By Josh Oakley
When voice-over narration is used properly, the device informs what is going on in visuals, enhancing in some way, whether comically or emotionally, the other content. Good narration can also help to develop a relationship with the audience, by placing the narrator in a detached situation, similar to the viewer. This strengthens the bond of narrator as audience surrogate, a tool that can be utilized when no obvious surrogate presents themselves as a character within the world of the show or film itself. In terms of nostalgia, A Christmas Story and The Wonder Years both managed to grip emotionally to the viewer as if to say, “this was how it was for me, and you as well” the way one commiserates with an old high school friend over drinks at a reunion. The Goldbergs, at least in pilot form, misses every single mark listed above, and spills into the worst territory for a show reliant on voice-over narration to end up: spelling out character motivation and plot mechanics to the point of detracting wholly from the experience onscreen.
The dreaded narration comes into play by way of Patton Oswalt, one of the heroes of our generation, voicing the older Adam Goldberg. Oswalt does what he can with the material, but given its usage as a reiteration machine, he can only do so much. Sean Giambrone in, according to IMDb, his second role ever, plays the younger Adam. I’m sure Giambrone has talent somewhere within him, as it shines through in brief moments, but it has yet to be fully cultivated. It doesn’t help that the character itself isn’t given much direction beyond “peppy”. One would think that, if nothing else, an autobiographical story would understand its protagonist. One would be mistaken.
Adam’s brother and sister (as closing credit side-by-sides confess, she is the only wholly fabricated member of the fictional Goldbergs) are in various stages of adolescence, the former turning 16 in the pilot episode, and the latter close to college-age. The sister, Erica, is given very little impact in the pilot episode, whereas the brother, Barry, shares a main storyline with the Goldberg father. Jeff Garlin, who proves throughout that he is wasting his time in this environment, plays that father. Garlin is able to sell emotional beats that the show hasn’t earned, as he actually acts in a cast mostly comprised of people who float by with little impact (Tony Gentile, who plays Barry, does a lot of the yelling, and let’s just say that he is no Rob Riggle). Wendi McLendon-Covey, who plays the matriarch of the Goldbergs, also shows that she’s needed elsewhere. An overly sentimental scene between Garlin and McLendon-Covey is the closest thing The Goldbergs’ pilot has to a good scene. The emotional content is, while not deeply felt, at least understandable. Then we cut to the little dork holding a video camera, REO Speedwagon blasts, and all of the toxic pieces of the show begin to unfurl again.
The oddest thing about The Goldbergs is that it has the trappings of good shows, without ever committing to quality content. The narration could recall Wonder Years, but doesn’t care to attempt the emotional resonance of that seminal program. A bleeped curse word calls to mind progressive sitcoms such as The Office or Arrested Development, but this show doesn’t care to push its humor past the most flaccid of boundaries. The same goes for a running gag, where Garlin’s words are translated in on-screen text, that is modulated for an emotional moment, and then a final joke, one that fails to land because of the weak foundation it was built upon.
There is chance for The Goldbergs, I believe. The show just has to be more willing to dig into the cynicism it glances over, which would allow its sentimentality to be more impactful. Garlin and McLendon-Covey are two wildly talented individuals, and more focus on their relationship (while difficult, considering the show is from young Adam’s perspective) is key to developing a strong program. I like the look of this show, and at times I like the feel of it as well. Though I do wonder how much of the latter is built on nostalgia for my childhood (I was born in ’92, but as I said, this show never feels like it takes place in the 80’s) and better sitcoms that have come before. If The Goldbergs can purposefully tap into that nostalgia, there’s a chance of it becoming something worth watching.
- This show claims that the 80’s were a time “before peanut allergies”. Those are some fancy rose-colored classes.
- The one major element I didn’t touch on above is George Segal playing the kids’ grandfather. He plays the stereotype of the “pervy grandpa”, one of my least favorite tropes in history, and there’s little to say beyond that.