This TV season was an embarrassment of riches when it came to single camera comedy. Just last night on Fox, the excellent BROOKLYN NINE-NINE concluded its freshman year on the air, wrapping with the confidence of knowing they will definitely be returning in the fall. The police-comedy had been one of my most anticipated shows of the year, and usually when that happens I end up disappointed when the show sputters out of the gate or just plain dies. (THE BLACKLIST and THE FOLLOWING fall in varying places within that spectrum.)
Fortunately, it's hard to go wrong with Andre Braugher and casting him as the authority figure some 20 years after he first played Detective Frank Pembleton on HOMICIDE ended up paying off well. On a lesser show, I'd probably be saying, "Well, at least Braugher is good," but not content to coast on their lead's mastery of deadpan deliveries and slow burns, the creators of B99 have surrounded him with a strong ensemble. Andy Samberg's natural goofiness is exactly what this show's world needs in order to inhabit the cartoony-but-not-TOO-cartoony tone that many of the show's best gags rely on. When he goes really big, Braugher becomes the anchor that ensures everything still has weight and the distance between the two approaches is where you'll find most of the show's other characters.
The only show that comes close to even competing with BROOKLYN NINE-NINE in terms of hitting the ground running and refining its voice over the course of a season is THE GOLDBERGS. This checks all the boxes for me, almost as if creator Adam F. Goldberg and his staff are spending millions over the course of a season just to play precision target practice with my funny bone. Framed as Adam's recollections of growing up in the 80s, the series evokes similar nostalgia that THE WONDER YEARS mined so long ago. But it's more of an outright comedy than TWY is, and a key decision is to not adhere strictly to the real timeline of the 80s. One episode might make mention of a movie from 1982 being at the theatre concurrent with a reference that fixes the action in 1986. It's enough to make one speculate about an episode where young Adam listens to Billy Joel's 1989 hit "We Didn't Start the Fire" and realizes he must avert the yet-to-occur "Rock and Roller Cola Wars."
As much as THE GOLDBERGS is compared to THE WONDER YEARS, the difference in the way they explore their time frames draws a sharp contrast. In its strongest moments, TWY examined the universal moments in childhood: first crush, first license, the frustration of dealing with a teacher who keeps pushing you to do better, the discovery that your parents are people who had their own dreams and lives before you. In some ways it told stories that could have been set in any era. But it was also VERY much about the Vietnam War era. A major plot point in the pilot was the death of Winnie's brother in Vietnam and though that element often receded into the background, it only allowed that tragedy to gain further potency in the moments where it was judiciously invoked.
A conventional drama might have felt compelled to explore Winnie's grief in depth. However, as we were bound to Kevin's perspective, the toll it took on the girl next door was only apparent when the signs were too aggressive for Kevin to ignore. This comes to a head in "The Accident," where Kevin fears Winnie has fallen in with the wrong crowd and isn't acting like herself. He recognizes her acting out as the cry for help that it surely is, but all his efforts to reach out to her are rebuffed until after she's injured in a car accident and is left to deal with the consequences of her recent behavior. It was the last time the show would really examine the scars left on Winnie from losing her brother, aside from mention made of it in an episode when Kevin and Winnie work on the McGovern campaign.
It's hard to imagine THE GOLDBERGS getting either that serious or that political. We're not going to see an episode dealing with Iran-Contra or Gary Hart anytime soon. The vast sum of its nostalgia is drawn from 80s pop culture rather any of the world events at the time. It's as much a love letter to childhood and family as TWY was, but in a way that allows it to have more fun. THE GOLDBERGS is one of the rare shows where I can't think of a single dud episode thus far. As much as Adam's world has been fleshed out, there's the sense that the elements introduced later have always been there on the fringes, just waiting for their turn in the spotlight. Nothing feels like it's invented week-to-week. A good example of this is the GOONIES episode, where all of Adam's friends were made up of characters introduced individually in earlier episodes.
But the show's at its best when dealing with the characters who have been there from the start. Jeff Garlin fits the role of Murray like a glove, perfectly hitting the right tone of paternal pride in his children even as their drama annoys him to all hell. (In a recent episode, he remarked having more children was his worst nightmare, then turned to his daughter without missing a beat and said, "You'll understand when you have kids.")
