I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—holiday-themed episodes bring out the best of The Goldbergs, as it works to hone in on and intensify each character’s worst (read: funniest) attributes. “The Most Handsome Boy on the Planet” may not have hit quite the highs of the Thanksgiving episode from a few weeks ago, but what it lacks in belly laughs it more than makes up for with a good bit of heart (and Barry constantly muttering “model walk” whenever leaving a conversation).
The titular story centers on Barry, who is approached at the mall by a skeevy photographer named John Calabasas (played by Rob Huebel—of course) about becoming a model. After ponying up 100 dollars for what is clearly a scam, Barry begins taking “lessons” with the photographer to hone his supermodel skills. Enthused by the idea that other people find her little boy to be as beautiful as she does, Beverly goes along with this set-up against her better judgment (such is the power of Beverly’s Mom goggles). Eventually, much to Barry’s dismay, the photographer soon asks that Beverly join in on their photo sessions so he can have a “mother/son” team.
Eventually it falls to Erica to snap away Beverly’s Mom goggles by showing pictures of her own “modeling” tutelage under Calabasas (this was during an awkward, braces-wearing period for Erica, where not even her mother can justify the atrocity of her headshots). After a confrontation with Calabasas, Beverly forces him to actually make Barry a model, though perhaps not in quite the way he’d hoped. Rather than gracing magazine covers, Barry becomes the new face of Calabas services, with the advertisement that’s basically (I’m paraphrasing), “If this chum can be a model, you can too!”
The model angle is certainly an inspired idea for a story that capitalizes on both characters’ main source of comedy—namely, Beverly’s smothering tendencies, and Barry’s misplaced sense of braggadocio. That being said, as much as I enjoy Beverly and Barry as characters, putting them together for a plotline like this almost feels like too much self-delusion in one place. The characters are usually at their best when they are contrasted against more grounded, self-aware characters like Murray, Erica and (occasionally) Adam. The story’s still funny (if creepy) in many spots, including Barry’s determination to make his island paradise in the fictional “Kokomo,” but it occasionally just comes across as a bit too broad.
The other story fits much more into the Christmas/New Year’s mold of facing down familial problems and learning to address them. In this case, the conflict in question is between Murray and his father/Adam’s Pop Pop (played, in a bit of perfect casting, by Paul Sorvino). Like Murray, Pop Pop is the kind of man who finds extended conversations and outright displays of affection to be unnatural. Murray’s complex feelings about his father become abundantly clear when, after a chance encounter with Pop Pop outside a screening of E.T., the Goldberg patriarch begins openly weeping during the film’s emotional final scene.
Adam’s determination to smooth over the long-standing, simmering tension between the two predictably backfires and the men quickly air their dirty laundry. Pop Pop blames Murray for ruining his chances at wealth, specifically with how he discouraged him from investing in 7-Up (Murray was not a fan of clear soda). Murray, in turn, attacks Pop Pop for his bitter and neglectful fathering skills in the wake of his wife leaving. Things reach a whole other level when, in a last-ditch effort at reconciliation, Adam brings his grandfather to E.T., only to find that he identifies more with the villainous federal agents. Adam expresses his frustration, only to be called a “moron.” And, as the show has firmly established, only Murray is allowed to call his children that.
Murray goes to his father’s house and officially severs all ties with him. Back home, Adam reveals that the reason he wanted so badly for the two of them to settle their differences was because he was afraid that, one day, he might have a similar relationship with Murray. His father assures him that they will never be like that. Later, during a family New Year’s celebration, Pop Pop makes an unexpected cameo at the party to deliver beats (no doubt, his form of an apology), and is invited by Adam and Murray to join the festivities.
While the idea of Pop Pop suddenly overcoming his set-in-stone nature may not be entirely earned (I was perfectly content with the plotline being merely a catalyst for Adam and Murray’s emotional breakthrough), it does work in large part because of the holiday aspect of the episode (note—in a clever nod to the show’s fluctuating timeline, Barry ends up covering the last number on the TV’s “198_“display). The plotline also works to bring out a nice side to Jeff Garlin’s Murray. While the character’s passive nature usually resigns him to making commentary from the sidelines, the times where Garlin is allowed to demonstrate Murray’s softer qualities (as in “The Facts of Bleeping Life”) make for some of the series’ most moving moments.
And that does it for this half of the season! Happy Holidays everyone, and here’s hoping your familial get-togethers don’t have nearly the amount of yelling as in the Goldbergs household!