Tuned In

eightysomething: Why The Goldbergs Loves the ’80s a Little Too Much

There's a difference between making a sitcom that has pop-culture references and a making a sitcom that's about pop-culture references.

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Last week, ABC announced it was giving The Goldbergs a full year on the air. (As well as–yay!–Trophy Wife.) But why stop at a year? The Goldbergs has already claimed an entire decade, all at the same time.

The Goldbergs, a family sitcom created by Adam F. Goldberg (not the actor), is set in the ’80s–all of the ’80s, apparently. In one episode, Poltergeist, a movie that came out in 1982, is in theaters at the same time as The Great Mouse Detective, which appeared in 1986; another episode plays off the “In Your Eyes” scene from Say Anything (1989). A character’s favorite current TV shows are The Incredible Hulk and Alf, the latter of which went on the air four years after the former went off.

It would be picky, and also wrong, to call these anachronisms mistakes. The Goldbergs knows its references come from all over the decade; it just doesn’t care. Narrator Patton Oswalt declares at the beginning of each episode that it’s set in “1980-something.” And creator Goldberg is good-humoredly unashamed about milking the whole decade for laughs: he wrote to me on Twitter, “I can’t wait until season 9 to put in a Nintendo Power Glove!” ’80s stuff is funny, people like it (just ask VH1)–so why not have ten times as much of it?

And who cares? You could say that it’s just a sitcom. No one claims it ruins The Simpsons that Springfield is located in no identifiable state (or, for that matter, that the Simpson kids have been in elementary school for 25 years). Or you could get fancy and put the whole thing in a literary-theory frame–the show is about the unreliability of memory, the haze of nostalgia. It takes place in the reverie of its maker, in whose mind the past is every year of his youth at the same time. It takes place not in the historical ’80s but in the concept of the ’80s! (Mind. Blown.)

But that doesn’t cut it. The Goldbergs’ approach to the decade is the difference between making a sitcom that has pop-culture references and making a sitcom that is about pop-culture references. And The Goldbergs at least part of the time wants to be the former. In the original pilot screened for critics, The Goldbergs was actually set in 1985 (and but for a very premature Public Enemy reference, the period markers were more or less right). It was specific maybe in part because the characters were specific, or meant to be: the conceit of the show was that Goldberg was drawing on a portrait of his own family, which he captured on home video when he was a kid.

Sean McCarthy, writing at Previously.tv, put it well:

I don’t care how many times Patton Oswalt’s voice-over narration introduces an episode as September or October “1980-something”… The Goldbergs re-enacts the real-life stories that unfolded in the suburban Philadelphia home of Adam F. Goldberg (of the short-lived FOX sitcom Breaking In), and we’re reminded of this at the end of each episode, with actual family footage the young Adam F. Goldberg shot with his trusty videocamera of his sister Erica, brother Barry, mom Beverly, dad Murray, and grandfather Pops.

In other words The Goldbergs wants to have it both ways. It wants the authority and emotional connection that comes from authenticity: this is all real, it comes from real stories about a specific family. But it also wants to ditch the authenticity whenever it wants to, if there’s a chance for a really good Pac-Man sight gag, in which case–hey, lighten up, it’s just an entertainment on TV!

So The Goldbergs wants to share a story from the heart, about a particular kind of comfortable-middle-class family in the Northeast (and it nails down a lot of those details really well). But it only works if you focus extremely closely, if you decide that the rest of the world doesn’t matter. In a show like The Wonder Years (which, I assume in The Goldbergs’ universe is airing at the same time as The A-Team), history isn’t just incidental. The family is part of a larger world; things happen in it, and those things matter. In The Goldbergs, dad Murray runs a furniture business. So is the economy booming, like in 1984, or in a recession, like in 1981, or did the stock market just crash, like in 1987? If there’s an election episode, is Reagan going to run against Dukakis?

When you make the world more generic, you make the family more generic. And that fights against the aspects of The Goldbergs that are really good and that make me keep watching it. The show is also about a family whose kids are at the age where they’re growing up and they know it; they’re beginning to outgrow childhood (which is exactly the sort of bittersweet life-change that gives birth to nostalgia). Comic Wendy McClendon-Covey gives Beverly’s separation anxiety a hilarious poignance; and it’s a treat to see Jeff Garlin Garlin-ing it up as a flustered dad, pants on or off. These are real people–if loud and broad–but they’re undercut by the cartoon, I Love the ’80s background.

It would not be fair to expect The Goldbergs to be something it’s not. It shouldn’t be held up to the standards of, say, Freaks and Geeks, a nostalgia dramedy that was possibly the best show network TV has ever done. (Though The Goldbergs invites comparisons when its Halloween episode has much the same storyline as F&G’s, right down to the “egging your own family to impress the cool kids” subplot.)

But The Goldbergs puts its claim to real life out there. Maybe it doesn’t have to give up its Nintendo Power Glove, but at some point it has to decide whether it cares about its eBay sight gags more than its autobiographical heart. If it does, then what it will be is a TV show about being a TV show. And it won’t really take place in any time that matters, except for Tuesdays at 9, 8 Central.