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ABC’s New Sitcom ‘The Goldbergs’ Isn’t a Remake, and That’s a Good Thing

The Tattler: This time the TV Jews are just a typical American family, no more eccentric than the Simpsons

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The cast of The Goldbergs. (Craig Sjodin/ABC)
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In 1929, the great American radio-listening public was first introduced to The Goldbergs. The brainchild of the actress and writer Gertrude Berg—who starred as the clan’s beloved yiddische mama, Molly—The Goldbergs was not only groundbreaking in a formal sense but also for its portrayal of the denizens of 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx as a relatable American family. And it did so even as anti-Semitism was ascending to its most virulent heights worldwide (a topic the show was unafraid to confront; one famous episode airing shortly after Kristallnacht had bigots throwing a brick through the Goldberg family’s front window).

Listen to episodes from the original radio show here:

In 1949, The Goldbergs made the leap to the new medium of television and in 1956 passed off the air into legend, and eventually, obscurity (and YouTube).

This fall on ABC, the great-grandchildren of the original viewers will see a whole new set of Goldbergs on their TV screens in The Goldbergs; and no, it’s not a remake. This Goldbergs is the creation of Adam F. Goldberg. A heartwarming sitcom based directly on Goldberg’s own family and set in the 1980s, it’s like a Reagan-era Wonder Years, and from what I can glean from the 4-and-a-half-minute preview released by the network this week, it seems to employ many of the same tropes: the blustering dad who has difficulty expressing tenderness (played here by the wonderful Jeff Garlin aka Jeff Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm); the overprotective, slightly fretful mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey, so hilarious in Bridesmaids and Reno 911!); the trendy sister, the obnoxious older brother. The conceit of the show is that we are watching home movies shot by the younger iteration of an adult-as-voiced-narrator, the precocious baby of the family rarely seen without an enormous and cumbersome vintage Camcorder in hand. (The wisecracking grandfather, the only main character without a Wonder Years corollary, is played by George Segal, who I have to say I’m very happy to see. TV hasn’t been the same since Just Shoot Me went off the air.)

It’s all pretty standard, if funny, stuff (and as I mentioned, I’ve only seen the sneak peek; this could turn into an absurdist Buñuelian satire of the mores of the bourgeoisie, for all I know), and its matter-of-factness is for me sort of poignant, for lack of a better word. I’m younger than Adam Goldberg, but I also grew up watching television (a lot of television) in the 1980s, and I’m pretty sure that back then, this new show would not have made it to the air. The original Goldbergs, like The Cosby Show did during my childhood, might have shown America that a group that white, Middle-American Christians had traditionally Othered might not be so scary after all, but this “normalization” seems to have been inevitably followed by a long drought (re: Cosby, when was the last time you saw a major network, buzzed-about sitcom about a family of color?).

This was an era in which Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty were playing Sicilians. There were occasionally explicitly Jewish characters on television, but if aliens invaded planet Earth with only Must-See TV as an anthropological guide to the peoples they had conquered, they would think “Jew” equaled “single neurotic urban male who lives exclusively in New York and dates blonde women who seem to bemusedly tolerate him.” There were no Jewish women, except to show us how desirable non-Jewish ones were by comparison, and certainly no Jewish children, because duh, you’d have to sleep with, or God forbid, marry a Jewish woman for that, and gross. Unless she’s Fran Drescher, but everyone knows that woman makes her own rules. It’s like saying Queen Elizabeth epitomizes your typical 1950s housewife.

At first glance, The Goldbergs betrays none of that anxiety. The pilot episode revolves around whether or not the older brother will actually be given access to a car upon getting his drivers’ license—there are no bar mitzvah jokes or what my husband likes to call “comedy klezmer” (part of the general family that also includes “sexy saxophone”). The Goldbergs are simply an American family, with typical American family problems: kids growing up too fast to suit their parents; parents who embarrass their kids by talking too loudly or buying the wrong cassette tape at Sam Goody (although can REO Speedwagon ever really be wrong?). “Goldberg,” in this context, doesn’t seem to be any kind of signifier meant to cue our assumptions about what these people might be like, and are we OK with that. It’s just a typical last name for a typically eccentric (which means, not very) American family, no different than “Arnold” or “Cunningham” or “Simpson.” They aren’t the first Jewish-American family on television, but at least we now know they probably won’t be the last. Somewhere up in that big Bronx tenement in the sky, Molly Goldberg must be kvelling all over the place.


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beefero says:

It probably should be noted, the writer-director of this series is Adam F. Goldberg – not the relatively famous actor Adam Goldberg, he of the Jewish father/Catholic mother.

    jjdynomite says:

    Thanks beefero, that would have been the assumption of pretty much everyone who read this article, that Adam Goldberg is the one of The Hebrew Hammer and Saving Private Ryan fame.

    Also, the original ‘The Goldbergs’ project was entitled “How The F— Am I Normal”:

    Better research, please, Rachel Shukert.

      RachelShukert says:

      You’re right! I’m sorry. I fell prey to the same confusion that many other journalists have. We are fixing now, thank you. And again, my apologies, to the correct Adam Goldberg and to all!

    David_Turner says:

    Profiling, beefero? The fact is, regardless of commercial slant of the knockoff, Goldberg is apparently still a self-identifying Jew. It is possible to criticize the effort without attacking the person.

Lucy Meyer Fox says:

I loved the original Goldbergs I grew up in the 50’s and watched it all the time. I am hoping this is a wonderful series as well.

