ABC Laffer ‘The Goldbergs’ Plays Fast and Loose With ’80s Timeline

The Goldbergs Chronology Problem

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.

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  1. Jon Rearden says:

    I was born in 75 so I remember growing up in the 80’s. One thing is the outfits are all over the place and never touch on the truly bad things. Mullets, tight rolling, high tight shorts with white black and red air jordans, terrible glasses, strange commie hatred, Miami vice, The war on drugs, Reagan, etc They don’t show the serious 80s.

  2. Shawn Wray says:

    I don’t consider it to be inaccurate. We are watching memories of a narrator who is now in his 40s. Memories are flawed. I think of things all the time that I think happened when i was one age only to look them up and find out that they either happened much later or much earlier. Memory is flawed. That’s why we can see a kid go see Return of the Jedi (1983) one week and dress as a Ghostbuster (1984) for Halloween that same year. I love it!

    • auburntigers34 says:

      You mean the narrator that was supposed to have recorded pretty much the entire decade on video? That narrator has a fuzzy memory? Call it what it is, lazy ****ing writing.

  3. Michele says:

    This show is so innacurate that it’s ridiculous. I hope they cancel it

  4. Dawn Masuoka says:

    Thank you, I found myself each week getting riled up about some of the inaccuracies (mainly movies, video games or songs that weren’t playing during the time they were trying to show) and I wasn’t sure if I was the only one bothered by it. Of course it annoys the people around me, but it adds to my fun.

  5. Max says:

    I grew up in the 80’s I hate them and my childhood both. It was the worst time of my life and left emotional scares on me that forever will haunt my adult life. The Goldbergs reflect my dysfunctional 80’s childhood to a perfect real life flash back. Thanks so much. I love the show and have become addicted to watching it. The Gooldbergs Rock!!!!

  6. sarahjaneb says:

    “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)?”

    You’re really reaching with this one. I remember the 80s (at least the parts when I wasn’t completely baked) and I can promise you that in the 1980s, plenty of kids were still listening to music that came out in the late 1970s. There’s nothing anachronistic about that.

  7. G'ma Bobbi says:

    I noticed some of the things mentioned in this article and didn’t care the show is fresh & funny. It has a great cast. I love the tail end where they show actual tapes of the real Goldbergs.

  8. Xavier Montaine says:

    Wow, that was snarky and quite passive aggressive of you Mr. Steinberg. I found your article quite insulting, especially with your little button on the end there. This show is a comedy, a very broad comedy. It’s true, Mr. Goldberg and his staff of writers, producers and other creatives that give each episode it’s look, feel and theme; don’t always stick to an exact historical timeline with their references and set design or even the soundtrack. They do, however, stick to the overall theme and period of “The ’80s” and they do it with loving care while making me crack up at home and occasionally tear up as well. It is hands down, my favorite new comedy of the season. I hope they keep on doing what their doing and how their doing it because it’s brilliant, hilarious, touching and unique television that strikes a chord in me and many others. I watch it every week and very much hope that I will have that chance again next TV season.

    Oh, and one more thing. Please don’t compare Madmen (another one of my favorites) and The Goldbergs. It’s like comparing the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the world to the very best Lager. Two utterly and completely different tastes, neither opposites nor in competition with the other. I enjoy them both and could never forsake one for the other.

    You should give The Goldbergs your support for daring to be original, with quality writing that rings true to it’s audience and at the same time isn’t so different that it can’t find it’s audience. With so much slop out there that passes as watchable television, you should be more generous with your appreciation for a show like The Goldbergs. They only come around maybe once every ten years or so in the crazy world of television.

  9. Don Benn says:

    The show is about FAMILY not about HISTORY. It’s much better than anyone expected it to be…..and keeps getting better. I don’t know how it plays in the rest of the country but here in suburban Philly where the show is set……we love it!

  10. Jacques Strappe says:

    As long as it stays mostly within the decade of the 80’s, who cares about exact timelines; it’s a sitcom for crying out loud. In a way, The Goldbergs resembles my own hot mess of VCR recordings combining family memories with my favorite television shows on mislabeled tapes that have practically no progressive timeline.

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