Last week, while my wife and I were clearing out our DVR, we got around to catching up on The Goldbergs, an ABC sitcom we’ve been watching for nearly a decade now. Throughout the show’s latest season I’ve been fascinated and amused by how the producers have cut around the absence of one of their stars, Jeff Garlin, who had reportedly become so unwelcome on the set that he’d been shooting his scenes separate from the rest of the cast. In the March 2 episode, “The Wedding,” the workarounds were so ridiculous that the next day, I shot a short video with my phone of one of the weirder moments. I uploaded it to Twitter, thinking that maybe a few of my followers would find it funny.
That one tweet—something I posted pretty much on a lark—went on to dominate the rest of my week, and eventually became actual showbiz news.
Unless you follow the TV business, you may be surprised to learn that The Goldbergs is still on the air. Now nearing the end of its ninth season, the show debuted in 2013 and was part of a wave of Modern Family–inspired ABC family comedies that were fast-paced, funny, and plugged into the experiences and concerns of middle-aged audiences. (See also: The Middle, Black-ish, and Fresh Off the Boat.) Aside from Black-ish—airing its final episodes this spring—The Goldbergs is the last of those mid-2010s ABC hits still ticking.
Late last year, news broke that Garlin, who plays the family’s outwardly cranky but generally soft-hearted father Murray Goldberg, had been investigated repeatedly by the network’s human resources department over the past few years, due to complaints about his behavior on the set. He’d been accused of making cast and crew members uncomfortable both with angry outbursts and—more concerning—an insistence on touching people and making sexualized comments even after he’d been asked to stop.
ABC and The Goldbergs’ producers (including the company that makes the show, Sony Pictures Television) have generally declined to comment on the record. The one person willing to address the whole Garlin problem has been Garlin. Before the story broke wide, he agreed to an interview with Vanity Fair’s Maureen Ryan, who has been one of the most thorough and incisive journalists covering Hollywood’s #MeToo reckoning. In Garlin’s version of the story, he was just being “silly,” because the show itself is so boring; and while some sensitive types complained, others enjoyed it.
Garlin reportedly negotiated with the producers to minimize his time on the set, and also agreed to step away at the end of this current run. Keen-eyed Goldbergs viewers (like myself) had already noticed throughout Season 9 that Murray has been absent from entire episodes, or has appeared only in shots by himself, delivering short bits of dialogue awkwardly shoehorned into scenes. But then, according to TV Line reporter Ryan Schwartz, Garlin left the show before his scheduled end date. This posed a problem, given that the season’s final scripts had already been written—including the one for the long-awaited “The Wedding,” in which Murray’s daughter Erica (Hayley Orrantia) gets married.
And so as a result of Garlin’s unplanned absence, Goldbergs viewers were treated to a minute of television that, even by this season’s oddball standards, was truly bizarre. In the scene, the Goldbergs’ matriarch, Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), has just scrapped nearly every elaborate plan she had for Erica’s wedding—with the exception of booking ’80s soft rock favorite Richard Marx to perform—in favor of a stripped-down ceremony held in the Goldbergs’ own living room. In what is supposed to be a sweet and sentimental moment, Murray hugs his daughter, calls her “my little peanut” and “sweetheart,” and then escorts her to the makeshift altar, before taking his place next to his son Adam (Sean Giambrone).
But Garlin, quite clearly, was nowhere near the set that day—or, if he was, The Goldbergs editing team sure made some weird choices about when and how to show him. What we seem to be seeing, at the beginning and end of the clip, is a stand-in with Garlin’s bizarrely grinning face digitally superimposed. In between, we see the back and side of the stand-in—the face carefully kept out of frame—while Garlin’s voice has been clumsily dubbed in.
