Why 'The Goldbergs' Is the Worst Thing To Happen to Television

New ABC Sitcom All References, No Humor

A Touch of Crass: George Segal is just one of the stars wasted on the ABC sitcom ‘The Goldbergs,’ which concerns a Jewish family in the 1980s.
ABC Television
A Touch of Crass: George Segal is just one of the stars wasted on the ABC sitcom ‘The Goldbergs,’ which concerns a Jewish family in the 1980s.

By Ezra Glinter

Published December 27, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

I might be the worst possible audience for “The Goldbergs.” It’s not that I grew up in the ’90s, and the show — an ABC sitcom that just finished its first season — is all about the ’80s.

And it’s not that, having grown up without a TV, many of the show’s references would be lost on me regardless. It’s that I can’t stand the kind of nostalgia the show demands, whether I’m the target audience or not.

“The Goldbergs” is the creation of producer and writer Adam F. Goldberg, and it’s presented as a quasi-autobiographical reflection of his own family and childhood. The main character is 11-year-old Adam Goldberg (Sean Giambrone), an aspiring Spielberg who enjoys videotaping his family’s most embarrassing moments. The show also stars Wendi McLendon Covey (of “Reno 911!”) as Adam’s mother, Beverly; Jeff Garlin as his father, Murray; Troy Gentile as older brother Barry, and Hayley Orrantia as older sister Erica. Then there’s George Segal as the flamboyant, womanizing grandfather Albert Solomon, otherwise known as “Pops.”

Unfortunately, the cast’s talent is wasted on the worst tendencies of a network show. The plots are “family issue” day-olds, the characters are cardboard — Murray especially, with his loud-but-loving ways, is little more than a live-action Homer Simpson — and the jokes are hardly jokes at all. (The best one might be that Murray’s furniture store is called Ottoman Empire.) Despite Goldberg’s attempt to present the Goldbergs as a weird but lovable clan, they are entirely white-bread.

Bad as the show is, however, judging “The Goldbergs” by ordinary criteria misses the point. As a family sitcom about the ’80s, “The Goldbergs” recalls family sitcoms from the ’80s, like “Married With Children” or “The Cosby Show.” But “The Goldbergs” is not a pastiche of ’80s television, nor is it like “That ’70s Show” (or “That ‘80s Show”), whose teenage audience never experienced the decade in question.

Instead, “The Goldbergs” is for people who remember the ’80s, but who now expect something more sophisticated from a sitcom. Thus, with an “Arrested Development”-like narrator (Patton Oswalt, as the grown-up Adam Goldberg), a single-camera set-up, and the absence of a laugh track, “The Goldbergs” isn’t a look at the sitcom through the lens of the 1980s, but a look at the ’80s through the lens of a 2013 sitcom. In this case, unfortunately, that means a heap of phony nostalgia.

In fact, “The Goldbergs” reminds me less of other TV shows than it does of that other cultural marker of our time, the listicle. Want to know what “The Goldbergs” is about? Search for the 1980s on Buzzfeed. You’ll come up with acid wash jeans and Dayglo windbreakers, rotary phones and fanny packs. On the “The Goldbergs” there’s all of that plus Reebok Pumps and “Poltergeist” (both of which have entire plots dedicated to them), “Alf,” “Ghostbusters” and the Rubik’s Cube. The first episode starts with a voiceover homage to the decade of “E.T., Mr. T. and MTV.” As if all anybody did in the ’80s was watch television.

You could see why this might seem like a good idea — who doesn’t want a whiff of the old days now and then? — but “The Goldbergs’” effort to be a gif that keeps on going doesn’t connect. Unlike listicles, the recitation of “remember this?” and “remember that?” doesn’t work in a sitcom format. A rundown of “50 Things Only ’80s Kids Can Understand” or “26 Things You Miss About Landlines” lets readers fill in their own associations — where they were and what they were doing when Betamax gave way to VHS or they experienced the death of Optimus Prime. But when these references are embedded in a TV show with plots and characters and other bits of narrative tissue, the appeal to identification fails. “The Goldbergs” has too much stuffing to be a listicle, and too little humor to be a good sitcom.

Not to its credit, “The Goldbergs” doesn’t just try to dazzle its audience with flashbacks from childhood; it also tries to connect with them now. Most of the show’s plots revolve around the Goldberg children growing up and their parents’ difficulties dealing with dating, driving, parties and the rest of that jazz. The show doesn’t offer anything original here, but it’s worth noting that someone who was born in the ’70s and was a teenager in the ’80s would be in their 40s now, and could very well be dealing with the same parenting issues facing Murray and Beverly Goldberg.

In other words, “The Goldbergs” tries to get you coming and going. I’m not sure for whom this technique works exactly, but for me it really doesn’t. Granted, I’m not the right demographic. But if I were, I think I’d be even more repulsed. I’d like to imagine that my identity is about more than a handful of movie references, or crude stereotypes about parenting. Sure, I read listicles too, and enjoy them sometimes. But I wouldn’t say that listicles — or TV shows aspiring to be listicles — speak to me. For that, they’d need to have something to say.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.