The Goldbergs started out its first season loud — and by loud, we mean the characters spent basically the entire pilot yelling. But the ’80s-set show ended its season on a quieter note with less yelling and more tenderness (plus great use of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”).
When The Goldbergs first premiered back in September, it seemed like it could just be a show serving as a vehicle for ’80s references — the pilot is crowded with mentions of Jazzercise, Brooke Shields, and REO Speedwagon — and not much else. In that first episode, we saw the potential these characters had with Troy Gentile’s over-dramatic Barry and Wendi McLendon-Covey’s loving mama bear, but we didn’t learn much about the characters themselves. As Barry tells his dad in that pilot, “You don’t know anything about me.” And we didn’t, either.
From that very episode to Tuesday night’s season finale, The Goldbergs proved that it wasn’t just a way for showrunner Adam F. Goldberg (who based the show on his own childhood) to say, “Hey, remember the ’80s?” to his audience, but instead a funny, sweet show about family and growing up that happens to be set in the neon 1980s.
In the season finale, Murray’s kids lament that they don’t know anything about their dad. They learn random facts about him like that he was in the Army and waited tables with Lou Reed only for Murray (Jeff Garlin) to shrug his shoulders and give them an unimpressed “what?” when they push him for details. The one fun fact that gets the episode going, though, is that Murray set a basketball record back in high school and the school wants him to come back to show off his shooting skills on the court one final time (banquet — “it’s the fanciest of all food parties!” exclaims Adam — included). The kids are shocked to hear that their dad, the same guy who lives on his recliner, was a sports star in high school, but Murray doesn’t want to share much.
Back when we first met Murray, little Adam (Sean Giambrone) told us that though his dad seemed gruff, he was very loving. The show cutely demonstrated Murray’s inner-thoughts by putting subtitles on the screen whenever Murray said something particularly crude. Example: Murray tells Barry, “You’re not a total moron all the time,” and the subtitle translates it to “I love you.” But those witty translations were the only layers we got to see of Murray — and they were barely even layers at all.
By the end of the season, Murray is less of a one-sided, angry caricature and more of a human, albeit a private one. Hearing Murray drop little comments about things he’s done in his life that his kids knew nothing about proves that there’s plenty under Murray’s surface and, in a smart move by the show’s writers, plenty more for us to look forward to finding out in the renewed series’ second season.
Murray’s character isn’t the only improvement from the pilot to the finale: Sister Erica (Hayley Orrantia), who barely even shows up in the premiere, becomes a full-fledged character who does more than make fun of her younger brother and struggles between being a catty sister and being protective, like when she sees Barry’s crush mackin’ on someone else in the season finale and points it out to Barry only to immediately regret it.
This isn’t to say The Goldbergs morphed into a perfect sitcom in 23 episodes. As enjoyable and heartwarming as the finale was, it didn’t give much in the way of surprises. Murray can’t shoot a decent free throw anymore? Figured. Barry throws a party to impress a girl when his parents head out of town? Of course he did. His parents get home early and bust the party? Duh. Sitcoms don’t necessarily have a responsibility to shock; but to be a great show, they should at least be inventive with their plot lines which The Goldbergs often fails to be.
But The Goldbergs, while not ground-breaking, maybe doesn’t need to be. It offers nostalgia that many audiences adore — That ’70s Show went on for eight years and Happy Days, set in in the ’50s but made in the ’70s, went on for 10 — and for some, that factor is enough to convince them to tune in. And when all the characters aren’t yelling, the actors who play them balance humor and sentimentality with ease ensuring that even the most emotional moments aren’t too emotional — after it all, it is a sitcom.
While there’s plenty room to grow, The Goldbergs proved its potential by starting out as a show packing as many ’80s references as it could into 20 minutes and becoming a series about a family who are still learning things about themselves and each other — supplemented by a heavy dose of ’80s music, of course.