WHEN Is The Goldbergs?

They say it's “1980-something,” but act as if it's in 1980-all-the-things. Pick a year!

Photo: Danny Feld / ABC

Photo: Danny Feld / ABC

ABC pitched The Goldbergs to us as The Wonder Years for Generation X, and with Patton Oswalt as our Daniel Stern, reminding us why VH1 reinvented itself two reinventions ago with its I Love The 80s franchise.

And I don't care how many times Patton Oswalt's voice-over narration introduces an episode as September or October “1980-something,” as much as creator Adam Goldberg tells us that it doesn't matter when in the '80s our plotline is taking place, or even if the plot stays in the same year's cultural references from Minute 1 to 22. That's like saying it doesn't matter which Adam Goldberg created this series. Sorry, Vine fans: this nostalgic time-looping creation is not born from the mind of Adam Charles Goldberg (born 1970) from Saving Private Ryan. The Goldbergs re-enacts the real-life stories that unfolded in the suburban Philadelphia home of Adam F. Goldberg (of the short-lived FOX sitcom Breaking In), and we're reminded of this at the end of each episode, with actual family footage the young Adam F. Goldberg shot with his trusty videocamera of his sister Erica, brother Barry, mom Beverly, dad Murray, and grandfather Pops.

So if you're going to hammer home how real this all is, could you just pick a year already?! There are plenty of 1980s references to last you through syndication, never mind the first thirteen episodes ordered by the network.

Pay no attention to That '80s Show behind the cancellation door. Focus instead on That '70s Show, which stayed in the decade for eight seasons. There there. Feel better now? "Don't Worry, Be Happy"! (September 1988.)

We start the series in what seems to be 1985. Why 1985? Because middle brother Barry Goldberg (Troy Gentile) turns sixteen and receives a cassette tape of REO Speedwagon's “Wheels Are Turnin',” and while Barry complains that it's too “Top 40,” he ends up singing along to the top power ballad, “Can't Fight This Feeling,” by episode's end.

In the third episode, Beverly (Wendi McClendon-Covey, who shines like her feathered hair throughout the season) wants young Adam (Sean Giambrone) to go see The Great Mouse Detective -- holding the full-page newspaper ad from 1986 -- but he tricks his grandfather (George Segal) into taking him to see 1982's Poltergeist instead. Meanwhile, all Barry wants is a pair of Reebok Pumps (created in 1989). Why didn't he want Air Jordans? We all wanted Air Jordans. We all still want Air Jordans.

Moving on: the next week, Barry is obsessed with watching ALF (NBC, 1986-1990), while Adam wears a Hulkamanaic T-shirt, but the biggest time-differential faux pas that rings false for any generation here is having the parents paying seventeen-year-old Erica to babysit her siblings. Sure, Adam is only twelve, because how could The Goldbergs miss out on future bar mitzvah scenes, but Barry is sixteen!

Last week's episode finds Adam using the lessons he's learned from 1989's Say Anything to woo a thirteen-year-old girl from the neighborhood, while brother Barry is seen eating Pac-Man cereal, which couldn't have been a thing for longer than a cold minute in 1983 and certainly wasn't still a thing by 1989 or even 1980-something.

Which brings us to this week's Halloween-themed episode.

Adam makes his own Rubik's Cube. Fine. Sure. Very 1980s. Pops is dressed as Venkman from Ghostbusters, the box-office smash from 1984. Both costumes hold up today. Roll the opening credits.

"It was Halloween. 1980-something," grown-up Adam reminds us. "Back then, my brother Barry was obsessed with Lou Ferrigno and The Incredible Hulk." You know: the series that went off the air in 1982? Not to mention that we see Barry watching an episode in his bedroom on TV. Not on tape. On TV.

Yet Barry has a Public Enemy poster on his bedroom wall, too. He's already told dad Murray (Jeff Garlin in a very loud Jeff Garliny role) that “Flavor Flav” is his idol, which nobody was saying in the 1980s -- certainly not a white kid in suburban Philly. Because he wouldn't have even gotten a copy of the landmark It Takes A Nation Of Millions to Hold Us Back until 1988.

