When it was originally on: 2013-present
Original network: ABC
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
Had I seen it before: I honestly can’t remember if I watched the actual pilot, but I’ve definitely seen the show before.
What IMDb says: This ABC show takes place in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania in the 1980s and follows the lives of a family named The Goldbergs.
Why I picked it: The List includes shows from various decades, so I thought it would be nice to include a modern show whose whole schtick was recapturing the nostalgia of an ’80s family sitcom. The Goldbergs is also one of those shows that I seem to always enjoy when I watch it, yet never really make time to watch it. It’s more of a sure-I-guess-if-that’s-what’s-on show. I’m curious to see if I can pick apart why that is.
I also included this because in the ’10s, it feels like it’s harder and harder to find comedies that are simply about a family living a relatively mundane life that are actually funny. Much of TV has moved away from these kinds of shows, and The Goldbergs feels like a bit of an anomaly in its ability to make this model work.
What I liked: One of my favorite things the The Goldbergs pilot did is establish all six of the main characters of this family. Each one gets moments to be funny and charming, and each one gets moments of tension and conflict with other family members. I get a strong idea of the family dynamic. There’s screaming and fighting, but also get enough tender moments that I know everyone still loves each other and always will.
This might not sound like a lot, but it’s actually been a real stumbling point for the other pilots I’ve done so far. One of the trickiest things about pilots is that you have to develop enough characters to build a universe full of conflict and complexity, but if you try to develop too many characters too quickly, you’re inevitably going to do a bad job. So far, this problem plagued some pilots I didn’t like much at all (Glee) as well as ones that were overall successes (M*A*S*H). Seeing The Goldbergs stick the landing in this regard was quite impressive.
One of things that potentially helped in this regard was how the show is playing with common tropes of the genre. The dad is angry on the surface, but has a heart of gold. The mom is overbearing. Grandpa is the fun guy telling Mom and Dad to take it easy. As far as the kids are concerned, Adam is a relatively run-of-the-mill nerd, Barry is the awkward moron, (think Reese from Malcolm in the Middle) and Erica is the teenage girl who’s too cool for the rest of the family. The familiarity of these tropes helps us buy into the characters quickly and the pilot doesn’t burn too much time establishing them. Yet the performances across the board are strong enough that everyone’s super charming, and somehow The Goldbergs turns its cliché characters into a feature rather than a bug.
Half hour sitcom pilots are where I’m most forgiving because I know it often takes several episodes before characters are established enough for quality comedic storytelling. The Goldbergs proves that the best sitcom pilots don’t need this extra level of forgiveness. It IS possible to do a 22-minute story that a) has a concise, entertaining narrative b) does enough character exposition that prior knowledge of the characters isn’t required c) gets us c) is funny as hell. It’s certainly worth a watch for anyone interested in writing these kinds of shows, or really anyone who likes comedy. It also makes me feel like television will always have room for a well-done family sitcom, and that makes my heart happy.
What I didn’t like: In general I hate pilots that rely on voiceover for exposition to the extent that this one did. I would still say The Goldbergs could’ve gotten away with less voiceover and cutaway scenes than what they used, and the pilot would’ve been better for it. That said, this device was more entertaining here than it is in some cases, and the pilot was still strong enough that it’s only a minor nitpick rather than a true weakness of the pilot.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: I really am mad at myself now for imposing the only-the-pilot rule on myself. It’s a rainy day and binging a nice low-stakes family comedy would’ve been a great way to spend my time today.