He and Wendi McLendon-Covey inhabit their roles of Murray and Beverly like they've been playing them for years. It's rare to have that chemistry between a TV married couple who can bicker and snipe without making you wonder how these two still stand each other. There's a familiarity between the two and stories like last week's episode (where the two engage in a passive aggressive war of "improving each other") really take advantage of that. The writers really understand these characters and the characters understand each other. Hopefully five years from now we won't be complaining that their most prominent traits have been exaggerated over time and made them unbearable.
I also like how older brother Barry has alternately been a dork, a jock, a bully and a sappy romantic. TWY's older brother Wayne was often just a straight-up ass, but Barry is allowed to be the heavy as often as he's the goat. Objectively, he's probably more dork than anything else ("Big Tasty" casts a long embarrassing shadow.) However, because to Adam, Barry still wields a lot of power, the writers have license to play with the character in fairly versatile ways. Another great touch is that Barry is 100% confidant in his abilities, even when his his lack of game is cringe-inducing. (It helps that Troy Gentile is clearly having a ball with whatever the script throws at him that week.) There are a lot of directions the writers could take Barry as he matures and it'll be interesting to compare the Barry from five years from now with the one we've been presented with this season.
And then there's Erica, who probably took the longest to be fully-fleshed out this season. My favorite moments have involved her at odds with her mother, in part because that dynamic feels so real. I don't have a sister, but I DO have a younger brother and a mother who are more alike than either would like to admit, and so many of the Beverly/Erica fights rang true. (I assure that right now, both my mother and brother are calling bullshit on that last sentence and the comparison in general.)
Erica's an interesting one to examine because she's the only character without a real-world analog in Adam Goldberg's family. Throughout the season you could feel the writing staff trying out different roles for her (alternately a conspirator and adversary to her brothers, manipulative with her grandfather, aggressive against her mother) with the result being that Haley Orrantia got to play a lot of different angles. This paid dividends because in the "rebellious sister" category, Erica feels a lot more complex than Kevin Arnold's older sister Karen.
George Segal's Pops is another wonderful depiction of a familiar archtype brought to life in an interesting way. Maybe it's because you really can imagine Segal as a former Lothario, but the requisite "randy old man" jokes don't play as the cheap laughs they often are on other series. Or maybe it's just that the writers are smart enough to realize that "old guy wants to get some" is the set-up to a joke, not just the punchline.
The wonderful thing about Pops is that just below the humor is a very human story about a guy in his declining years. He already had his driving privileges taken away and a recent episode dealt with him needing to stick to a budget and raised the issue of his memory lapses. Segal and the writers make balancing those tones look a lot easier than it actually is.
And of course, I can't leave out the show's own storyteller, Adam. Sean Giambrone is a real find - a TV kid who actually looks like a kid. Adam is supposed to be about 14 and Sean looks damn near that age. This might sound like a no-brainer, but the last show to cast a 14 year-old regular with someone who's actually that age probably was THE WONDER YEARS. Consider that most of the characters on CW dramas and Glee started their series runs at age 15 and were played by actors in their early-to-mid twenties. It pushed those shows into more adult territory early on.
But because Adam looks so young, he's allowed to be a kid. So many stories about the early teen years now feel like fresh territory. Several episodes this year reflected this, as we had stories about Adam giving up his beloved childhood toys, Adam's geeky love of THE GOONIES leading him to send his friends on a treasure hunt, and Adam wondering if he had a crush on his platonic friend.
Adam is an "every-kid," must like Kevin Arnold was. He's not a future Tiger Beat cover boy, he's not written like some sort of teenage fantasy wish-fulfillment. He's simply one of us, neither an Alpha nor an Omega. He's developed just enough for the audience to project their own childhood feelings onto. There's an innocence that Giambrone brings to the role and it'll be interesting to see how long the show's able to maintain that. I have to imagine the writing staff is praying daily that their young lead doesn't return from hiatus having hit a growth spurt.
As of yet, THE GOLDBERGS has yet to be renewed for a second season. It feels like it should be a lock, but I'm sure an upswing in the ratings can't hurt. When the show returns next week, please consider sampling it. It was one of the best, if not the best new comedy of the season. (Aside from BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, only ENLISTED made a fan out of me as quickly as THE GOLDBERGS.) I'd love to see it run for many years - or at least long enough so that young Adam Goldberg can become a fan of THE WONDER YEARS.