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Fall 2013 Review: The Goldbergs

7 Oct

Three of the titular Goldbergs

There are many problems with The Goldbergs, but many of the biggest of these stem from one central misunderstanding about comedy. Every moving part in The Goldbergs screams this one great big lesson of comedy entirely unlearned: the value of subtlety.  Nothing, and I mean nothing in this show is subtle, at all.  None of the over the top jokes, which largely don’t work because they’re so obvious and over the top, have any room to breathe, which would starve them even if they were actually funny.

This direction starts with the choice of time period.  The 80s, at least the stereotypical 80s that we imagine now when we think of the decade, with Rubik’s cubes, and A Flock of Seagulls, and Starter Jackets, are loud, Outrageous.  You choose the ‘80s if you want to be absurd and up front.  Shoulder pads, the list goes on – in fact, just in case you don’t think of these images offhand, The Goldbergs actually starts with a montage of major ‘80s pop culture references to jog your memory, along with the narrator mentioning that it’s the 1980s, just in case you’re having trouble following along.

That’s the second point of mind-blowing un-subtlety. The narration.  Patton Oswalt narrates as the adult voice of youngest Goldberg, Adam (based on real life creator Adam Goldberg). Narration in television, and comedies in particular, is 90% of the time a bad idea.  Watching poor narration so far this TV season has inspired me to eventually write a post on all its faults, and here the problem is one of the most common for narration.  The narration serves no purpose.  It explains everything that happens in the show, events which need absolutely no explanation. It patronizes its audience without adding anything either funny or poignant. This happens again and again and again over the course of the first episode. Jeff Garlin’s dad character, Murray Goldberg is one of the top five types of television dad characters (now there would be a good article), the angry father who yells a lot and doesn’t know how to express his love for his children, but actually feels it deep down.  We’ve seen this character dozens of times and can identify it right away without Patton Oswalt’s commentary explaining it to us.

The worst gimmick of the episode follows the same thought process as the narration, and is yet another paean to the gods of un-subtlety. In order to understand Murray, Oswalt narrates, you have to speak Murray. Murray then yells something crude with network-approved faux curse words, after which subtitles appear on the bottom of the screen translating what Murray really means in pixelated 80s-style font (It reminds me of one of my least favorite How I Met Your Mother bits, where a character would say something, only for narrator Bob Saget to tell us “what he really said was this” and we find out the character said pretty much the opposite.  Half the time Murray will yell something indecipherable and it translates to something mean but in English, and half the time he’ll yell something mean, but he actually means something decent or nice. The show seems to think it’s funny because you’d never figure out what Murray’s saying without the hilariously helpful translations. Yes; that’s basic ironic humor.  Someone says one thing but means the opposite.  But we’ve seen Murray many times before. We know exactly what he’s saying. That character has been a television staple for decades and the translation bit just emphasizes what a cliched type Murray is in addition to not being funny.

Oswalt keeps trying to tell us how different his family is from ours. Even though they all love each other, they’re all crazy and yell at each other and fight all the time.  For many of us that’s not that hard to fathom as is. But even if it was not our personal experience, it’s been our television experience over and over. That joke is just not sufficient. There’s a lot of references to ‘80s things, a lot of generational gap humor where the kids will be speaking a different language than their parents or grandfather. It’s pretty boiler plate all around.  It’s not an embarrassment, but it’s generic and forgettable.

Will I watch it again? No.  It’s hardly insultingly bad, like Dads, but it’s just not very good and shows a very basic misunderstanding of what makes jokes and characters funny.