, those old wood-paneled VHS tape holders. The kind that slid out.

My family had a tone of those. Hell, I had a ton of those, all full of labeled VHS movies we dubbed or taped off of television. And you know what? So did these. That right there took me back. Just a few seconds of background fodder…and that’s why I love this show. It gets it. It doesn’t draw attention to itself or those things, it simply is. From family life to school to hanging out with other kids in the neighborhoods to wanting to see movies that I know my parents would say “no” to. And you know what? You don’t have to have grown up in the 1980s to really get that.

Roll Credits

So listen, The Goldbergs isn’t necessarily doing anything new. Sure. And I would even say its focus is very narrow to my specific generation that would probably get the most out of it, or at least those that are nostalgic for the 1980s. It’s not a perfect show, but there are some broad universal things going on that make it appealing to just about everyone. If you absolutely hated the 1980s, it’s probably not for you. That era is ingrained on the show and the writing probably won’t offer enough new to get you to love it. Then again if you hate the 80s then there's something seriously wrong with you.

But I can ask you to take a chance on it. I have my “rule of 3s” where I give any show three episodes to hook me. The pilots are often nothing to really get excited over, and The Goldbergs is no exception. A solid pilot but nothing that will wow you. But honestly, if you aren’t hooked by the third episode where Adam tells Pops they’re going to see The Great Mouse Detective and, instead, Adam gets them into Poltergeist, and then has nightmares and thinks all his toys in his room are going to kill him (like everyone I know did when my parents allowed me to finally see it on VHS) then I don’t know what to tell you.

If not, then HULK SMASH!

Oh, and you can watch them out of order too. There’s not always an over-arching plot line here. So the ones to recommend:

Episode 3: Mini Murray (as noted above)

Episode 4: Why’re You Hitting Yourself - both because I know the director of this one and because I remember those scrambled porn channels very well.

Episode 6: Who Are You Going to Telephone - I have a lot of Halloween memories and this one just really nailed it.

Episode 11: Kara-te - It’s Karate Kid themed. Again. It’s Karate Kid themed. Plus a very sweet ending, this episode is where I really started to notice how much heart the show has.

Episode 13: The Other Smother - A very dense episode, but the video store plot is what grabbed me.

Episode 16: Goldbergs Never Say Die - An amazing tribute to the Goonies and how it pretty much inspired a generation.

Episode 19: The President’s Fitness Test - Holy shit, there’s four words I never thought I would hear again. This episode made me remember memories I didn’t even know I still had about gym class.

Episode 20: You’re not invited - A great Murray and Adam episode that kind of gets you in the feels.

Episode 21: The Age of Darkness - a great Erica episode, and probably the strongest of the season I thought. I may not have been as nostalgic about this one, but character-wise it’s amazing.

Episode 23: Living on a Prayer/Sweater Party - Much like Episode 21, this one is just a great character episode(s). From Murray to especially Barry to a great party with singing Bon Jovi.

Oh man, seeing an arcade, even small like this one in the show, really made me sad. I miss those.

Other notes

- The little bits towards the end of each episode taken from actual videotape home videos from the 80s of Adam Goldberg’s family that inspired the show (and many of its plot lines and situations) are great. They’re not just funny, but also a bit touching too because you see these real people in their real lives - a family through the good and bad. Adam’s love for his family is readily apparent, and that really brings a lot of heart to the show.

- I never read any early pilot episode draft of the show, but I’m willing to bet there wasn’t as sister character because Adam Goldberg actually didn’t have a sister. For some reason that feels like a producer’s note to add that in because it's obvious it needed that young female voice (which it did, and some of the best moments come from the very talented Hayley Orrantia as a result I think).

- The show in incredibly re-watchable. You find little puns and lines and jokes that you missed the first time around.

- The first half of the season is hit and miss, but mid-way the show really finds some solid ground. Most first seasons play out like this (see Seinfeld, which had an awful first season until Season Two's "About Nothing.") Funny thing about past sitcoms and TV in general, most first seasons aren't good across the board. The Goonies episode really felt like the turning point for me when the show really seemed to find itself.

- More needs to be done with Murray. There's some bits near the end of the season with him that are nice, but maybe more Murray should be explored in Season 2.

- The show HAS to get away from Beverly's forced interference on everything her kids do - the boys and the dance and the wrestling and the toys...just slow that wagon down. That got real old real quick. Plus it doesn't give her much else to do outside it (in other words, be her own person). I've been in my share of development meetings and I guarantee that's probably something brought up in the writer's room on this one. Well, it better be at least, it just feels really obvious.

- George Segal has looked the exact same for 20 years. I can’t tell he’s actually 80, and every bit as sharp it seems. Pops is a great character here.

- Though it's the tail end of the 80s, I wonder if the Sega Genesis will ever show up. When I saw some kiosk in about 88 playing a video of it, it blew my mind.

- An ET themed episode feels destined. I'm sure Adam finds some animal and tries to take care of it.

- More Tim Meadows please.

- I read some article by some internet hipster that called The Goldbergs, and I quote, "the worst show on television." Mind you, it's the only article anywhere that said that, most seem to like it or at least think it's on the right track to get better (which is probably what I think at this point). But...really? The worst show? See, that's what's wrong with a lot of internet people: so jaded and looking for the worst in everything and full of hyperbolic nonsense that they can't even have fun for fucking 22 minutes out of the damn week.

Seriously, it may not be a perfect show and there are certainly areas to improve on, but grow up. Because if you were grown up, that means you probably lived through the 80s and might actually have a little fun in your life.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

80s Dances

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