It really sounded as if producer-director-writer Gary David Goldberg was getting too big for his britches when details started emerging about his new show, Brooklyn Bridge. This sitcom, it was said, would be a deeply personal work for the 47-year-old Goldberg, a re-creation of his early years as a brainy, baseball-loving, lower-middle-class kid in 1950s Brooklyn.
With an obsessiveness that was the TV-auteur equivalent of lordly film directors ranging from Orson Welles to Michael Cimino, Goldberg was going to replicate as a stage set the actual New York apartment building he grew up in. Now, this takes a lot of time and money. It’s typical for a fall TV project to complete a pilot during the preceding summer, so that a network’s affiliate stations and TV critics can take a gander at it. But by August, Goldberg was lavishing such care on his production that he hadn’t even finished casting the darn show, let alone filmed anything.
And when Goldberg made a commercial for CBS to promote the series, it didn’t feature any Brooklyn Bridge characters — it starred Gary David Goldberg, talking about how special this series was to him. All right already, Gary, you could hear America saying, but will it be special for us? CBS seemed to be courting disaster. Sure, Goldberg was the guy who created Family Ties, one of the biggest TV hits of the ’80s and the show that made Michael J. Fox a star; such success gives Goldberg a lot of credibility and power in the TV business.
But didn’t anyone remember Goldberg’s two most recent shows, Day by Day (1988-89) and American Dreamer (1990-91), which came and went quickly? And didn’t anyone remember that there were ominous precedents for this auteur thing — that, for example, after Larry Gelbart helped make M*A*S*H a brilliant television success, he came up with one of the most tedious, deeply personal bombs in TV history, 1980’s United States?
Brooklyn Bridge was, in short, beginning to smell like a self-indulgent stinker.
It turns out, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. Brooklyn Bridge is beguiling, simultaneously the warmest and most intelligent new show of the season. It’s also a vindication of artistic control in the TV industry.
Brooklyn Bridge follows the ripe little life of 14-year-old Alan Silver (Danny Gerard). Alan lives with his younger brother, Nathaniel (Matthew Siegel), and his parents (Amy Aquino and Peter Friedman) in a small apartment in Bensonhurst; Alan’s Russian-immigrant grandparents (Louis Zorich and Happy Days’ Marion Ross) live in the apartment downstairs.
The boys idolize both the Brooklyn Dodgers and turn-of-the-century labor organizer Eugene V. Debs; Alan pines for seemingly unattainable Irish Cath- olic girls while his imperious grandmother rolls her eyes in despair. As a portrait of a Jewish family of a bygone era, Bridge is comparable to Neil Simon’s recent cycle of autobiographical plays (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound) — young Gerard, in fact, starred on Broadway in Simon’s most recent, the Pulitzer Prize — winning Lost in Yonkers.
This sort of growing-up story has been told many times, but Goldberg doesn’t allow his version to bog down in nostalgia. The dialogue is quick and peppery, filled with strong opinions and specific references, not just sitcom jokes. Ross’ Sophie is a vivid creation — an overpowering grandmother who adores her grandsons but isn’t above instilling them with a lot of guilt and her own prejudices. When she tries to pry Alan away from his beloved, red-haired Katie Monahan (Shannon’s Deal’s Jenny Lewis), she’s not kidding — she really doesn’t think a Jewish-Catholic romance is a good idea. It’s clear that Goldberg wants us to think past the stereotype of the excessively doting Jewish grandmother, to see this woman as someone both wise and ignorant. Ross embodies this woman beautifully, using a soft Russian accent, twinkly eyes, and a sour, downturned mouth — you’ll never think of her as Happy Days’ ”Mrs. C” again.
To be sure, Brooklyn Bridge has its share of flaws. There are soft, mushy scenes, as when Alan instructs his little brother that ”death is a part of life,” and moments when the stage-trained Gerard comes on too strong, looking and sounding like a runty Paul Sorvino. The elaborate theme song, written by Marvin Hamlisch and Alan and Marilyn Bergman and cooed by Art Garfunkel, contains all the treacle Goldberg manages to avoid in the rest of the show.
But this is also the only sitcom on TV that makes education seem like a valuable, exciting prospect. Alan is the star of his class, but he’s not a nerd. The characters in Bridge actually read books for pleasure; one of the best scenes in the pilot concerned Nathaniel’s intense involvement in reading The Yearling.
It is possible that Brooklyn Bridge will be a ratings failure — it’s opposite ABC’s can’t-miss no-brainer Step by Step on Fridays. But on the level that matters most to its creator, Bridge is already a success: Goldberg has managed to turn a personal obsession into pop entertainment that everyone can enjoy. A-