The Wonder Years was like few other sitcoms when it premiered in 1988. It had a cinematic feel with clever humor that recalled some of the better Woody Allen movies of the period (specifically 1987’s Radio Days), but there was a depth and poignancy beyond simple nostalgia. This extended to the now classic theme song, Joe Cocker’s 1969 cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Like The Wonder Years itself, the song is bittersweet and almost heartbreaking. It immediately threw down the gauntlet, separating the series from other 1980 family sitcoms with saccharine theme songs and stories.
ABC’s remake of The Wonder Years, which premieres tonight, has little in common with the original other than its name. (Fred Savage, who played Kevin Arnold in the original series, is an executive producer.) For one, there’s no mistaking this series for a movie. Its single-camera format with quick cutaway gags is more reminiscent of recent sitcoms such as How I Met Your Mother and Everybody Hates Chris, which were both narrated by an older version of the lead character.
The new series follows the lives of the Black middle-class Williams family in 1968 Montgomery, Alabama. Elisha “EJ” Williams plays Dean, our 12-year-old protagonist. Dulé Hill (The West Wing, Psych) is his father Bill, a music professor and funk musician. Saycon Sengbloh is his mother Lillian (Respect) and Laura Kariuki (Black Lightning) is older sister, Kim. Dean’s unseen older brother is serving in Vietnam, and if this ends predictably, then it might’ve been a good idea if we’d met him in the pilot. In the original Wonder Years, Winnie Cooper’s (Danica McKellar) cool older brother, Brian (Bentley Mitchum), steals our hearts within the first few minutes of the pilot when he defends Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) from his bullying brother, Wayne (Jason Hervey). It’s a brutal gut punch when Brian later dies in Vietnam.
Milan Ray is Keisa Clemmons, who is apparently the Winnie Cooper character, though the show might’ve benefited if she were its version of Kevin Arnold. Keisa is far more engaging and dynamic than Dean. The pilot sets her up as the center of a triangle with Dean and his best friend, Cory (Amari O’Neil), and I now find that concept tiresome.
Series creator Saladin K. Patterson has said it was important to focus on a Black, middle class perspective, which is admirable, but it feels at times like he’s just remade The Cosby Show (there’s probably a market for The Huxtables without the repulsive Bill Cosby). What set the original The Wonder Years apart was its unflinching look at middle-class life. The Arnolds didn’t live in a Capra-esque small town but the suburbs, which is described as having “all the disadvantages of the city, and none of the advantages of the country. And vice versa.” Kevin’s father, Jack (Dan Lauria), didn’t have the job of his dreams but instead came home each night angry and just a little more broken inside. Both Bill and Lillian are college graduates, fully content in their professions, and the only question for the kids’ future is whether they’ll attend a historically all black college, like their parents, or a newly integrated one.
The show’s pilot also promotes the Cosby-esque myth that a comfortable middle class existence provides a refuge from racism. Middle class white people are presumably kinder and more tolerant than their lower income brethren, which is both classist and fundamentally untrue, as viral cell phone videos from the past few years would demonstrate.
Dean attends a middle school named after Confederate president, white supremacist, and all-around jerk Jefferson Davis, but he’s only seen to experience at most minor micro-aggressions from white students and teachers. One of his best friends is white (Julian Lerner), and his parents have no issue apparently with him socializing with Dean outside of class. This would’ve been aspirational for me growing up in 1980s South Carolina, where white classmates slinging the n-word wasn’t unusual and I wasn’t exactly a welcome guest in their homes.
White and Black students play baseball together, and Lillian’s only concern is that Bill and Dean’s coach (Allen Maldonado) don’t make a scene in front of the white folks. Far from being offended by their raised voices, a nice, visibly moved white couple informs the Williams that Dr. Martin Luther King’s been shot. You’d almost assume that everyone mourned his loss, but Martha Asbury Wilson, who was a freshman at Memphis State in 1968, told the New York Times that other white students laughed about his death and she recalled a “general feeling of celebration around me.”
I’m not demanding self-conscious “wokeness” from The Wonder Years, but I’d appreciate it if the series accurately reflected its time and place. What resonated with me about the original Wonder Years was its harsh reality balanced with genuine emotion. I didn’t know much about Vietnam in 1988, but I nonetheless felt Kevin’s shock and pain when Winnie’s brother dies senselessly in the war. King’s death feels like a mere topical reference than a life-changing event for Dean.
Patterson chose to stick with the original series timeline because he argues that the world hasn’t changed as drastically from 2001 to 2021 as it did between 1968 to 1988. As someone who still had a landline in 2001, I’m not sure I agree. Patterson also deliberately rejects all the compelling story possibilities for a show that, if it had been set in 2021, began the same year as 9/11, when the country changed irrevocably. The world seemed less safe, especially for a child. Existing prejudices were exacerbated and perhaps excused under the guise of patriotism. Instead, the new Wonder Years returns to the dried-out well that’s the 1960s.
There’s also the issue that the adult Kevin Arnold (Daniel Stern) was 32 when he started narrating The Wonder Years. Childhood nostalgia has a different flavor when someone still has a full life ahead of them. The adult Dean (Don Cheadle) in 2021 is 65 and should have a far more somber outlook. The pilot’s climax centers on King’s assassination, which along with Bobby Kennedy’s the same year, is arguably the end of a more optimistic period for human rights. Looking back on April 4, 1968 when you’ve lived through January 6, 2021 should make you wanna holler like Marvin Gaye. Maddeningly, adult Dean is more inclined to comment on how overly PC the world has become since 1968, which is a more common lament from white Boomers.
The original Wonder Years was a clear reflection of the 1960s that could’ve never aired during the 1960s. The new Wonder Years might’ve aired comfortably in 1968, alongside Julia. That’s not progress, either politically or creatively.
- The adult Dean references a flu epidemic in 1968, as part of a “more things change…” setup. The 1968 flu pandemic killed at least a million people worldwide and 100,000 people in America. It spread without any economic restrictions and people still saw movies in theaters. Four months into the pandemic, there was a vaccine, which most people took without protest.
- Kim alludes to Black Panthers founder Huey Newton, but so far, she’s not presented as the rebellious source of tension that her counterpart Karen Arnold (Olivia D’Abo) was in the original series. Hippie Karen was the perfect foil to her more conservative father, and if Patterson wants to lean into the 1968 middle-class Black family conceit, the differing views within the community about the best path to racial equality has great story potential.
- I keep banging this drum, but The Middle depicted a genuinely middle-class family that worried about paying bills and ate their takeout meals at a table with mismatched chairs. I think it’s possible to present a similarly grounded Black middle class family.
- Alabama was a pivotal setting during the Civil Rights Movement. There was the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 to 1956, Bloody Sunday in Selma, and the murder of four Black girls at a Birmingham church ... and that’s just a start. It’s unclear as yet how these events have informed the characters in the new series, and that’s unfortunate.