The Wonder Years—“Nemesis”
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Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.
“Nemesis” (The Wonder Years, season 2, episode 11; originally aired 3/14/1989)
In which love makes Kevin Arnold say things good, bad, and ugly…
Ryan McGee: We’ve talked about several aspects of adolescence in this summer series, gang. We’ve dealt with the terror of the unknown, with death, with the inevitable physical changes that come with that time in our lives. But we haven’t dealt very much with romance yet, which is why I wanted to choose this episode as my selection in this series. The Wonder Years is a show I absolutely loved when it first aired, but it’s also a show that I’ve rarely revisited since. Part of that has to do with logistics: Issues surrounding the music in the show have held it in limbo for quite some time, rendering it inaccessible by legal means until it was added to streaming-video services in the fall of 2011. But part of it has to do with the way that we so often put off returning to anything from our childhood: What if revisiting the show reveals all the flaws that I was too naïve to see?
Luckily, “Nemesis” holds up well. It’s the episode that immediately leapt to mind for inclusion in this series, because it deals with so many raw emotions that transcend time periods. What I love about this episode is the way it deals not with dating the man or woman of your dreams, but the time you spend romantically dealing with everyone else along the way. We know from the pilot of The Wonder Years that Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) is the first love for Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). I had a severe problem with this plot point, primarily because I was convinced when the show initially aired in 1988 that Winnie Cooper was in fact the love of my life. But since the show had to hold off what felt like their inevitable relationship until well into its run, it had to insert various obstacles in Kevin and Winnie’s path before getting to the seemingly foregone conclusion. Enter Becky Slater.
Adding real-life weirdness to what already felt like an odd plot digression to preteen Ryan, Becky Slater was played by Crystal McKellar, real-life sister to Danica. “Nemesis” deals with the fallout of the inevitable Kevin/Becky breakup, which seemingly leaves Kevin with a once-again clear path toward pursuing what he feels is his destiny. But, as one of his teachers lectures, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” and Kevin flashes back to times spent with Becky in which he sought to make her laugh by mocking his fellow classmates. Not only does he mock his best friend Paul, but even Winnie herself, calling her “Miss Priss” and noting that she walks around as if she forgot to take the hanger out of her shirt. When he sees Becky whispering to Winnie in class, he fears the worst.
Walking Winnie home after school only seems to confirm Kevin’s fears, but her seeming reticence to talk to him is in fact revealed to be her coming down with the flu. With Winnie out of school for a week, Kevin revels in Becky’s lack of access as well as his chance to grow close to Winnie by bringing her that week’s homework, performing finger-puppet theater, and enveloping her in a quilt constructed by her grandmother. Just when he feels as if everything is back to normal, however, he realizes that Becky has spread every mean thing he ever said to each person he mocked. This turns out to be… well, pretty much everyone, right down to the bus driver. Curiously, Becky neglects to tell Winnie what Kevin said about her, although Becky tells Winnie every other joke Kevin made. A Western-style showdown occurs on school grounds, with Kevin finally confronting Becky about her behavior. But it’s Becky who gets the best of the situation, noting that Kevin only used her as a stepping-stone toward his ultimate goal of dating Winnie. It’s a sucker punch of a scene, one that humanizes the otherwise two-dimensional Becky.
Dating factors into all adolescences, whether it’s from the outside looking in or vice versa. We’re not always dating the people we’re supposed to be dating. Sometimes teenagers (or hell, adults) do it because it’s a thing that’s expected of them. Kevin and Becky end up together out of social pressure, but it’s clear via flashbacks that there was a spark between them. That doesn’t mean they should have stuck together, but it does mean that extricating themselves from a few weeks of their respective lives turns out to be way freakin’ harder than either expected.
The episode ends with Kevin feeling sick, both from the pain he’s caused others as well as the flu that he contracted while tending to Winnie. He thinks her arrival at his door will signal a period in which she returns the favor. Instead, it’s a chance for her to reveal that she heard about “Miss Priss” through the grapevine. She then dons Kevin’s ubiquitous Jets jacket, hunches over, mocks his speech patterns, and jumps up and down on his bed in order to speed up his nausea. Weirdly enough, the episode ends on an upbeat note, with Kevin deciding that such actions can only mean that Winnie has deep feelings for him. It’s an odd ending. A crazy ending, even. But what’s crazier than love—at any age?
