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References You Missed In The Goldbergs

At its core, The Goldbergs is an '80s family sitcom. But it's not an actual show from the '80s, like Growing Pains or Mr. Belvedere, but a show produced in the present-day that looks back on the '80s through a lens tinted by warm nostalgia and popular culture. Each episode revolves around an obsession of '80s kid Adam Goldberg (portrayed by Sean Giambrone), an only slightly fictionalized character based on show creator Adam F. Goldberg. Adam is an excitable kid with lots of interests and hobbies, and the '80s ephemera of the week plays into his young life in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, particularly his interactions with his family members — self-absorbed sister Erica (Hayley Orrantia), wildly overconfident brother Barry (Troy Gentile), grouchy dad Murray (Jeff Garlin), overbearing mother Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and cool grandfather Pops (George Segal).

The Goldbergs is set vaguely sometime within the 1980s, so showmakers fill sets and scripts with casual, authentic '80s relics and references to create a realistic and familiar world. There's such an abundance that a number of those nods and allusions to '80s pop culture can zoom by completely unnoticed. Here are the most clever jokes, bits, and references buried in The Goldbergs.

The Goldbergs and E.T. junk

There was no bigger phenomenon in the '80s than E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The touching, thrilling film about an alien who gets stuck on Earth and befriends a lonely suburban boy struck a nerve with the whole world, and the film became the highest-grossing movie of all time not long after it hit theaters in 1982. A movie that big generated a lot of ancillary merchandise, including T-shirts, E.T. stuffed toys, and notoriously, a video game for the Atari 2600. 

In part because Atari gave a developer about five weeks to make it so it could be in stores for the lucrative holiday season, the game ranks as one of the worst video games of all time, so lackluster is its quality. Atari lost so much money on E.T. that it helped bring on the video game industry crash of 1983, and the company buried thousands of unsold (or returned) cartridges in the New Mexico desert. One of the few E.T. copies that survived burial makes a brief, barely visible cameo in the 2014 The Goldbergs episode "The Most Handsome Boy on the Planet." Adam (Sean Giambrone) attempts to bond with his cold and severe paternal grandfather (Paul Sorvino) over a screening of E.T., only for Pop-Pop to ruin it by siding with "those poor feds because they couldn't examine him properly." Afterward, Adam gathers up all his E.T. merchandise into a milk crate, and the Atari cartridge sits right on top.

The Jedi will have their revenge

Adam Goldberg loves science fiction, and he loves movies (to the point where he films pretty much constantly with a VHS camcorder), so it's not too much of a stretch that the character is heavily into Star Wars. His room is full of Star Wars toys, and in several episodes, a prominent spot on the wall is occupied by a Revenge of the Jedi poster. In other episodes, he's seen rocking a Revenge of the Jedi T-shirt, the title referring to the third and final film in the original Star Wars trilogy. 

And no, this isn't a typo. Revenge of the Jedi was the original, pre-release title for Return of the Jedi, changed before the film hit theaters in the spring of 1983. However, it had been a working title for so long that quite a bit of merchandise, including a small number of posters, was produced bearing that ultimately unused title. And apparently, Adam Goldberg was such a hardcore and devoted Star Wars fan that he managed to snag both a poster and a T-shirt.

Hey, it's the creepiest video game in history

Someone randomly flipping through the channels who comes across The Goldbergs and is unfamiliar with the show might not know it's set deep in the 1980s, but they'd probably figure it out pretty early on in the 2014 episode "The Age of Darkness." Barry Goldberg grows obsessed with a new video game called Punch-Out!!, and he has to play it at an arcade, such was the state of gaming in the 1980s, when thousands of these places dotted the American landscape. The arcade set built for the show sports an authentic look, and it's full of cabinets of classic, vintage games such as Centipede, Donkey Kong, Spy Hunter, and Dragon's Lair, along with one called Polybius. 

This is a deep cut of a reference to a video game ... that doesn't actually exist. In the 1980s, an urban legend spread of a game that caused seizures and nightmares, and that men in black from the government collected data on the game, which was then used for a secret government mind control project. Polybius is apparently a real game in the world of The Goldbergs, as the cabinet makes another appearance in the 2017 episode "Jackie Likes Star Trek," showing up in the background of a scene in a Wawa grocery store.

