For five and a half seasons, Adam F. Goldberg has mined his Jenkintown boyhood for his ABC sitcom The Goldbergs, telling “1980-something” stories universal enough for a mass audience and yet in some ways so specific that people who grew up in and around Philadelphia often recognize the very real people and places they’re about.
On Wednesday, Jan. 9, that world of fact-laced fiction expands as ABC introduces Schooled, a 1990s-set spin-off of The Goldbergs from Goldberg and cocreator Marc Firek about the teachers at “William Penn Academy,” including some who bear the names of people who’ve taught at Goldberg’s East Falls alma mater, the William Penn Charter School. The show, retooled since the original pilot aired last year, stars Goldbergs alums Tim Meadows, Bryan Callen, and AJ Michalka, as well as Jane the Virgin’s Brett Dier. Based on the one episode made available to critics, it’s also telling stories that could be set anywhere, but with a nod to locals — and Goldbergs superfans — who won’t want to miss the ending on Wednesday.
But what could viewers who’ve spent little or no time in the Philadelphia area take away from Goldberg’s shows, which, among other things, celebrate the pop culture of two or three decades ago?
That people here are intense about their teams? (True.)
That they don’t always use their inside voices? (Um, maybe.)
Plenty of TV shows have been set in this area over the years, and a very few were even filmed here. You may remember Hack, but do you remember Do No Harm? These days, if you’re looking beyond Goldberg’s affectionate memories of his suburban childhood, Wawa, and Hersheypark, you’ll find some very different takes, including these:
Shonda Rhimes' Philly. In 2017, her ABC political thriller Scandal took aim at the city twice, with the assassination of a president-elect during his victory rally in Fairmount Park and a terrorist’s detonation of a drone that appeared to blow up over Liberty Place, which the show seemed to think was a “few miles” from 30th Street Station.
And then there’s the Shondaland-produced How to Get Away with Murder, which, among other things, depicts us as the home of the nation’s scariest law school, but mostly shows viewers carefully curated views of Los Angeles sites meant to double for our town. (According to the website seeing-stars.com, that law school is actually on the campus of the University of Southern California.) The homicide-happy drama was created by New Jersey native Peter Nowalk, and it returns from its holiday break on Jan. 17. It’s set in Philadelphia and its pilot was filmed here, but filming has since moved to Los Angeles. Both shows had a local tie in Havertown’s Tom Verica, an executive producer and director on Scandal (and now, For the People) who’s also played, in flashbacks, the slain husband of law professor Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) in How to Get Away with Murder.
Rob McElhenney’s Philly. I wouldn’t trust It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to predict the weather, here or anywhere, but thanks to a number of visits the Los Angeles-based FXX show has made to McElhenney’s hometown over the years, its fans have seen much more of the city than the City Hall establishing shot that seems to turn up in almost every show that even mentions Philadelphia. The show’s filming locations range from the postcard-pretty scenes of the Ben Franklin Bridge and Boathouse Row in the opening credits to less frequently filmed places in Center City, South Philadelphia, Northern Liberties, and elsewhere.
Not only does McElhenney’s Philly look like more the real thing, it captures something of the city’s underdog spirit, too. And as absurd as the Gang’s antics might be, are they really any crazier than what Annalise and her students are up to on ABC?
Dan Fogelman’s Philly. The creator of NBC’s This Is Us graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and as a student lived for a while in a house on Spruce near 40th. That might explain his decision to place William (Ron Cephas Jones) in an apartment here, though I never understood exactly how William made it back and forth so quickly from the Bergen County, N.J., home of his biological son Randall (Sterling K. Brown). I mean, it’s doable, but it was a long ride on a bus to feed Clooney the cat.
That geography problem has been compounded this season, as Randall, using William’s old address but still living in Alpine, N.J. — just a few miles from where Fogelman grew up — embarked on a quixotic run for Philadelphia City Council in the fictional 12th District. Randall’s reasoning — that the incumbent councilman, Sol Brown (Rob Morgan), was responsible for all the neighborhood problems — seemed a bit shaky (and didn’t justify flouting the city’s residency rules). Change here, as in any big city, can be complicated.
I’m happy to say Philadelphians haven’t exactly fallen at the upstart candidate’s feet.
But though the carpetbagging act hasn’t been a good look for Randall, it was fun to see his movie star brother Kevin (Justin Hartley) visit WHYY’s Center City studios in an October episode in which the character was interviewed by Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.
And if Randall really cares that much about Philly, maybe This Is Us, which returns with new episodes on Jan. 15, could move him and his family here for good.
The Goldbergs. 8 p.m. Wednesday, ABC.