The Goldbergs

The Most Jewish Show on Television

by Michael Barrett

27 April 2010


A Rebellious Nebbish

Berg still wrote the scripts, sometimes now with Michael Morris or Cherney Berg. Stories are still recycled. The 1949 incident of Uncle Simon’s illness is replayed (one of Simon’s three episodes this season), and so is the 1953 incident of Uncle David’s feud with Jake’s visiting uncle, though it’s a different uncle (Reuben Wendorff as Uncle Sam in two episodes). The remake is inferior in every way; its choices and timing are off. The Karl Marx line is out. In compensation, Molly utters the immortal “Patience is a vulture”.

Many of the suburban episodes are anxieties of alienation, discontent, and even terror.

Then comes a delightful episode about Cousin Seymour Sheppard, a rebellious nebbish whose mother (another appearance by Judith Malina) is even more of an ultimate Jewish mother than Molly. Seymour is another broad cartoon conceived with humane depth, even pathos, and played brilliantly by the great character actor Arnold Stang. I must praise Berg for resisting laughtrack-itis even in this syndicated version. Since we’re not prodded into giggling at Stang’s broadness, we have space to observe his depth.

More visiting relatives are the self-effacing Cousin Harold (Harvey Lembeck); Jake’s Irish second cousin Benjamin “Boojie” Romaine (Pat Harrington), who in a two-parter falls into a triangle with widow Eva Fisher (Edith Gresham); and the eternal Tante Elka (now Ludmilla Toretzka) at Sammy and Dora’s wedding in the series finalé. The Mendels also show up, and Mrs. Hermann visits several times, somehow losing one “N” in this season’s credits. Notable guest stars include Natalie Schafer running a fat farm, and an uncredited, barely recognizable Steve McQueen reciting Shakespeare in “Rosie the Actress” (the booklet incorrectly places him in another episode).

In the Bronx, the problems arose from the foibles of personality and the desire to repair hurt feelings and make others feel better. Many of the suburban episodes are anxieties of alienation, discontent, and even terror. Molly’s troubled transition from one environment to another is dramatized when she’s initially rebuffed in her attempt to make new friends; the neighbors speak in different codes with different values. Rosie believes she’s unattractive and needs a nose job, feeling alienated from her own face and, symbolically, her heritage. Her sobbing fit with her mother is carried on before a mirror that alternately reflects them both. For the record, she has a pert button while her mom has something of a schnoz.

A hot topic at the time was juvenile delinquency, and several episodes are obsessed with crime. Molly’s arrested, she’s on jury duty, she entertains pool-players and bookies. The family is even held hostage by escaped convicts. That’s an especially ridiculous and gratuitous episode, but observe how it exposes a fear of suburbia; such a thing couldn’t have happened in a Bronx apartment.

One episode is about the traps of consumerism as the family gets coupon-happy. Another combines two ‘50s crazes, the quiz show and outer space, as Molly goes on the whimsical “Reach for the Moon”, a show with a rocket. This story turns on the difference between greed and generosity as motives. For Molly, winning only has meaning in the power to help others, and her failure can become a moral triumph. An episode about the perils of car ownership (another suburban phobia) also turns on Molly’s ultra-scrupulous and over-generous conscience. When Jake gets exasperated, she barks in equal exasperation “No one is an island!” It’s one of her oft-repeated phrases and defines her moral style succinctly.

Molly’s new neighbors aren’t Jewish stereotypes but WASP stereotypes. Although they serve as friends, they have a harsh edge that implies some conceptual hostility. The Jewish guests are likeable or at least amusing no matter how much they give Molly a pain, while the nominally friendly suburbanites are somehow always unpleasant. The regulars are the portly Daisy Carey (Susan Steell); her gangly, hayseed-ish husband Henry (Jon Lormer); the birdlike Julie Peterson (Paula Truman); and briefly Lucy Stevens (Florida Friebus). (Only the Careys are mentioned in Brooks & Marsh, and Steell is misspelled.)

An especially meddlesome neighbor, whose daughter has earned a degree in psychiatry (and who is getting married, so it’s all right), analyzes the dreams of the neighborhood wives and stirs them up with the news that they’re all subconsciously frustrated. She virtually berates Molly as a “hausfrau”. The wives say they never realized how unhappy they were until somebody told them.

This is supposed to be irony, but it has more than one level. The male characters criticizes the neighbor as a busybody with no credentials, and the story supports them with its grotesque depictions, yet this framework is used to touch on real themes bubbling under the suburban surface. The neighbor is clearly projecting her own issues upon others (a common tactic in the series), and the scenes where Molly’s behavior is explained as resentment of her family have a disturbing vibe.

