Watching ABC from 8:30 to 9:30 last night (February 25) offered a stark contrast in the execution of two sitcoms. Up first was “The Goldbergs,” which attempted to one-up its ’80s references by recreating “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and then there was “Modern Family,” which decided to make an entire episode based around FaceTime and Messages. The former was excellent, the latter felt like an extended Apple commercial.
“The Goldbergs” is no stranger to doing ’80s-based things. In fact, that’s almost its raison d’être. After all, much like “The Wonder Years” before it, “The Goldbergs” takes place in a past decade and explores what growing up was like during it.
What really impresses me though about the way “The Goldbergs” goes about things is that they successfully get away with an “it was 1980-something” opening on a weekly basis rather than offering a specific year. They haphazardly jump around to just about every year in that decade as they lampoon/honor specific moments of popular culture from the time. We have seen “Back to the Future,” “E.T.,” “TRON,” “The Goonies,” “Transformers: The Movie,” many videogames, and a whole lot more.
All of those things are unquestionably a part of my childhood, but from different moments in it. Unlike Adam Goldberg the character on the series, I wasn’t the same age when I saw “TRON” on the big screen and when I first heard a New Kids on the Block song. As I say though, the time jumping doesn’t make a bit of difference. I am about a year younger than creator Adam Goldberg, have always been an avid consumer of pop culture, and each of the references, no matter when they’re from, speak to my childhood.
Last night, the series attempted to top itself, by going full on Ferris Bueller. The plot mimicked the movie, the clothes mimicked the movie, they had guest stars to mimic the movie, the list went on and on. Even better, it didn’t simply accept Ferris’ shenanigans, it pointed out some of the foolishness of the film – the car got stolen, Beverly (the mom, played brilliantly every week by Wendi McLendon-Covey) didn’t buy the fake Ferris-in-bed contraption, kids complained at the museum about “stranger danger,” and more. Each reference though felt just about perfect, including both Barry and Adam wanting to be Ferris (because who would ever choose to be Cameron… sorry Alan Ruck!).
I laughed far more during that half hour of television than I usually do watching TV. The more I watch “The Goldbergs,” the more I want to see what moment of my childhood they’re going to mock next and I can’t wait to see them do it.
Then came “Modern Family,” a show which I have followed devoutly through the years. I was excited to see last night’s highly promoted episode about modern communication. It seemed like the perfect thing for the show to lampoon – my extended family is a large one and the flow of communication is constant and the various ways in which it occurs is ever-changing.
The episode took place entirely from Claire’s desktop on her Mac laptop (they didn’t specify regular, Pro, or Air) as she tried to work out what was happening with her family while she was out of town. We saw a whole lot of FaceTime and a whole lot of Messages. Apparently everyone in the family, be they Pritchett or Dunphy or Tucker, uses an Apple device. Sometimes it’s an iPhone, sometimes it’s an iPad, but it’s always an Apple device, we know this because of the number of FaceTime calls.
“Modern Family” did eschew actually showing these devices, but it still became insanely distracting. It couldn’t have been that difficult to mock-up some generic video call app window for Claire’s computer and another for sending IMs and not doing so made the inclusion of Apple branding feel purposeful. Perhaps the goal was to situate the viewer in the real world, but instead it just made the entire thing feel like an extended commercial which was only punctuated by actual commercials.
The issue was unfortunate as I think the story they were trying to tell, and the manner in which they were trying to do it, was great. It cannot have been easy to film and then edit the show. In fact, I would bet it was far more difficult than a traditional episode. It was different and would have felt fresh, real, and honest had they just taken it one step away from the actual world.
There then is our tale of two shows — “Modern Family” offered a clever idea which fell flat due to the execution, while just before it “The Goldbergs” upped their game by perfectly executing every moment. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it did last night.
photo credit: ABC/Greg Gayne