Phil Dyess-Nugent: It’s nice to have an episode that’s designed to touch on adolescent memories of something most people can probably relate to, regardless of gender, race, class, and how close you ever came to becoming a soldier in the narcotics trade. In the flashback set in Becky’s bedroom, Kevin rips into every person of their shared acquaintance as if he’s been doing Friar’s Club roasts on the side for candy money, while Becky says, “You’re so mean!” with what little breath she can manage to expend between gales of laughter. I myself would cut out my own heart with a spork to keep from giving in to the temptation to offer any but the most constructive criticism of anyone, tendered softly as a falling snowflake—but I think I’ve heard rumors of this sort of thing going on. It makes for an interesting dynamic when one person, hoping to entertain another person with long flowing hair and a fetching laugh, decides to explore the ugliest side of his imagination and see where that gets him. I’ll bet a guy would just feel awful about it later. (Stretching my own imagination to the furthest limits, I also bet that, for as long as she’s laughing, it’s worth it, even if it means going to hell.) I can also imagine a person relating to Kev’s breakthrough insight at the end, when he decides that, because Winnie is so angry at him, that proves that she wants him bad. I suppose there might be circumstances in which a fellow coming to that conclusion might just be leaping to a self-protective rationalization, and if so, please don’t tell me.
Erik Adams: We must run in a lot of the same circles, Phil, because I too have heard about the legendarily intoxicating qualities of a woman’s laugh, and the moral depths to which it will drive a man. To loop this into the metaphor that opens “Nemesis”—via one of my favorite clichés of school-set television, the expositional lecture—I hear the true cause of the Trojan War was Helen of Troy’s uproarious response to Menelaus’ stand-up routine about Paris. (“Duh… to whom shall I give this golden apple?”)
But I digress. Isn’t it neat that the majority of “Nemesis” takes place in a Peanuts-esque world free of adult supervision? Sure, the teacher’s there at the beginning, the bus driver drops a great punchline in the middle of the episode, and Mrs. Arnold provides some maternal comfort at the end, but for the most part, the kids are left to deal with their feelings and the fallout from Kevin’s hurtful statements on their own. While that leaves behind a lot of footage of young actors squinting and nodding while they wait for Daniel Stern (who also directs) to finish his voiceover, it makes the subject matter and themes of “Nemesis” all the more resonant. Adults always have a “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” or a “Well, you made your bed, now you’re going to have to lie in it” at the ready, but neither of those aphorisms can match the edifying power of actively making the mistakes they summarize. And if the selections for this series have taught us anything, it’s that mistake-making might just be the most universal adolescent experience of all.
Noel Murray: Like Ryan, I hadn’t revisited The Wonder Years since it first ran, outside of an episode or two that I’ve seen in syndication over the years. The show debuted at a strange time for me: I was a senior in high school, and drawn to The Wonder Years both as nostalgia for “the simpler time” of junior high, which I recall the show capturing better than anything I’d seen on TV before, and for the late ’60s, which was relatively close to my own early-’70s boyhood. But I had a hard time buying the central premise of “Nemesis,” for what I admit is an odd reason: Everyone looks so young! And I don’t mean that in a “Gosh, Fred Savage has grown” kind of way (since we rarely see Savage in front of a camera these days anyway), but in an “Aren’t these whippersnappers too little to be falling in love?” way. Maybe it’s because I didn’t get involved in the world of teen romance until later into high school—summer after 10th grade, to be honest—but the soap-opera level seems awfully high for kids barely into puberty.
That said, this a very sweet and funny episode, and one that I actually remembered, primarily because of Becky Slater and what she represents. This is a phenomenon I was familiar with in high school and college: pining after the person you believe to be your one true love, then getting sidetracked when you find out that someone else likes you. Becky isn’t Miss Right—she’s Miss Right Now. There’s something very true about that aspect of The Wonder Years: the idea Kevin had to kill time with other girls while waiting for Winnie. It speaks to the innocently transactional nature of teen romance. No money changes hands, but there’s a conveying of status and experience every time two youngsters pair off for a few weeks, practicing for the one they really want.
