A show focused wholly on the past, The Wonder Years was still ahead of its time

A show focused wholly on the past, The Wonder Years was still ahead of its time

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers The Wonder Years, which ran for six seasons and 115 episodes between 1988 and 1993.

For much of the 1980s and early ’90s, the hallowed post-Super Bowl time slot went to the premiere episode of a new and promising show. This strategy proved underwhelming for the networks, with far more flops than hits launching out of the year’s most-watched program; eventually, the slot went with increasing frequency to an established or upcoming show that could better use the spotlight.

There were, however, exceptions to the rule of flops, the most notable of which was a small show that debuted on January 31, 1988. It made such an impact on audiences that they returned in huge numbers nearly two months later, when the second episode of the series finally made it to air.

The Wonder Years is the coming-of-age story of 12-year-old Kevin Arnold, who attempts to navigate the rough waters of adolescence and survive both the suburbs and the cultural transition from the ’60s to the ’70s. But if that was all The Wonder Years was, the show would never have served as the cultural milestone that it did. Though restricting itself to Kevin’s point-of-view at all times—to the extent that adult Kevin (voiced by Daniel Stern) serves as each episode’s narrator—the show always took care to empathetically detail the struggles that each character dealt with, even while filtered exclusively through the eyes of an adolescent boy.

Set 20 years before its 1988 debut, the amount of time passed between The Wonder Years and the era it depicted was actually smaller than subsequent half-hour period pieces, like That ’70s Show (which debuted in 1998 with a pilot set in ’76) or The Goldbergs (at least 24 years between the start of the show and its ’80s time period). But unlike so many of the comedies to follow in The Wonder Years’ footsteps, the era itself never served as a punchline to wink at. Where even current period dramas will nod to the absurdities of their era—think of the dry-cleaning joke from the Mad Men pilot—The Wonder Years was steadfast in the idea that the time in which it took place was merely another facet of its personality, not an outlet for high-handed mockery.

Instead, the show’s humor was grounded in the universality of its experiences. It featured the recognizable angst of school and friendships, love and lust. It explored the fear that comes with not knowing who your parents really are and the terror that follows when you start to understand them. The Wonder Years was all about dealing with complicated emotions during the frenzy of adolescence, the malaise of midlife, and every age in between. And what that means is that sometimes it just wasn’t a very funny show. Instead, it had to settle for being moving.

To look at The Wonder Years through this prism—a half-hour, single-camera dramedy that didn’t worry about finding the laugh lines, focusing instead on realistically capturing the intricacies of everyday life—makes it clear just what kind of a trailblazer it was. In an era populated with single-camera prestige comedies that are often criticized for lacking big laughs (HBO’s Girls, Looking, and Togetherness, for instance), it doesn’t take much to draw a direct line back to ABC and The Wonder Years.

The pilot, one of the best ever filmed, shows what’s so great about the series in miniature. It also shows why it caused such a sensation when the first, near-perfect batch of six episodes debuted. The storyline was simple: Kevin and his friend Paul begin junior high and face all the indignities therein. From jockstraps in gym class, to the torment of an older brother, to a suddenly transformed girl next door, the Wonder Years’ pilot perfectly encapsulates the sheer chaos that is adolescence. It does this so well that in the one moment when Kevin is certain he knows what is coming—the wrath of his father and likely his raised hand—he is caught off-guard by Vietnam arriving at the doorstep. In an instant, a family, a neighborhood, a nation watching at home, became unmoored, experiencing the secondhand shockwaves of a fatality halfway around the world. The death of Brian Cooper—the brother of the aforementioned girl next door—established the tone for an entire series. At a time when an unseen conflict thrummed in the chest of every American and the culture war at home raged on, even the smallest domestic disputes displayed in the Arnold home reflected the tension that raged beyond the edge of the front lawn.

Central to the success of the pilot and the series was the remarkable lead performance of Fred Savage. Then known primarily for his work in The Princess Bride (and now known for his work behind the camera, directing episodes of series like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Modern Family, and Party Down), Savage had a winning face and a boyish charm that made him immediately likable in spite of all of the awful adolescent antics to come. But more than that, Savage had a devastatingly underplayed delivery. The series wrote Kevin like the typical, precocious television child, and Savage could sell those hoary gags, but it was like you were listening to the dopey kid you used to ride the bus with, rather than some over-trained child actor. He walked a line between relatable and rakish, finding levels that elude many adults in the industry. Twice nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series at the Emmys, he held his own against Hollywood luminaries like Ted Danson, Michael J. Fox, and John Goodman, with performances more than deserving of such recognition.

But Savage wasn’t the only standout in the cast. The Arnold family as a whole was a sight to behold, Jack (Dan Lauria) and Norma (Alley Mills) in particular. Two characters that could’ve been flat caricatures in the hands of less nuanced performers become mysterious and unknowable, yet also far too human to bear.

Which is to say nothing of Danica McKellar and the marvel that is Winnie Cooper. She refuses to be restricted by Kevin’s expectations for her. She explores the dark, lost, angry grief of her brother’s death and her father’s departure. She kisses boys at will and she actively, fervently pursues her dreams, refusing to sacrifice her life to fit into the box others would have her exist in. She is honest about her confusion and her transparency opens Kevin’s eyes to the humanity of women, forcing him to realize that none of us, regardless of biological sex, have any idea what the fuck we’re doing.

