The nostalgia-soaked eighties-era sitcom The Goldbergs isn’t shy about acknowledging the debt that it owes to The Wonder Years, and to Stand by Me before it. The show is narrated by its main character, Adam Goldberg (Sean Giambrone), but rather than being a writer, or budding writer, he’s a filmmaker who covers his family’s life with a camcorder. (The show’s creator is Adam F. Goldberg, the producer of Breaking In and Fanboys, not the actor Adam Goldberg, in case you were curious.) But despite the occasional bits of amusingly low-grade video footage, the pilot doesn’t seem that interested in art-life interplay. It’s mostly content to stick with, “Hey, remember this song?” and “Eighties fashions were funny!” and “Whoa, Simon Says — I owned that game!”
Jeff Garlin plays the Goldberg family’s blustering patriarch, Murray, who says he’s trying to lose weight but makes his close-up introduction dripping jelly onto his too-small T-shirt. Wendi McClendon-Covey is Beverly, the matriarch, who inflicts a major payload of guilt on her husband and kids but deserves respect for holding the family together — and keeping herself fit, too. Hayley Orrantia is Erika, the wound-up, self-obsessed, college-boy-dating eldest daughter. Troy Gentile is Barry, a “classic middle child” who overreacts to everything. (Is that really “classic” middle-child behavior, though?) Seventies leading man turned lovable character actor George Segal plays Pops, the granddad, a onetime Lothario who dresses the way Professor Harold Hill would dress if he were a small-town pimp. Pop counsels the hero on how to cop a feel and advises him on how to flirt with a cute older girl who works at the local waffle house. In his own mind, this guy is still 35 and deadly sexy; he carries his own reality the way other guys carry a wallet. (Segal’s playing the guy you imagine George Segal to be in real life; this is a good thing.)
There are a few lively moments — Barry flipping out when he thinks his mom gave him car keys for his birthday when it’s really a locket with her picture in it; a montage that collects dad’s malapropisms, the better to teach viewers “How to speak Murray” — but it’s all too strained, too obviously written, and too dependent on the sort of easy-laughs memory-lane-tripping that VH1 did to death about fifteen years ago. Young Adam complains that his ill-fitting jeans make him look like Brooke Shields. Hey, I remember Brooke Shields, and those jeans she wore. And look, he’s wearing a Star Wars shirt. I remember Star Wars. How could I forget something that never went away? Uncomfortable first driving lesson? Mortifying awkwardness with students you’re crushing on? Stupid fights with your parents followed by reconciliations? Sure, we’ve all lived those things, but familiarity does not necessarily breed affection; comedy needs something else, something more. “Yeah, we were the family that yelled and cursed, but at the end of the day, we still loved each other,” says the now-adult narrator, played by Patton Oswalt — a huge if unintentional casting error, in that Oswalt is such an original and surprising comic voice that I’d rather hear him talk about his own family for half an hour than watch The Goldbergs.