Also, what of those running verbal gags like “I’ll slice you” and “Go and hang yourself in the closet” and “Should I fry you or poach you”? Then comes an unusual and outstanding episode that seems to validate the busybody’s point. Molly has a regular flirtation with a lonely gentleman on the train, a man who compliments her and reads Shelley with her, giving Molly a glimpse of something she’s lacking. This thoughtful episode ends with a resolution that lingers without quite resolving. Sometimes you just go on.

Even though the busybody episode makes fun of psychological jargon, the dialogue makes it clear that psychiatry as a profession is taken seriously. Indeed, psychology is at once a major theme, an often-used word, and a structural principle. Entire episodes are virtual case studies based on observing character, how people respond typically or ironically or inconsistently, how people can be manipulated. Characters discuss each other openly in terms of inferiority complexes, mother fixations, and other pop psych issues. Molly’s own psychological prowess is frequently cited as she orchestrates reversals and transferences. Clearly Berg was inspired by the subject, and she wasn’t unaware of the implications of Molly’s food fixation. Her constant cooking and eating is a source of comfort and sometimes also pain, as in the cases where she fails to lose weight on various regimens because of her “compulsion”.

Drama allows the show to say on one hand and unsay on the other. In this series written by a busy career woman, episodes routinely reassure us that a woman is happiest when raising children at home. Career ambitions are habitually sidetracked by love, except for men’s ambitions of course. At the same time, Molly is always shown exploring new outlets, pushing Rosie to practice the piano and go to college, and attending night school herself. Indeed, she seems to have more activities than humanly possible, including Girl Scouts and nurses’ aide work.

The final two episodes are highlights. “Silence Is Not Golden” explores whether and to what degree it’s better to talk out your issues in marriage. Of course the show votes for talking, but it’s not an easy answer because understanding isn’t easy, and that’s the real subject. Molly and Jake’s argument is a masterpiece of modulation. Like all the funniest Goldberg scenes, it’s poised on the edge of real pain. The highpoint of the finale, “Sammy Gets Married”, is Molly’s breathless, heartrending speech of marital advice, all of it solid. It’s a delicate, piercing moment, and when she ends with “And don’t just hope for the best—work for it, mein kind”, there is no longer any division between Molly and Gertrude. One woman is delivering a lifetime of hard-earned wisdom, and to those who listen, it has more force than a burning bush. Was your reviewer choked up? So who wasn’t?

The Goldbergs bicker loudly and often. They just as frequently indulge in kisses, compliments, and lavish displays of affection. The balance tips toward the heartwarming, that TV ideal more commonly simulated by hologram than carved of natural materials. Many families are like this, but they were going out of style on TV in the mid-‘50s. The blacklist was a stumble, but the reason the show kept skipping networks and slipping ratings was time itself. To the modern young home-owners of the postwar era, The Goldbergs was their parents’ entertainment. As for their own kids, forget it—they had Elvis and hula hoops. Molly Goldberg was squaresville, man, and the whole ethnic schtick must have seemed tired, if not backwards, in the world of Eisenhower and the space age.

Retiring Molly after more than a quarter-century didn’t slow Berg down. She had a two-year run on Broadway in A Majority of One, for which she won a Tony. Then she developed Mrs. G. Goes to College, of which the premiere is included as an extra. Although the character’s name is Sarah Green, she’s a barely disguised Molly without the heavy accent. Now a widow whose two children are married with kids (Marion Ross plays the Rosalie-substitute), she uses her night school credits to begin attending college. What does she consider as a major but, naturally, psychology. An annoying, desultory laughtrack gurgles over what are supposedly jokes, but the evidence of this episode is that the show isn’t a comedy so much as a gentle, serious show of character and ideas, co-written by Gertrude and Cherney Berg. The laughtrack is a sign of TV’s growing insistence on pegging every genre rigidly, a stranglehold that didn’t begin to loosen until the last 20 years. This series only lasted one season. Berg moved on to more stage work before dying in 1966.

As often in 20th century pop culture, it took a Jew to invent America. If you think of the original radio serial as the first sitcom, as it’s possible to do, then Molly is the source of that Nile on whose shores everything has washed up since, from The Honeymooners to All in the Family to Roseanne to The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle. If she couldn’t sustain herself for long on TV, at least her grandkids are everywhere, and their English is poifect, dahling, poifect! Nu, for what else does a mother ask?

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