So CBS threw a bit of a curveball by delaying its shows’ winter finales until this week, a move that feels more like something CBS’ partially owned sibling network, The CW, would do. Meanwhile, Syfy is making a big statement about its desire to return to the time when shows like Battlestar Galactica were the norm and not the exception; soon the network will premiere its “Game of Thrones in space” show The Expanse (a somewhat true description), preview its “Harry Potter for adults” show The Magicians (a description both true and not true), and then air its high concept alien miniseries Childhood’s End (sorry, even I haven’t had time to look into this). In general, however, we are in a bit of a TV doldrums right now, give or take an Into the Badlands finale (shrug). It’s rerun city out there.
Personally, this means that there is now time to catch-up with things I have fallen behind on (Supernatural), or see things I haven’t had a chance to watch at all yet (The Leftovers and The Man in the High Castle), but for TV Roulette this means that instead of looking at something new, there was a high chance I would be looking back on what had already passed. So it is with this week’s selection, ABC’s 1980’s nostalgiafest family sitcom The Goldbergs. Half-hour television has been on quite a roll lately, but did The Goldbergs prove to be a part of this trend, or just a sad outlier? Find out after the rundown.
TV Roulette Week 10
The Goldbergs; ‘As You Wish’ Season 2, Episode 21
April 22nd, 2015
Have I Seen This Show Before?
I think I have caught a scene or two of this show, but never anything close to a full episode. At this point in my life, the family aspect of the show is just not something I am really compelled to watch. Plus, it’s hard to have 80’s nostalgia when for most of the decade I wasn’t even born.
I knew I was in for a rerun, but I at least figured it would be a rerun from the actual current season of The Goldbergs, as opposed to last season, but ABC had other plans, so here we are. Considering I have seen almost nothing from this show before this point, it doesn’t really matter, but it is a little odd. Still, this is a good chance to piggyback off of what I talked about in my South Park piece. Lately the half-hour format has flourished creatively almost everywhere (except NBC, which has taken its comedies in a broad and boring direction), with two major effects. The obvious one is that the half-hour has blended the line between comedy and drama, particularly in shows like Master of None, You’re the Worst, and Louie. The other effect, however, is that this shift has allowed a conventional show like The Goldbergs to stand out by being very specific in its intentions.
As much as I like to poke fun at NBC for basically getting out of the unconventional comedy business, the network’s shift actually makes some sense. Half-hour shows have been trending weirder for years, and for a while NBC was part of that, with The Office, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and especially Community. But other than The Office (and 30 Rock to an extent), none of those were really ratings powerhouses, so I can’t entirely blame NBC for questioning whether or not broader shows might draw in larger audiences. That said, they took the notion too far, making shows that were too broad, and so now the network has almost given up on the half-hour format entirely.
Meanwhile, ABC saw the same signs but chose to keep its focus to the family comedy, which was a valuable well to draw on long before it was partially supplanted by workplace comedies. ABC didn’t stop there. The network figured out how to give each of its comedies a lane that made them feel unique and distinct, each show feeling just as different from one another as one family is from the next. Hell, the entire concept of megahit Modern Family was to highlight how different families are in this day and age.
So ABC had shows appealing to dissatisfaction with suburban life (Suburgatory), shows dealing with struggles of a working class family, like The Middle (a much sweeter version of Malcolm in the Middle), shows from racially diverse perspectives, like blackish and Fresh Off The Boat, or star-driven vehicles, such as Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken or Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing (which is basically Home Improvement with daughters instead of sons). The quality of these shows has been all over the place, but each of them has a distinctive feel that allows them to stand out and at times push the envelope (without breaking it). Then, of course, there is The Goldbergs, which offers a hyper-specific look at the lives of creator Adam Goldberg and his family in the 1980s–but with a modern sensibility that evokes nostalgia without actually making the show feel dated.
Part of this is due to the universal appeal of the show. One of the most interesting panels I attended at this year’s Wondercon was a showrunner panel. Not surprisingly, much of the attention in the Q&A went to nerd darlings Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls) and Dan Harmon (Community), but there was also interest in Adam Goldberg. This seemed a little strange at the time (the other showrunners on the panel were mostly ignored), but after seeing this episode of The Goldbergs, it makes a lot more sense. On top of just providing a entertaining family show, Adam Goldberg figured out how to tap into his past to showcase the things that made him become a writer, including the awkwardness that can come from having a father who does not share your passion.