Donna Bowman: “And they call it—puppy luuuuuuv… ” I know that Kevin’s adoration of Winnie Cooper defines the childhood crush for many of you. Once again, I find myself slightly too senior to be in the generation that made this show an iconic hit, but boy does “Nemesis” bring back memories nonetheless. You can practically see Fred Savage’s eyes turn into little hearts, cartoon-style, as Daniel Stern narrates his affection (or is it affliction?). “Nemesis” makes a great counterpoint to Boy Meets World for more reasons than just the presence of the elder Savage sibling. Where Cory was dealing with the transformation of teen romance to teen lust, Kevin stays firmly on the infatuation side of the line. He worships Winnie as a goddess, and that’s why the final scene is so appropriate. A goddess has her moods, after all, and her devotees must learn to read the secret significance behind her behavior.
Becky has no chance because she is a mere mortal. I cringe to think of how many friends I ignored or, more appallingly, deliberately tripped up in the single-minded pursuit of my crush-objects, way back when. When Kevin performs for her, enacting what she believes to be their shared superiority over the ridiculous figures around them, it’s such an appallingly selfish act. As Phil points out, for the undivided attention of the opposite sex—for a moment of the same kind of adoration Kevin bestows on Winnie—Kevin gleefully discards his conscience without a second thought. It should be noted, though, that Becky also tosses aside the duties of best-friendship she so piously recites among the tumbleweeds later. She listens and giggles and protests not a whit when Kevin slags Winnie. For a bond, for a laugh, for a moment of feeling like you matter most in all the world, the two of them don’t care who they hurt. Now that’s adolescence.
Meredith Blake: Like everyone else, I don’t think I’ve watched The Wonder Years more than once or twice since it went off the air in the early ’90s—and, at the risk of being a major buzzkill, I’m not sure how well it has aged. The wall-to-wall narration from Daniel Stern is more intrusive than I’d remembered, and the attempt at telling an archetypal story of First Love feels clumsy to me—too generic to really be believable. (The blunt music cues don’t help much either.) But then maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the wonderfully specific shows about adolescence that have aired since the heyday of The Wonder Years, like Freaks And Geeks and My So-Called Life, or the move away from gauzy depictions of the Vietnam Era to more nuanced ones.
For me, what’s striking about this episode isn’t Kevin’s obsession with Winnie. I’m always a little skeptical of nostalgic, idealized adult depictions of young love because, let’s face it, when we’re 13 years old, most of us don’t like people who are right for us. (I sure didn’t: I was infatuated with Axl Rose.) The thing I find the most truthful about “Nemesis” is Kevin’s casual cruelty. We all know Kevin’s a sweet kid, maybe even a little boring, but even he’s all too willing to throw around a few unkind comparisons (the boy loves a simile, doesn’t he?) if he can score a laugh. This, to me, is one of the key lessons of adolescence: how the desire to be accepted can make us do things that are very much out of our nature. I’m reminded of my own bouts of meanness in middle school—like the time I picked on an awkward girl in my art class, or the many times I sat silently listening in on a three-way phone call—and suddenly I feel ashamed all over again.
Todd VanDerWerff: I’m not sure if The Wonder Years hasn’t aged as well as I had hoped, if I’m just too different of a person from when I was really into the show (roughly when it aired in syndication in the mid-’90s), or if the music changes to the series have butchered it, the way the official DVDs of Northern Exposure have ruined many of that series’ best episodes. “Nemesis” isn’t a bad episode of television—and I’m amazed by how influential this show was on the look and feel of the single-camera sitcoms that would follow in the ’00s, shows like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs—but I found it straining a little too hard to be archetypal (as Meredith put it). This episode dates from the Carol Black and Neal Marlens period of the show; they were the original creators but left the show midway through season two when the strain of producing it got to be too great. (It really was like nothing else on TV at the time.) Black and Marlens came up with some all-time classic episodes—I’m still tremendously moved by the conclusion of “My Father’s Office,” a season-one episode where Kevin learns just how little his father’s life has lived up to expectations—and their hands-on method resulted in a first season that was as close to an auteur production as the American TV system got at the time. (Of the six episodes, four are credited to the team, and they directed an episode as well.)
