‘The Goldbergs’ Showrunners on the Death of Jeff Garlin’s Character – The Hollywood Reporter
The Goldbergs said goodbye to Murray, their fictional patriarch, during the season 10 premiere Wednesday night.
It’s a farewell that balances the long-running ABC comedy’s signature sense of humor and its ’80s time period with an authentic look at the emotional range of grieving. It’s also a character send-off that follows former star Jeff Garlin’s exit last season after an HR investigation and multiple complaints about his on-set behavior.
The aptly titled episode, “If You Build It,” sets the stage for the Goldbergs family, and ultimately the show, to build (or rebuild) their lives — and a show that will draw viewers back. It opens with a Patton Oswalt-narrated recap of the months between the season nine finale and Wednesday’s premiere. Through a series of speedy sequences, viewers get caught up on each family member.
But the montage slows when Adam (Sean Giambrone) begins speaking about his father. “That year, there was one change that made everything stop,” Patton says, as the camera pans to Murray’s chair, cast under a spotlight. “Just a few months ago, out of nowhere, we lost my dad. We will always love you, Dad. Always. And we will find a way to continue on together. Because, after all, we’re the Goldbergs.”
The rest of the episode sees each of the family members grieving Murray in their own distinct ways. Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Erica (Hayley Orrantia) and Pop Pop (Judd Hirsch), along with a few other familiar Goldbergs faces, grapple with whether to give away Murrary’s chair, resulting in a rapid and emotionally charged change of heart from Beverly and a generational passing of the torch.
Meanwhile, Adam is gets caught in a Field of Dreams prank gone wrong. After making his own James Earl Jones-inspired voiceover of “If you build it they will come” with the help of his sister’s baby monitors, Adam convinces Barry (Troy Gentile) that he’s receiving a message from the beyond to build a Wiffle ball field in the backyard, a move that will reunite him with the ghost of their dad.
It’s not until Barry’s friends reveal the multiple emotional meanings behind the Kevin Costner film that Adam realizes that he may have made a mistake. It’s all part of a goodbye to a character that comes just one season after the show paid tribute to late star George Segal and amid the show rebooting itself during its decennial season.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the ABC comedy’s showrunners Alex Barnow and Chris Bishop about how they wrote their send-off to the character, why it was different than their tribute to the late George Segal and how the cast and crew feel going into their 10th season without Garlin.
Why for you both did Field of Dreams feel like the right film for what you were doing in the premiere with Adam and Barry saying goodbye to their dad? What did you ultimately want to say about Murray and Jeff’s absence, the show itself and moving on?
ALEX BARNOW Field of Dreams is sort of like the ultimate second chance about reconnecting with somebody who’s gone, and whether that relationship is fraught or not, you take for granted the people in your life when they’re here. Then when they’re gone, you wish you had a second chance to address those relationships. We tried really hard to thread the needle on this one emotionally. Last year we lost George Segal for real and it affected all of us personally and we wanted the premiere last year to be an homage to him, firstly, and also the character. It was rawer and it was real. Losing not the person but losing the character in a season premiere just required a more delicate touch, in a way.
In the sense that we wanted to honor this character, but the actor wasn’t dead. So we wanted to leverage something that was, I think, an important movie to a lot of people who were growing up in the ’80s. It was an opportunity to not make it as sad. Building the field in the backyard given that opportunity to be funny and silly but all to have that sort of sweet recall at the end. Sometimes it works out really well that the movie we’re used to seeing fits the theme of what we’re trying to do, but we’ve misfired too. (Laughs.)
CHRIS BISHOP Everyone has a different interpretation of Field of Dreams. It’s about hope, reconciling with your past and moving forward — and of course, we do it with the nostalgic power of Wiffle ball. (Laughs.) The movie just meant a lot to me personally as a kid and I really loved it. So, this was a really touching episode for us. And the feedback we’ve gotten has been positive. It’s been really emotional. So we’re really happy.
There’s also the storyline with Beverly agreeing to give Murray’s chair up for donation and then doing a 180-emotional turn. Viewers later learn Pop Pop saved it and brought it into the nursery. Can you talk about why you wanted to do this storyline of struggling to let go with the chair and why Pop Pop was the one to save it?