Meanwhile, Beverly stops Erica (Hayley Orrantia) from walking out the door. "Are you kidding me with that costume?" "What? I'm Jane Goodall. The famous anthropologist who lived with wild chimpanzees in Africa."

Are you kidding me with all of this? A seventeen-year-old girl in the 1980s not only knows who Goodall is but believes it's a cool costume choice?!

(What's that? Exhibit A from the defense: a Far Side comic dated Aug. 26, 1987, that mentions Goodall? …Sustained.)

Barry and Erica do make it out the door to a high-school Halloween party, where the object of Barry's affections is a JCPenney catalogue model (points for producing the actual catalogue earlier in the episode) and dressed as the Jennifer Beals character from 1983's Flashdance. (She misidentifies his Incredible Hulk costume, however, as Oscar the Grouch.) Because it's Halloween, pretty much all of this gets a pass since you could pick any costume from the appropriate decade without failing.

And yet. Barry drops the word “anyhoo” into a conversation, and his mom describes him at episode's end as a “sweet, sensitive, lactose-intolerant, delicious little boy.” I didn't even know “lactose-intolerant” were words that went together until hearing them for the first time in 1991. I refuse to believe anyone else did earlier than that.

So when is The Goldbergs? My best guess: Forever 1989. Coming to a shopping mall near you in Never-Neverland.

For Scary Week we ask:

Who wore the 1980s best for Halloween?

  • Adam Goldberg as a Rubik's Cube, which makes for a good last-minute idea for you kids out there of all ages.
  • Barry Goldberg as The Incredible Hulk, who turns everything he touches into green, which only makes us angry. You don't want to see us angry.
  • Erica Goldberg as Jane Goodall, not to be confused with Dian Fossey (played by Sigourney Weaver in 1988's Gorillas in the Mist), although if you were in the 1980s, you probably did confuse the two.
  • Pops Solomon as Venkman, Bill Murray's character from "The Ghostbusters," a.k.a. the only Ghostbuster you'd want to be.
  • Lexy Bloom (Ginny Gardner) as Alex from Flashdance, torn shirt and leg warmers and all, oh my.
  • Those two teenage girls who dressed as backup dancers from Robert Palmer's music video for “Addicted To Love.” You might as well face it.
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  • http://www.goodreads.com/joeleoj Joel Cunningham

    Here is why I won't watch the show. I read a time travely teen book set in 1996 once that had the characters watching a DVD (which weren't even sold in Japan until '97) of Wayne's World (not released until 1999) and I couldn't get over it.

  • dustdevilliz

    THANK YOU!
    I watched 7 minutes of the tail-end of the roller-skating episode, and was so frustrated by the mishmash of pop culture references.

  • Profreader

    I think the reveal at the end of the season needs to be something like the perennial Twilight Zone twist "... we're in a zoo!", where the helpful alien zookeepers have stocked the pen with all 80s memorabilia.

  • ED

    Great piece, this is exactly why I can't watch this show. Tried to watch a couple of episodes but the time discrepancies are just too much of a distraction, I was hoping this would be the new "The Wonder Years" but it's more like "I love the 80s - The Series".

  • Paul Chillman

    I haven't seen the show, but just reading this fills me with rage. Just thinking about the attention to detail on, say, Freaks and Geeks, compared with this level of laziness ... aargh, I have to go take a walk or something.

  • Adam Goldberg

    LOVE this article Sean! Thanks for taking the time to go through all the years. Very proud that I was able to give shout outs to all these things in only 5 eps. I can die a happy man. And I will officially answer when the first 5 episodes take place. September 2nd to October 31st 1980something! (Also: Barry did have a VCR in his room when he was watching the Hulk...)

  • Jeff Drake

    Jesus, what a mess this show sounds like! That Great Mouse Detective/Poltergeist thing made my blood boil. Also, and this ain't for nothing, I lived through the '80s LIKE A BOSS, and there is no good reason to revisit them. They were kind of the worst decade ever.

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