If you watched a recent episode of the ABC sitcom, “The Goldbergs,” you would have been led to believe that retail theft in Pennsylvania is a minor inconvenience and embarrassment resulting in nothing more than being banned from the store in question. In the episode “Shopping,” which aired on December 3, 2013, mother Bev Goldberg abuses her daughter Erica’s employee discount at Gimble’s department store, to the point that Erica risks being fired. Erica retaliates by slipping an unpaid item into Bev’s shopping bag, leading mall security to nab her when an alarm goes off as she exits the store.
As I watched the show, I thought Erica was quite diabolical to frame her mother with a crime! Now Bev will be fingerprinted and photographed, which will be lodged into databases maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police and FBI. She will end up with a criminal record unless she could convince a judge that she did not really steal the concealed item, but was framed by her own, evil daughter. Well, that would be reality, and this show exists in a universe very different from our reality. Bev was simply detained by mall security who took a Polaroid of her and banned her from the store. That was it. Message sent to impressionable teens: you might as well shoplift, because the worst that can happen is that you will be banned from the store that caught you stealing.
I suppose we should not expect “The Goldbergs” to get Pennsylvania retail theft law right when the show gets everything else wrong about both Pennsylvania and the 1980s. The “Goldbergs” is set in a strange realm of the space time continuum, in which everything that ever happened between 1980 and 1990 occurs simultaneously, yet they do not even give us the courtesy of an explanation from Dr. Michio Kaku or Dr. Stephen Hawking, and I certainly cannot figure out the physics on my own. Although the cars have 1980s Keystone State license plates, they are on both the front and back of the cars. The show is set in an alternate universe in which Montgomery County, Pennsylvania has palm trees and bald, treeless mountains, and where the leaves are all green and on the trees at Thanksgiving. In that sense, the show steals from “The Office,” which took place in an alternate version of Lackawanna County with a Southern Californian landscape.
Despite its faults, I cannot help but like the show, because I grew up in Pennsylvania in the 1980s. Like a WWII veteran watching grossly inaccurate portrayals of the war in 1950s and 1960s war movies, I delight in pointing out the flaws, because I was really there, and damn it, I know better.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. Unlike “The Goldbergs” universe, he practices law in a version of Pennsylvania in which people are charged criminally for retail theft, and not merely banned from stores.