Why make this choice? Why not just drop Murray for good? As hard as the show’s producers and editors have worked to cut around Garlin’s absences this season, trying to wedge him in has been far more distracting than it would’ve been to eliminate his character altogether. And if the reactions to my tweet are any gauge, I’m hardly alone in feeling that way. Within an hour or so, my Goldbergs clip had been shared widely by hundreds of flabbergasted folks, many of whom had never watched the show before and who immediately recognized, even in a low-quality video I had shot with my cruddy old phone off my smudgy iPad screen, that this scene was pretty janky.
By the end of the day, I was seeing entertainment news sites posting items about the video (for an episode that, again, had aired about 10 days before my tweet, without much comment). I even saw a few memes featuring the digital Garlin face. The video had taken on a life of its own. And then, just when things were starting to die down a bit, the tweet got a second wind thanks to an unexpected reply.
A day after my initial tweet, McLendon-Covey responded to me on Twitter: “This season threw us for a loop because a.) It’s hard to incorporate someone who doesn’t want to be there and wants to leave mid-scene; and b.) We weren’t about to rewrite the second half of the season. We’re doing our best.”
McLendon-Covey’s tweet, the first public response from anyone still involved with the show, generated another wave of news items, and another wave of replies—this time from fans who took issue with my suggestion that it was time to end the series. Why would I want to put a bunch of talented comic actors and veteran crew members out of work just because of the problems with one guy?
Given that The Goldbergs, like every other Hollywood production, has spent the past two years dealing with pandemic disruptions, the thought of having to rework plot lines on the fly to abruptly kill off the show’s patriarch must have been a nonstarter. It made sense to keep things rolling as best as possible, so that everyone keeps working and getting paid through the end of the season. The Goldbergs isn’t as popular as it used to be, but it gets over 3 million viewers an episode, which isn’t bad these days. And each new episode adds to the overall value of a series that has already been sold into syndication—and which will live on in streaming, where “comfort TV” like The Goldbergs has been thriving.
I’ll add this, too: If all you’ve ever seen of The Goldbergs is that clip, you should know that this is not at all a bad sitcom. I wouldn’t have seen that terrible wedding scene if I weren’t still a fan myself. But while still watchable, The Goldbergs has definitely declined in quality over the past few years. Creator Adam Goldberg based the show on his own childhood, even casting childhood friends in cameo roles, but his quirky personal touches—like ending episodes with clips of his actual teenage home videos—have disappeared, and he hasn’t received a single writing credit for the current season. (Goldberg only had one “story by” credit in Season 8.) Beyond the Garlin issue, the show is just looking a little haggard. When The Goldbergs debuted, Giambrone was playing a junior high schooler. In this season, the 22-year-old actor is still only playing a high school senior. The character’s siblings Erica and Barry (played by Orrantia and Troy Gentile, both 28) are stuck in college. The original gimmick of rooting stories in various 1980s fads and trends is still part of the show, but the plots have become more disconnected from Goldberg’s personal experiences, and more generic.
The Garlin trouble isn’t The Goldbergs’ first hiccup, either. Comedian Bryan Callen, who played a hyper-demanding gym teacher on the show, left after Season 6 to be a regular on the Goldbergs spinoff Schooled but didn’t return after Schooled was canceled, in part because he’d been accused of sexual assault. (He has strongly denied the allegations.) When George Segal died last year, The Goldbergs lost the sweetness and crack comic timing he brought to his role as Beverly’s father. But in both cases, even though the trouble erupted unexpectedly, the writers quickly dealt with the disruptions in the narrative continuity of the show. Garlin has apparently been a problem for years; and while it’s not the cast and crew’s fault that he made their jobs harder, the attempts to keep his character around have become increasingly laughable.
There are six more episodes of The Goldbergs to go in Season 9; it hasn’t yet been renewed for a tenth. And while I still get some enjoyment from watching the show, it might be best for all concerned if they call it a day. With no offense intended to McLendon-Covey or anyone involved with making The Goldbergs, nine years is a good run. Even a decade as totally awesome as the ’80s has to come to an end. Don’t let your comedy become a joke.