There’s nothing new about a sitcom trafficking in nostalgia to entice a particular subset of viewers: Happy Days, The Wonder Years, and That 70s Show all cannibalized the ephemera of decades past to provide easily recognizable backdrops for their characters. The Goldbergs continues in that not-exactly-noble tradition, though here the setting is an indeterminate period of the mid ’80s. Like Happy Days and That 70s Show, The Goldbergs is most invested in its historical milieu as a repository of pop-culture references, and at its worst, the series can engender a kind of bingo-card spectatorship, the squares on each card items from a Buzzfeed listicle about “Things Every ’80s Kid Will Remember.” Nevertheless, The Goldbergs is ingenious in ways that its forebears weren’t in tethering those specificities to the familial dynamics it sets up.
In the season-two premiere, for instance, overbearing mother Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey, perfectly over the top) expresses anger at her youngest son, Adam (Sean Giambrone), by withholding his beloved Boo Berry cereal; while in the episode “The Facts of Bleeping Life,” the impending nuptials of Prince Charles and Diana prompt Beverly, reflecting upon the inadequacies of her own wedding, to request a vow-renewal ceremony from her husband, Murray (Jeff Garlin). The Goldbergs smartly observes the ways pop culture mediates our lives, particularly within the sort of affluent suburban family the series chronicles—a family for whom artificially colored corn puffs can be a metric of love and a televised royal wedding a call to renew it. Even as its pop-culture catalogue swells (the first five episodes of the new season contain allusions to Die Hard, War Games, the Apple II Plus computer, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and the phrase “cold chillin’,” to name a few), those references remain rooted in the characters themselves, foundational to their actions or indexical of their personalities.
Those characters, of course, are the standard archetypes of the family sitcom: an overbearing mother and beleaguered father, a randy grandparent, a trio of siblings ranging from nerdy and precocious, to excitable but dim, to well-adjusted yet aloof. Indeed, The Goldbergs doesn’t aim to break the mold, but to fill it ably, and after a promising first season, the series seems primed to capitalize on its strengths, namely a terrific cast and snappy writing that exudes warmth while eschewing treacle. Like Modern Family at its best, the series thrives on putting easily legible characters into clear-cut conflicts that are resolved through a capitulation to familial affection; the domestic space is the source of and solution to most of the show’s problems.
No doubt there’s a conservatism to this form, particularly when the series attempts to present the struggles of the upper-middle-class Goldbergs as universal (it’s not uncommon for an episode to begin with a bid for ubiquity in Patton Oswalt’s narration: “So, like all kids, I decided to…” or “Anyone who grew up in the ’80s will tell you that…”). But in a television landscape that includes trailblazers like Louie, Girls, and Broad City, the charms of a humbler enterprise are more easily set into relief. The nostalgia The Goldbergs displays for ’80s pop extends to its affection for the period’s sitcoms, and even as it adopts a more modern single-camera format, the series has its heart planted firmly in the era.