Jeff Garlin sure has worked a lot outside of The Goldbergs

When The Goldbergs began in 2013, the biggest star in the cast was Jeff Garlin, playing the supporting role of grumpy dad Murray Goldberg, a man who runs a successful furniture store and wants nothing more than to get home, get into his favorite chair, take off his pants, and watch bad '80s television. The Goldbergs marked the first regular role on a family sitcom for Garlin, a comedy veteran with decades of experience in beloved comedy projects, including a recurring role as movie studio executive Mort Meyers on Arrested Development and as Larry David's long-suffering agent and best friend Jeff Greene on Curb Your Enthusiasm

In fact, The Goldbergs has subtly alluded to a couple of other Garlin projects from time to time. The second-ever episode of the series is titled "Daddy Daughter Day," which is pretty similar to the name of the 2003 Garlin movie Daddy Day Care. That same episode also includes a scene where Murray tries to win a unicorn in a claw machine game, not unlike the character of Buttercup, the unicorn he voiced in Toy Story 3. Then, in the 2016 episode "Lainey Loves Lionel," when Adam hops a plane after Murray encourages some light rebellion, he quips, "I meant leave the seat up! Eat a grape at the supermarket!" That sounds a lot like Garlin's brief role as a grape-theft-hating produce manager on Everybody Loves Raymond.

It's a dandy rando Dando

The Goldbergs is a show about the '80s, which means that references to '90s pop culture are probably going to be missed because viewers aren't expecting them. But anything big that happened in the early '90s had to find its footing in the '80s, such as the popular alt-rock Boston band the Lemonheads. The group is known for its 1992 cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" and the 1993 radio smash "Into Your Arms," as well as for its lead singer Evan Dando, a handsome rocker dude with long blond hair who delighted many hormonal alt-rock fans in the '90s. 

But Dando and the Lemonheads were never as popular as contemporaries like Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, which is probably why the references to the Lemonheads in the 2019 Goldbergs episode "My Valentine Boy" are easy to miss. After Lainey (AJ Michalka) leaves their band, Erica Goldberg auditions replacements. A middle-aged guy with long blond hair and a guitar tries out, and Erica recognizes him as the local creep "who stands outside the Wawa and buys beer for high school kids." He's dismissed, and then he's followed by another guy with long blond hair and guitar — a budding songwriter from Boston named Evan (Luke Eisner), whom drummer Erica C. (Alison Rich) finds very good-looking. This Evan is a pre-Lemonheads Evan Dando. The old dude who preceded him was the real Evan Dando.

This '80s movie reference boasts Big Fun

The Goldbergs trades heavily in '80s references, but it can't pay tribute to every toy, fad, TV show, or movie that made the decade so memorable. It just wouldn't be appropriate for a lighthearted and warmly nostalgic comedy show on Disney-owned ABC to pay homage to, say, Heathers, the extremely dark 1988 comedy about a couple of outcasts who get revenge on their school's popular crowd by murdering them and staging the killings to look like suicides. 

Of course, while exploring such themes is likely out of the question for an entire Goldbergs episode, the show's writers and costumers can certainly give a subtle shout-out to the acclaimed cult classic starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. In the world of that film, the string of teenage "suicides" inspire a cheesy '80s pop rock band called Big Fun to record a cheesy '80s pop rock song called "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)." In the Goldbergs episode "Revenge O' the Nerds," a side character named Sergei (Jackie Radinsky) rocks a Big Fun T-shirt, previously seen on Martha Dunnstock in Heathers. That's a nod to the movie, as well as a suggestion that Heathers and The Goldbergs are set in the same fictional universe.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Pops knows some pretty cool cats

The real name of the grandfather character on The Goldbergs is Albert Solomon, although Adam Goldberg affectionately calls him "Pops" and considers him more of a best friend than an old man or authority figure. He lives in a retirement community, but he doesn't behave like a stereotypically sedate and boring elderly guy. He likes to drink, gamble, and carouse, and in the world of the sitcom, this makes him effortlessly and endlessly cool to Adam and his siblings. 

Just how awesome is Pops? He apparently used to work as a big cat tamer. "After the Army, I joined the USO and entertained the troops with a death-defying circus act," Pops proclaims in the 2017 episode "Snow Day," which Erica dismisses as an "old man yarn," a fabrication. "I trained a lion," he insists. "His name was Stan."

At the episode's end, Pops sets up a film projector to prove his story is true and watches a film of a younger version of himself performing in a circus with a lion and a tiger. The footage isn't doctored or computer-generated. Actor George Segal portrays Pops, and in 1984, the actor appeared on the ninth installment of Circus of the Stars, a strange series of TV specials in which celebrities would perform circus tricks. Segal really did hang out with big cats.

