Imagine becoming an archaeologist in, say, 2065. Your first big assignment? Dig up the now-collapsed Museum of the 1980s and catalog all its holdings: the Clash, “The Empire Strikes Back,” He-Man, Donkey Kong and a recording by Kim Carnes.
This is the feeling I often get when I watch ABC’s “The Goldbergs,” which plays on the same turf as “The Wonder Years,” “Happy Days” and “That ’70s Show,” but does it in the era in which I grew up. The sitcom hurls an awful lot of 1980s references at its viewers each week, but never in a way that appears to adhere to the rules of time, a practice I find frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.
Why does Adam Goldberg, the clever pre-teen in the show played by Sean Giambrone (and the stand-in for the series’ creator, Adam F. Goldberg), have the option in one episode of going to the cinema to see either 1986’s “The Great Mouse Detective” or 1982’s “Poltergeist”? How is teenager Barry Goldberg (Troy Gentile) able to watch 1982’s “The Incredible Hulk” TV series while having a poster celebrating Public Enemy’s 1988 album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” on his wall? And if it’s a series about the 1980s, why use Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” (which charted in 1977) or Billy Joel’s “My Life” (1978)?
“The Goldbergs” is more like a collection of memories rather than a realistic journey through the past. Given the success of “Mad Men,” however, and the fame that program has attained thanks to its rigorous devotion to the times, should TV viewers expect more from any show that claims to be rooted in history?
But being a stickler, warns Adam F. Goldberg, would ruin the show, which he hopes secures renewal after ABC entertainment prexy Paul Lee recently gave it a pat on the back.
“You want it to be on seven years, and if you’re going to take it really serious chronologically, like they do with ‘Mad Men,’ then you have to set it in the early ’80s,” Goldberg says.
That means he’d have had to wait until the show’s run was almost over to touch on his favorite ’80s themes, he explains. “Creatively, all the stories I wanted to do, I couldn’t do,” he says.
“The Goldbergs” opens each week with an unseen narrator popping a videotape into a VCR. You’d think this would augur a degree of historical verisimilitude, but actually, it’s another autobiographical jumping-off point for Goldberg to deliver just the opposite. The show’s creator says he made many recordings as a kid, and adds that bits and pieces from his family’s life are strewn across dozens of unlabeled cartridges. “It’s not like today, where you have the digital stamp on it,” he says.
The work Matthew Weiner and his team put into “Mad Men” is legendary, but it’s not the norm. Goldberg says he studied old episodes of “The Wonder Years” and “That ’70s Show” and found they, too, sometimes came up short on historical accuracy.
Goldberg instead spends hours on other details. He writes letters to anyone who might have rights to images and songs he would like to appear on the program: When it came time to write a story citing the 1985 film “The Goonies,” he wrote to Steven Spielberg, who exec produced the film; when a plot called for footage of NBC’s 1980s sitcom “Gimme a Break!,” he reached out to star Nell Carter’s daughter. “We need to get approval for all these images, all the music, and it’s a full-time job in itself,” he explains.
In short, Adam Goldberg is a guy who follows his nose, not the calendar. He may be scrambling memories of your youth in the process, but you’ll have to take solace in a Georgia Satellites tune and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, because, in this case at least, Goldberg is the master of all time and space.