The Wonder Years comes from that time Phil described a few weeks back, the time when TV shows about adolescence had yet to really succeed, and networks were gun-shy about putting one on the air. The Wonder Years was a wild success, landing in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings in its first season and reliably holding down a chunk of valuable network real estate for five more seasons after that. But in its struggle to depict years that are so very typical, I think it avoids having a real point of view, which hurts episodes like this. (Weirdly, this makes “My Father’s Office” that much more powerful.) What I do like is that Kevin’s a real little shit in the episode, but when he tells his mother all about it, she doesn’t chew him out. She knows he’s already suffered, and that might prove lesson enough. So many of these episodes we’ve followed have been about moments when young adults realize that this is a time when they’re the only people who can fix what they’ve screwed up, and that applies here as well.
The ending undercuts this a bit. Winnie’s tantrum—which is real and a little frightening—leads into the scene where she stalks out of Kevin’s house in the Jets jacket, but Daniel Stern patches it all over with a little narration that lets us know things are going to be all right. The best Wonder Years episodes march right up to the edge of letting us know things will be okay, but never leave us with 100 percent assurance. The ones that don’t work as well try like hell to make sure we know everything will be all right. I don’t know if this was part of why Black and Marlens left the series, but in my TV-auteur-obsessed head, they knew that to make a true show about adolescence on TV, there would be lots of exhausting fights over removing that assurance. Maybe they just were done with that sort of thing?
PDN: What the hell is that god-awful racket going on at the start of the episode? I myself was never a big fan of this thoughtfully crafted, much-loved show, but I thought I remembered having gotten a nice buzz from its opening and closing credits, which were originally scored to Joe Cocker’s version of “With A Little Help From My Friends”—and this at a time when the idea that the music of Woodstock Nation might be the soundtrack to someone’s childhood was still regarded as kind of startling. Is my mind playing tricks on me, or did the rights issues Ryan alludes to force 20th Century Fox to replace the Cocker track with a drunken hillbilly growling the lyrics over a karaoke track?
EA: If Wikipedia is to be believed, what we and other Netflix subscribers are hearing at the top of “Nemesis” is the version of the song used for U.K. airings of The Wonder Years—which is a cruel trick to play on the country that gave us both “With A Little Help From My Friends” and Joe Cocker.
EA: Though I’m of the generation that came up with the Other Savage—Fred Savage’s younger, Boy Meets World-headlining brother Ben—and was thus out of the loop during The Wonder Years’ initial run, I’ve always admired how this show looks. There’s an eternally dusky, early-Autumn atmosphere to its visuals, a vibe shared with a contemporary (The Adventures Of Pete And Pete), as well as a spiritual successor (Freaks And Geeks) in the TV-about-adolescence field. Remembrances of youth go down smoother if you can imagine a crispness in the air—either that, or the Wonder Years producers just needed an excuse to have Kevin wear that Jets jacket all the time.
NM: I wonder whether if in the original episode “My Girl” played all three times that it plays in the Netflix version, or if that’s just a song they could make use of.
RM: I wonder if we can accurately divide Gen X from Gen Y via the answer to the question, “Which Savage brother did you watch on TV while growing up?”
NM: Watching people laugh uproariously is always weird, but it works in this episode because I don’t think we’re supposed to believe that Becky is actually cracking up at Kevin’s impressions so much as she’s trying to express to him that she likes having him around.
TV: Winnie Cooper was a crush of mine from afar. (I wasn’t allowed to watch the show first-run.) But watching it now, I’m much more struck by Becky, who’s more similar to the sorts of girls I ended up dating and eventually marrying. One of the things that still work about the show is how it has these two archetypes at its center, but it feels free to surround them with more particular personalities, with a little edge to them.
Next week: We head to The Big Valley, where Lee Majors makes a discovery that’s difficult to live with.
After that: It’s reader’s choice! Due to technical difficulties, we’ve lost your original nominations, so feel free to represent for your episode of choice in the comments on this article (or here).