That first season of The Wonder Years is a miracle: six pristine episodes that resulted in a surprise victory for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards, a feat that only raised expectations for the season to follow. That the show even made it on the air was a victory to begin with. Creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black shopped the series around, but ABC, familiar with the couple through their work on the wholesome multi-camera sitcom Growing Pains, was the only network that showed any interest. In the face of NBC’s rising dominance on the comedy front and CBS’ lasting stranglehold on drama, ABC had no choice but to branch out and take chances on projects that carried a certain amount of risk, deciding to bet on programming it believed in, rather than Xeroxing other networks’ hits.

This same era of ABC birthed critical darlings like China Beach, Twin Peaks, and Thirtysomething, as well as eventual Wonder Years lineup companion Roseanne. Something unique about ABC in this era is how many of its shows existed within the purview of a singular vision under their creator. Those creators went on to minor media fame, and in some ways, the growing awareness viewers have of the people who make television began in this era. This goes for David Lynch and Twin Peaks, Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick and Thirtysomething, Roseanne Barr (though series creation is credited to Matt Williams) and Roseanne, and, of course, Moonlighting and Glenn Gordon Caron.

The latter is an important example, as Caron’s exacting standards for his series cost ABC a lot of time and money that likely made the network less forgiving of the auteur type that it seemed to have accidentally sought out en masse. This is likely relevant to the overarching mythos of The Wonder Years, too, as Marlens and Black mysteriously left the show shortly after the second season, citing only personal reasons. They would return to the industry a few years later—shepherding Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous ABC sitcom, which they parted ways with before it even aired—but they would never return to The Wonder Years.

It’s impossible to say exactly what caused Marlens and Black to so suddenly depart the show they so lovingly crafted. Even 20 years later, they don’t discuss it, as evidenced by any number of interviews the duo gave in the lead-up to the show’s 2014 DVD release. But it’s not difficult to picture a scenario where, after fine-tuning the first season—four episodes of which the couple wrote—maintaining that sense of control in a 22-episode season was too much to wrap their heads around. (The second-season order was ultimately cut to 17 episodes because of the 1988 writers’ strike.) Marlens and Black said as much in an interview with the Los Angeles Times preceding the premiere of the second season, noting how difficult it was to trust their writing staff while also trying to preserve the show’s “voice.”

Perhaps Marlens and Black were making television in an age that wasn’t ready for them. With their limited episode orders and lack of network interference (something that often goes hand-in-hand with ratings-based worries) cable or streaming series seem like a natural fit for a couple with the creative vision required to shape something as resonant as the first season of The Wonder Years. In today’s TV landscape, they’d be able to work on something more akin to their own timeline, too.

Even in the face of its creators’ departure, The Wonder Years retained much of what audiences had come to love about it. Plenty of that credit goes to Bob Brush, who stepped in to run the show, but so much of what the show and what people responded to had everything to do with its phenomenal cast and strong visual identity. But The Wonder Years also shouldn’t be overlooked for how perfectly it understood not just what it was selling, but who it was selling to.

In a way, The Wonder Years was the perfect alchemical nostalgia concoction. By focusing so closely on an era 20 years in the past, it spoke specifically to what was then the largest generation in history: the baby boomers. Not only did the show appeal to boomers on a fundamental nostalgia level—seeing themselves as Kevin, working through the trials of youth in trying times—but the passage of time allowed them to relate to Jack and Norma, too. In turn, those boomers’ own kids were also reflected in Kevin and his friends. It was a neat trick, one that many other TV shows noticed. This combination of baby boomers having their cake and eating it too was a prescient move; the show’s staff could have no idea of the breadth of nostalgia-based pop culture to follow in their wake.

As the characters (and the show) aged, the plots grew less and less concerned about the affairs within the Arnold home itself and more concerned with the difficulties of navigating teenage relationships. This development wasn’t necessarily a change for the better, but it was a change for the inevitable. Just as teens grow away from their parents and test their own identities, Kevin Arnold had to do the same. In truth, it’s not a stretch that a series about the teenage journey of a young boy becomes decidedly fixated on the opposite sex, but something was lost when romance went from background player to lead role.

What The Wonder Years captured was the sense of wistfulness that accompanies the very best nostalgia. The show evoked nostalgia not just for the ’60s or youth but for the hopefulness that accompanies those moments when you don’t know how things end yet. As Don Draper reminds us, the literal Greek translation of “nostalgia” is “the pain from an old wound.” The wound that The Wonder Years plumbs is the wound of hope.

Perhaps no episode does that quite so well as the series finale, specifically the closing moments. After a vicious fight, Kevin and Winnie passionately reconnect in an old barn, paying off a tension that had been building since the pilot. The next day they travel home, to an Independence Day parade, and as the characters watch the procession, our narrator reveals their fates. Harvard for Paul (Josh Saviano), a son for Karen (Olivia d’Abo), inheriting the furniture business for Wayne (Jason Hervey), a career for Norma, an untimely death for Jack. Winnie goes abroad to study art, and Kevin stays Stateside. They write each other weekly for the eight years she’s gone, and when she returns, he’s there to meet her at the airport. As are his wife and son. It’s practically one of Hemingway’s apocryphal “six word stories”: The news that Kevin and Winnie stayed faithfully in touch, only to still part ways, lands like a sucker punch.

In a simple phrase a lifetime passes, in which the hope that burned for decades is extinguished and exchanged for a smaller flame—more consistent, more like friendship—and the audience never sees it coming. And in this montage, The Wonder Years expresses what’s so powerful about nostalgia. We see Kevin celebrating with his father and with Winnie, but we (and his older self) know what’s to come. The Wonder Years ends without ending, because that’s how life is. Kevin Arnold grows up, but we’re all, always, doing just that.

Next time: Matt Crowley investigates eight seasons of obsessions, compulsions, and homicides on Monk.

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