The newest Goldberg family on television has a grandfather who looks like he’d be at home in Miami or Boca. George Segal plays Pops, a widower who likes to date, loves spoiling his grandkids and especially enjoys tutoring them in the ways of love. In this week’s premiere episode of “The Goldbergs,” the new ABC sitcom set in the 1980s, Pops hands over his car keys to 16-year-old Barry and teaches 12-year-old Adam to get the attention of a pretty waitress.
“The Goldbergs” kicked off Tuesday, but you may feel like you already know them. Their photo — with the parents, three children and grandfather, all in matching sweaters in splashy color — has been all over New York City buses and billboards for weeks.
This is a Jewish family whose members are loving and boisterous; they don’t hold back on yelling and screaming about not being understood. The mom, Beverly, played by Wendi McLendon-Covey, has big hair and shows her love by being very, very involved. The hot-tempered Dad is played by Jeff Garlin — Garlin and Segal are the only Jews in the cast. The 17-year-old sister Jessica, played by Hayley Orrantia, is already thinking beyond her family, and 16-year-old Barry, played by Troy Gentile, yells back. In the first episode, “Circle of Driving,” his parents won’t let him drive and then give in to teaching him, with more yelling.
When the youngest son, 12-year old Adam, played by Sam Giambrone, objects to wearing hand-me-downs his mother has selected, Beverly scolds, “One day I won’t be here to dress you.” He answers, “You keep saying that, but when?”
The young Adam is the alter ego of the show’s writer and executive producer, Adam F. Goldberg, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia. The youngest in his family, he says that he was completely ignored by his older siblings, who were already in high school when he was in fifth grade. Observing everything, he recorded his family’s antics and rare quiet moments with his video camera. The show includes original footage from those early videos. An older version of young Adam provides the voiceover.
“Absolutely,” Adam Goldberg, 37, says in an interview, when asked if Beverly and Murray are his parents. “This is like growing up in my house.”
So far, there’s no overt Jewish content. He explains that he was given 12 episodes. “In this first season, I want everyone to get to know the family. That’s what I’m focusing on right now.”
But a bar mitzvah theme isn’t out of the question for the future. In fact, he says he’d love that. His own bar mitzvah, at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Pa. (the landmark synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) was one of the best nights of his life.
The connection to the first Goldbergs who starred on radio and shifted to television in 1949, with Gertrude Berg playing Molly Goldberg, aka Mrs. Goldberg, in a show also called “The Goldbergs,” is coincidental. Adam Goldberg at first reluctantly agreed to name the show for his family; his original title was “How the F*** Am I Normal,” but ABC executives vetoed that.
Although there were Jews behind the scenes writing, producing and directing television shows, there weren’t overt Jewish characters on TV for five years after “The Goldbergs” went off the air in 1956. In the 1961 season of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Morey Amsterdam played the comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, who was identified as Jewish. The next Jewish television moment happened in 1972, with the short-lived “Bridget Loves Bernie”; the show’s young intermarried couple lived above his (Jewish) parents’ delicatessen and neither the Catholic nor the Jewish parents were particularly happy with the union (nor were leaders of these real-life communities, who complained about the show). And then in 1974, Valerie Harper played television’s first single Jewish woman, Rhoda Morgenstern in “Rhoda.” More recently, there have been Seinfeld and Silverman. But Molly Goldberg remains television’s classic Jewish mother, generous, self-effacing, loving, nourishing, worrying, talking a lot.
When asked to compare the 2013 television Goldbergs with the 1949 family, filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who wrote, produced and directed the 2009 documentary film “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” says, “Apples and oranges.”
“If you want a loving show about what it means to be Jewish, heimish, with a warm, loving, affirmative mother, who wasn’t so much nagging as making sure everything was OK,” she directs people to the earlier Goldbergs.
Kempner points out that there’s also a difference between a man and a woman writing the show, that Gertude Berg got the caring Jewish mother right. “I don’t know that we’ll have it this time around.
“I think that television again loses by not having a positive show about being Jewish.”
In “The Great TV Sitcom Book,” Rick Mitz wrote, “Molly [Goldberg] handled her small family crises with a ferocious ethnic energy and humor as though their lives depended on it. And perhaps they did.”
Beverly, the mom in the new version of “The Goldbergs,” is also high energy, but she’s more American suburban than ethnic. She’s driven, controlling, take-charge: Mother knows best.
Asked whether his own mother is a typical Jewish mother, Goldberg says, “My mom is not typical in any way.”
“She loves her kids and gives everything to them — I don’t know that we want it all of the time. She means well; she is very overbearing with little sense of boundaries. I don’t know if it’s Jewish or not,” he continues.
He says that his late grandfather, the basis for Pop, was the first Jew to graduate from the University of Kentucky Medical School. A Russian immigrant, he was abandoned by his family when he was four and went on to become a psychologist and the pillar of his family. At around the time that the writer was Adam’s age in the sitcom, his widowed grandfather shifted from pillar to a goofy kid who wore silk suits, gambled, dated a lot and said inappropriate things. “He was my best friend.” Segal is perfect in the role.
While New Yorkers who see the bus ads understand that the Goldbergs are Jewish, the name plays differently in other parts of the country, the writer says. Goldberg’s brother, who lives in Norfolk, Va., tells him that people there don’t recognize Goldberg as a Jewish name. “I don’t know that a lot of people will associate the name with anything,” he says.
The television show that may have influenced Goldberg the most is the award-winning “The Wonder Years, “ which ran in the late 1980s and ’90s, with an adult in his 30s looking back on his life growing up in the ’60s. Goldberg watched the show while he was growing up and while he didn’t understand the ’60s references, the growing pains and young romance spoke to him.
When he was young, he and a neighbor made films together, although he now admits that his camera work — and it’s seen on the show — was terrible. As a 12-year-old, Goldberg was obsessed with Steven Spielberg. In fact, for his bar mitzvah, he sent invitations to George Lucas, Stephen King and Spielberg. Lucas autographed the response card and sent it back; King sent a note that is framed on Goldberg’s desk, and one of Spielberg’s development people called and sent a packet of biographical materials.
At first, he was nervous about showing the trailer to his family, and they were nervous about seeing it. “They saw that it was done with love and affection. Those were embarrassing times, all of us crying and screaming.”
“Ultimately they’re really excited and want me to stay true to the characters. They don’t want me to stretch the truth for a joke,” he says.
With love, Goldberg sees the show as an homage to his late dad. His mom now splits her time between Philadelphia and Boca Raton, Fla. She sold the house where they lived for 40 years. “It was too huge, without my dad yelling there,” he says.