Victoria F Presser says:

I would like to note for the record the Jewish family featured in NUMB3RS. In the very first episode, the older brother wanders into his father’s kitchen asking if there are any leftovers. The father (Judd Hirsch!), says yes, brisket. The son then replies — “oh, of course — it’s Friday.”

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    Chris Pasquariello says:

    Why does that matter? Who’s keeping track of blacks or Mexicans on TV? I hope we can get to a place where Jews don’t feel the need to constantly remind everyone that they are important, normal, etc. I don’t remember all of this explanation when Seinfeld first aired; that was the Jewiest TV show ever (but still great).

    Chris Pasquariello says:

    Why does that matter? Who’s keeping track of blacks or Mexicans on TV? I hope we can get to a place where Jews don’t feel the need to constantly remind everyone that they are important, normal, etc. I don’t remember all of this explanation when Seinfeld first aired; that was the Jewiest TV show ever (but still great).

David_Turner says:

And being less “ethnically” Jewish is the new ideal?

    Carolyn Cades says:

    Exactly. My reaction is, “This is progress”? Sounds like a big yawn.

Golum says:

….yeah I know this is a very dumb looking show…but…like watching “the Fokkers” I’ll take what I can get!!! Numbers did a couple ALMOST Jewish themed shows…SEINFELD…which our family all loved…very seldom mentioned (if at all) the word JEWS…in fact George Costanza and family…all Jews…were written as Italian…but no one believed it….so they converted!!! The Paul Reiser Show which was the most Jewish of all Shows and we loved…they NEVER mentioned the word Jews or Jewish….I never could figure that out….”did some asshole network exec forbid it???”…and incidentally Paul WAS married to a blond shiksa goddess on it.

teensmom99 says:

Hmm–casting Wendi McLendon-Covey as the Jewish mother seems exactly like those shows from the 1980s that were scared to make people.

irvingdog says:

Getting better Rokhele, but there are right ways and wrong ways to transcribe Yiddish. You’ve mastered the latter; for the former, it’s yidishe mame

frankgado says:

I listened to the radio show and watched the TV show. I loved it! Eccentric? Not at all. I lived in a neighborhood that could have stocked the casts of at least ten more sit coms. And I was a great fan of Molly Berg, who, if I remember correctly, also wrote the shows. Along with the schlock, there was a lot of intelligence shining through.

I remember the first time I heard Molly Berg speak in her own voice; I was in disbelief. That’s how closely I identified the creator with her character.

Why complain about Jewish actors playing Italians. I took that as anti-Italian prejudice. And it persists, though at a much, much lower level. And why are these stage Italians always from the Mezzogiorno? And why do we never see any Jewish Italians–of which there are many (and many of the many are Piedmontese. There is a story idea in that, Rachel.

frankgado says:

And now Papa spank. “The original Goldbergs, like The Cosby Show did during my childhood, …” The original Goldbergs, as The Cosby Show did during …” or “The original Goldbergs, like The Cosby Show during … “

Jews on TV, etc: There once was a TV show called Brooklyn Bridge, which featured a Jewish family, but it had the older son dating a nonJew and the family eating in a nonKosher Chinese restaurant, with the Jewish grandmother nudging the grandfather to make a bracha to show that they, too had a religious culture (the nonJewish girl’s parents said a Christian ‘grace’) and the grandfather didn’t really know from brachas at all. Interestingly, the man who made that show was also named Goldberg.
Even before that, though, there was a brief attempt at showing real Jews, even observant ones, with issues like shidduch, etc., back in the day, with Tova Feldshuh as a psychiatrist in a prison; the TV show was called Moriah. I was thrilled not only to see Jews being played as real people, and not Woody Allen caricatures nor other stupid stereotypes normally seen, yet with Jewish issues and issues of Jews in the world, but also to see Tova Feldshuh–and then it disappeared. I wondered at the time if perhaps the world was not ready and/or interested in seeing Jews as real people, not stereotypes or caricatures, with the dignity of difference and ability to live in a world with others as well as our own.

sharongibson says:

Please, please don’t be opposite Justified.

Nadine Bonner says:

I wish this show had a different name so people wouldn’t confuse it with the original “The Goldbergs,” which was truly a groundbreaking show. Aviva Kempner’s documentary “Yoo,Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is truly illuminating. Gertrude Berg was a brilliant woman and very courageous in her effort to save Phillip Loeb, who played her husband, from McCarthy’s witch hunt. She failed, and he committed suicide (a scene later recreated by Zero Mostel in “The Front”). “The Goldbergs” dominated radio and TV for many years. This version seems like another cookie cutter sitcom that will be gone in six month.

abarafi says:

Maybe it would be better if TV stopped trying to portray ethnic folks as regular folks. Maybe it would be better if TV just stopped. Before we had radio and TV, people entertained themselves by reading. Even with radio, you had to use your imagination. With TV, there’s no need. You just sit there passively and see whatever the genius who produced the show thinks you should see. Imagination? Unnecessary.

Jerry W says:

@frankgado: Great to see someone who knows the language. Are you an English professor?

california woman says:

i think there are a lot of people who are tired of seeing jews on tv (ethnic or not). jews seem to be on television and movies to the utter exclusion of other groups, and it’s tiresome. does america really need yet another jewish-centric sitcom? and yes–to the person upthread who asked– blacks, mexicans, asians, etc. ARE “keeping track”. other groups are practically non-existent. it’s the 900-lb. elephant in the room that nobody dares to mention for fear of being called (shudders) anti-semitic.


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ABC’s New Sitcom ‘The Goldbergs’ Isn’t a Remake, and That’s a Good Thing

The Tattler: This time the TV Jews are just a typical American family, no more eccentric than the Simpsons

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