The Goldbergs is being advertised as a ’80s-style portrayal of a wacky suburban family. But while the sitcom makes all the obvious references to cultural touchstones of the decade (MTV, hair crimpers, VHS video cameras), and it’s a testament to the producers that the family dysfunction it depicts doesn’t get mired in the period styling, the show struggles to turn that dysfunction into something more engaging than a series of puerile, broadly staged situations.
The series premiere, “The Circle of Driving,” introduces us to the titular clan’s chaotic household, in which family members grate on each other almost as much as they do on the viewer. On his 16th birthday, Barry (Troy Gentile) gets angry when overprotective mom Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and hypercritical dad Murray (Jeff Garlin) don’t give him the car he eagerly anticipated. He’s just not mature enough, they tell him. It’s a fairly relatable moment, but what could have been a more sensitive depiction of teenage resentment becomes a temper tantrum extended tediously beyond Barry’s initial outburst, and Gentile’s hammy acting seems much more suited to one of Glee’s histrionic music numbers. Such caricature extends to other family members as well: Older sister Erica (Hayley Orrantia) is a mostly forgettable sketch of a teenage girl, and Garlin is wasted in his role as a grouch who does little more than berate his children while lounging around in a dingy-looking bathrobe.
Loosely based on creator Adam F. Goldberg’s real family and experiences growing up as a child of the ’80s, The Goldbergs’s ostensibly endearing premise is sadly also its biggest flaw. Goldberg’s on-screen representation as prepubescent Adam (Sean Giambrone) fails to complement the voiceover narration and meaningful asides of adult Adam (Patton Oswalt) in any substantial way. There’s a particularly cringe-worthy subplot in which young Adam’s budding sexuality gets some encouragement from his grandfather, “Pops” Solomon (George Segal), a self-styled casanova who seems intent on becoming his grandson’s wingman. Their shticky interactions feel like missed opportunities to set up a generational dynamic based on something more than asinine tit jokes. It might be tempting to draw some comparisons to The Wonder Years, but whereas the portrayal of young Kevin Arnold and Daniel Stern’s narration were mutually constitutive strengths in that series, the one-dimensional depiction of Adam as little more than a boobs-obsessed kid fails to connect with the spirited and reflective tenor of Oswalt’s performance.
One admirable standout is McLendon-Covey as the Goldbergs’ overbearing matriarch. In spite of being the most visually stylized character (her big hair and flamboyant wardrobe might lead one to believe that she’s an ’80s-era suburban-mom superhero), it’s the actress’s ability to focus Beverly’s intense energy with deft physical comedy and measured delivery of jokes that makes the character the funniest and most compelling member of the family. It’s a shame that the rest of The Goldbergs fails to find the same pitch of well-crafted humor.