Sitcoms may be dumb on CBS, dead on NBC, and dying on Fox, but ABC has done a really fine job of cornering the market on funny, thoughtful, and diverse family sitcoms with Fresh Off the Boat, The Middle, Black-ish, and Modern Family. My favorite, however, is also the most traditional, albeit one set in the 1980s.
The Goldbergs — which comes from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison productions, believe it or not — has really hit its stride in its second season. It’s always been good, but while it was described in the beginning as a kind of Wonder Years set in the 1980s, lately it’s really begun to inhabit the spirit of its predecessor. While the 1980s pop-culture references and movie homages once felt a little on the gimmicky side, creator and showrunner Adam Goldberg has lately managed to seamlessly blend story and setting and allow those pop-culture references to exist simply to serve and inform the characters. (Save for the Ferris Bueller episode, which was a gimmick, but a downright delightful (and geekily accurate) one.)
The kid actors — Sean Giambrone, Troy Gentile, and Hayley Orrantia — have always been good, but now the writing is catching up to them. Their defining quirks have become small parts of their personalities, instead of all of their personalities, especially with Barry. He was once a rapping, delusionally aspiring basketball player whose personality was a cross between Wayne Arnold from The Wonder Years and Danny McBride, but after settling into a relationship, he’s become an honestly likable character. Likewise, Erica is much more than a sullen, withdrawn teenager; she’s a supportive big sister who secretly loves her parents. Adam has always been great as the geekily precocious momma’s boy, but Sean Giambrone has really grown into the role, as well.
Wendi McLendon-Covey is great, although her smothering mother plotlines can be a little overbearing, but it’s surprisingly Jeff Garlin that often brings the most heart to the series. Then again, I’m a sucker for the emotionally closed off male archetype who occasionally exposes the adoring teddy bear underneath. Garlin nails it.
I really can’t speak enough, however, about the transformative power of the music in the show. Adam Goldberg does this amazing job of taking cheesy 80’s ballads and whipping the poignancy into soft, mushy moments that will more than occasionally elicit tears. Such was the case in last week’s episode, when John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me” played over the reunion between father and son after Adam got lost in Veteran’s Stadium. Goldberg pulled the same trick in the pilot episode with REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” or the immensely crowd-pleasing “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” from the season one episode “Kara te.”
There was also my favorite musical moment from the entire series, Barry’s Freaks and Geeks-like dance sequence to “Living on a Prayer” in the first season finale (at 14:20):
What I appreciate the most about the show week in and week out, however, is this: No matter how loud and abrasive the Dad is, and no matter how smothering and insufferable the Mom is, The Goldbergs understand that the first rule of parenting is simply to be present, that when you get lost in Veterans stadium, you can have faith that your father will wait for you, even if it takes waiting for every other person in the stadium to clear out.