‘As You Wish’’s A story is one about fathers and sons, with The Princess Bride added in for flavor. Adam (Sean Giambrone) and his father Murray (Jeff Garlin)’s key conflict in the episode is that neither of them really understand the other, and the episode serves as a way to help the two of them find common ground. The story subverts the classic “nerdy boy tries to bond with his father by pretending to be interested in a sport” storyline in a number of ways.
First, Adam is not doing all of this to bond with his father (at least at first). He’s pretending he wants to fence so he can use his father’s love of sports and the awkwardness of their relationship to trick his father into buying him fencing swords, which Adam wants to use as movie props. Next, when Adam’s deception is discovered, instead of heading toward a cliché fight, the episode pivots to the two of them arguing about Zorro. Adam tries to prove he can make a Z with his fencing sword and accidentally sticks his father in the neck. Finally, the show figures out a good way to bring things back around to the Princess Bride without making the entire reference feel shoehorned in when Adam realizes that he should actually give fencing a chance for his father’s sake. These specific deviations from cliché ultimately allow the episode to tell a familiar story in a somewhat unfamiliar way, adding a freshness to the plotline without making things too complicated. This is the greatest strength of The Goldbergs, and to a fair extent, of ABC’s brand of comedy as a whole. These shows are like comfort food, but unlike the CBS version of comfort food television, ABC’s adds a little bit of something extra to every show. They all feel just different enough to be innovative.
The B story in this episode reinforces that, as Adam speaks with great affection about his mother, Beverly Goldberg (Wendi McLendon-Covey), being a yenta (a Yiddish word meaning meddler or busybody). This starts out with another tired plotline featuring a TV mom meddling in her children’s school life. In this case, it’s because she wants to set-up two teachers she feels are perfect for each other. This part of the episode begins exactly as you would expect, with daughter Erica (Hayley Orrantia) and older son Barry (Troy Gentile) finding their lives disrupted by their mother’s meddling in the exact way they expected it to be, but things take a turn when this episode stealthily reveals it is also about bonding between mother and daughter, as Erica ultimately solves the problems that come from her mother’s yenta meddling by being a yenta herself. There are a lot of shows about dysfunctional families, but The Goldbergs is one of the few that comes at the subject from such a sweet perspective. The differences in the family are revered, and that added layer of love manages to add some authenticity to the show. The Goldbergs feel like a functioning family would actually feel—a mix of annoyance, dysfunction, and love.
Ambition is not something The Goldbergs has in spades, but what it does, it does well. There is always room for competent television, and for good family comedies. ‘As You Wish’ is able to combine two overused plotlines into a story that feels unique to its show, while still being funny. The episode is certainly not perfect: the humor is a bit over-the-top throughout, especially in Adam’s reactions to getting hit while fencing, and while it is endearing at times how cool the show is with being on-the-nose with everything, it is still on-the-nose with everything. But overall, the episode proved to be a fun experience, reminding me that simple, back to the basics family storytelling can still be quite effective, and there will always be a place for it.
Notes and Observations:
- As someone who used to fence, those reactions were definitely a bit too exaggerated. Especially considering they were using epees, which generally don’t cause pain. Except when you get smacked in the hand–that reaction from Adam is pretty much always how you feel, even if you don’t always express it in the way Adam does.
- I loved that the show didn’t explicitly talk about the similarities between Zorro and Westley in the Princess Bride. It made Adam and Murray’s argument about finding common ground that clearly already exists far more entertaining.
- Even though there was an A and a B story in this episode, the show honestly made them feel like two A storylines, and did a good job of finding something for the entire cast to do, which can be a struggle at times for any show.
- George Segal’s Pops works really well as a grandfather constantly telling stories. The show embraces the fact that is the core of Pop’s character, and plans character reactions around that, making his part of the episode extra effective.
- Stephen Tobolowsky makes a fine appearance as Principal Ball, and probably has the line of the episode when, after yelling at Beverly for meddling in teacher affairs, he does a drive-by one liner to tell Beverly that there is no way she can fix Mr. Woodburn (Dan Bakkedahl) being bitterly single.
- With Jordan Smith singing it last week on The Voice semifinals, and now an episode with Hayley singing it airing again this week, Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’ is getting a lot of love lately.
Episode Grade: B+
Would I Watch More?
Probably not. While I appreciated this show for being far more clever and entertaining than it should be, it still just isn’t for me. With that said, I am really glad a show like this is on the air, because there will always be space for solid family comedies no matter how much changes in the television landscape.
That’s it for this week’s edition of TV Roulette. It has been fun taking a trip into the 1980s, but I am glad to be back in the present. In honor of the holidays, I’ll be giving the metaphoric roulette wheel a break, but will return one more time before the New Year. Until then, I need to go work on my fencing stances, because I am really out of practice.