Spot the references to the show creator's other works

The Goldbergs is based on the 1980s childhood adventures of creator Adam F. Goldberg and his family. The TV writer and producer seems to specialize in projects that reflect, comment on, and celebrate pop cultural triumphs of the past. Probably his best known work before The Goldbergs was the 2009 feature film (and cult favorite) Fanboys. With fellow nostalgia explorer Ernest Cline (author of Ready Player One), Goldberg wrote the script for the period piece about a group of pals who take a cross-country road trip during the late '90s to Skywalker Ranch in California in order to ask George Lucas to let a dying friend see Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace as his last wish. 

Among the main cast of Fanboys was actor Dan Fogler, a comic actor best known for his work as baker Jacob Kowalski in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Murray Goldberg's scheming, ne'er-do-well brother Marvin on The Goldbergs. Fogler is a living, breathing reference to Fanboys. Plus, there's another reference to Adam F. Goldberg's previous triumph. In the episode "12 Tapes for a Penny," Adam holds up a copy of the film's poster art, which is a parody of The 40-Year-Old Virgin's promotional image, only with Darth Vader in a spotlight, not Steve Carell. And as it turns out, that very same poster was a promotional image for, you guessed it, Fanboys.

The Goldbergs had the right stuff

After the Jackson 5 and New Edition but before the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and One Direction, there was a boy band that late '80s teens and tweens could call their own — New Kids on the Block. They busted out one catchy, bubblegum pop smash after another like "You Got It (The Right Stuff)," "Hangin' Tough," and "Step by Step." Millions of young Americans imitated their fashion choices (vests, porkpie hats) and stole their dance moves, all while a great many developed intense crushes on the five New Kids, each with their own distinctive look and personality. 

And in the 2015 episode of The Goldbergs, "DannyDonnieJoeyJonJordan," Erica Goldberg decidedly comes down as a Jon fan, as proven by an old videotape in which she proclaims her love for Jonathan Knight, and she even sings a love song for him and expresses her desire to marry him someday. That could be a problem, The Goldbergs suggests. Her love of him is questioned and could be problematic because "he's the shy one," an allusion to how Jonathan Knight is gay — something he publicly revealed in 2011 but wasn't well-known in the '80s of The Goldbergs.

This reference was found down on Jump Street

In the greater, expanded universe of The Goldbergs, there are few characters as odious and obnoxious as Johnny Atkins (Sean Marquette). The character is sort of like a darker, more menacing version of Barry Goldberg, in that he thinks very highly of himself and is openly and unabashedly into his own interests, which include playing the saxophone and listening to the band Rush. (He's rarely seen not wearing a Rush T-shirt.) Johnny doesn't have the best academic performance record, and at one point, he mentions that he's starting his third time around as a senior at William Penn Academy. But could his repeated failures at graduation all just be a clever ruse? 

During the episode "Rush," Erica Goldberg's friends stage an intervention to get her to end her romantic dalliance with Johnny. "I'm pretty sure he's an adult man living amongst the student body as an undercover cop," school guidance counselor Mr. Glascott (Tim Meadows) remarks. Student Carla (Alex Jennings) asks, "Like 21 Jump Street?" Of course, she's referring to the briefly popular 1987–1991 Fox drama about a group of 20-something cops posing as teens in order to police high schools. None of the actors on that show were really that convincing as fake teenagers (Johnny Depp was 24 when the show began), and similarly, neither is Sean Marquette, who was 25 when he started playing Johnny back in 2013.

Of dungeons, dragons, and early rap

Most episodes of The Goldbergs end on a positive note — a resolution of a conflict, reiteration of unwavering familial love, or some other bit of sentimentality — set to a thematically appropriate or familial '80s pop song, like Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love." However, the 2016 episode "Dungeons and Dragons, Anyone?" features a rare musical moment for the series, with a mid-episode montage set to an original song parody of a not terribly well-known early rap song. 

In the episode, Adam Goldberg convinces his physical education classmates to square off in an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons, the classic fantasy tabletop game enjoyed by many kids before, during, and after the 1980s. As the sides fight their imaginary fight, a rap song fills the soundtrack. Sample lyrics include, "D&D is my favorite game / I like the way you battle, but you use your brain." This is a goof on Kurtis Blow's "Basketball," a semi-obscure paean to the game which reached a lowly #71 on the pop chart in 1985. Amusingly, Kurtis Blow himself wrote and performed the new, D&D-centric lyrics.