BARNOW The chair for the Murray character is the ultimate totem pole. Nothing signifies him better. It demonstrated his lethargy. He just sat there as the captain, kind of barking at people. So it just seemed like a natural fit. It just seemed like the obvious signifying item that if you took it away, everybody would immediately miss it. It sits in the middle of the room, you ignore it, and then when it’s gone, it’s heartbreaking. My father died when I was a kid and I’d just say anybody who’s gone through grief knows that you don’t want to hang on to these things endlessly and just try desperately to find value in something that’s inanimate and reminds you in a bad way.
But there are other things that like you could never break away from and you can never give away. So it felt right to us that that’s what the story should be about. As far as Pop Pop goes, the history of him on the show is that he was kind of a lousy dad and he was a gruff person in general. Murray raised his younger brother Marvin. We’re trying not to make the storylines too maudlin but we took that was a really sweet notion that, he’s gonna miss his son. He couldn’t express it when he was alive, but he couldn’t stand to see this piece of him gone either. So I don’t think we got to say it explicitly. I think it was like kind of a nice grace note to the episode that he was the one that picked it up.
One of the ways you comedically explore Murray’s death is Barry missing his college housing application deadline so he’s back to living at home. Obviously, his excuse for this is a joke, but it does speak to how chaotic your life can get. Big and small things fall to the wayside as you’re grieving. What were you trying to tell viewers about Barry and his own personal reaction versus Adam’s?
BARNOW I think we spend more time talking about it in future episodes. Adam obviously is not gonna go to college this year, and I don’t want to give anything away too much, but he’s going to struggle to leave the nest as well. But Chris came up with that motion of landing on a chair in the cold open that I felt really was a smart way to address everything that’s happened but not feel too sad. And in that, hopefully, you are taking away the sense that people don’t want to leave. They are circling the wagons to support each other in this period of grief. They moved past the immediateness of the death and are now a little fearful to move on with their lives.
BISHOP I think you hit the nail on the head with the fact that grief throws your world into chaos. Especially since Murray was the one who cared about college so much and getting everything on the ball. I feel like he was driving a lot of that. Whether Barry subconsciously didn’t do it or did it purposefully, I think it’s all a part of the whole.
Alex, you already sort of alluded to this, but will this season continue to explore the effects of Murray’s absence on the family?
BARNOW I would say it’s not gonna be one and done but I think our goal is to really look forward. The baby’s coming. There’s a reason to be optimistic. While it’s changed in who our cast is, [the episode] tonally because we’re dealing with maudlin issues, I think the show is really going to return to what it is. It’s going to be fun and you’re going to see driving storylines.
BISHOP Yeah, at the end of the day, we’re in comedy. So we need to lighten it up. Lighten the mood a bit. (Laughs.) Obviously, it will affect their lives, but I think we’re gonna find a lot of new joyful stories moving forward.
Murray is dead at the start of the season. There are no visual callbacks to him and the circumstances of his death are a little vague. Why didn’t you want to lay down visual memories or details around the conditions of his death and instead focus on the ways various family members were grieving?
BARNOW We were thinking about what feels necessary to tell the story. Frankly, Adam Goldberg created the show, his father was a real person and I think that when we are separating fact from fiction, you want to be careful about honoring the real person and not treading in that area. But also for what the needs of the show are. It just didn’t seem necessary. It’s a fictional character, so it felt important to deal with what’s going on with our characters that are present and not dwell on what happened in the past.
BISHOP Also, again, we sort of dealt with that the previous year with the passing of George Segal. We really laid into the loss there, so I feel like it’d be too similar.
Last season was a bit of a rough spot with losing Segal and then Garlin’s early departure, in ways onscreen and off. How are you, the cast and the production crew feeling about things now, amid your 10th season and after those shake-ups?
BARNOW It’s incredibly positive. Everybody is incredibly enthusiastic about doing this thing. We’ve gotten to the point where everyone feels lucky. No shows do 10 years. I think everybody appreciates what we have and I think its legacy at this point is doing 200 episodes in all. It’s such a big part of our lives. I really enjoy what we do. I think the cast enjoys what they do. I know the crew is incredibly enthusiastic about it. Like any family, any business that’s been around for 10 years, there are highs and lows. It’s a very long season. But I have to say my conversations with Wendi and the rest of the cast have been enormously positive and grateful for everything we have.
BISHOP It sounds corny but we are a big family here. It’s what we’ve become over the years and we’ve grown and we’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s been pretty great. Everyone seems very, very positive moving forward.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The Goldbergs airs Wednesdays on ABC.