‘The Wonder Years’: Then and now

The recent round of reboots hasn’t set the world on fire when it comes to winning accolades. But that changed with ABC’s “The Wonder Years,” which premiered last September. A big reason is it’s a complete reimagining. Instead of being a coming-of-age memory comedy about a young boy growing up in the late 1960s in a middle-class White family, the new version revolves around a Black family living in that pivotal decade in Montgomery, Alabama as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old.

The reboot has already followed in the original’s footsteps earning a prestigious Peabody Award in June for “its willful depiction of Black Joy.” The initial version picked up the award in 1989 for “pushing boundaries of the sitcom format and using new modes of storytelling.” So will Emmys be far behind for freshman series starring Elisha “EJ” Williams as 12-year-old Dean Williams and Dull Hill as his father with narration provided by Don Cheadle as the adult Dean?

“The Wonder Years” premiered on Jan 31, 1988 on ABC in the coveted spot just after the Super Bowl-the then Washington Redskins defeated the Denver Broncos 41-10-and drew approximately 29 million viewers. Unlike popular family sitcoms of the era-and sitcoms in general, “The Wonder Years” wasn’t filmed in front of a live studio audience. There was no laugh track. Each episode followed some aspect of young Kevin’s (Fred Savage) life whether it be with his family-his rather gruff father (Dan Lauria), his older brother (Jason Hervey), his free-spirited sister (Olivia d’Abo), his understanding mother (Alley Mills) or his friendship with Paul (Josh Saviano) or the love of his life Winnie (Danica McKellar). And Daniel Stern narrated as the adult Kevin.

At the 40th annual Emmys, the series took home the Emmy for comedy series beating the traditional sitcoms: “Cheers,” “Frank’s Place,” “The Golden Girls” and “Night Court.” Over the years, the series would win three more Emmys with Savage becoming the youngest actor at 13 to be nominated for lead actor in a comedy in 1989.

During its six seasons “The Wonder Years” received a total of 22 awards. In 2016, Rolling Stones ranked the series number 63 in Greatest TV shows of All Time poll and in 1997, TV Guide proclaimed, “My Father’s Office” as No. 29 in the top 100 episodes of all time. The heartbreaking 1990 episode “Good-Bye,” which finds Kevin dealing with the death of his math teacher, received Emmys for writing and directing.

The series also featured a plethora of songs from that era most notably the title tune, Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” In fact, the music rights issue caused difficulties in getting the series  released on DVD until 2014.

And of course, “The Wonder Years” was influential in changing the face of the comedy format. Very few sitcoms are now shot before an audience while laugh tracks seem downright prehistoric. The L.A. Times award-winning TV critic Howard Rosenberg discussed in 1989 why the series worked so well.  “The youthful attitudes, perceptions and values expressed here are universal and timeless, for at its essence ‘The Wonder Years’ is a simple story about a kid, his friends and his family. It’s the only series about kids that seems to have been designed and written by people who actually were kids.”

McKellar told me for a 2014 L.A. Times piece on “The Wonder Years” that the series really “validated kids’ emotions. You got to see how big those emotions were for a child.” Paley Center for Media curator Ron Simon added the show has “obviously lingered in the memory,” noting that the series wasn’t quite as gentle as remembered. “All the tension and contradictions of the late ‘60s ae there. That’s why it was so artful.”

The series was created by the husband-and-wife team of Neal Marlens and Carol Black who came of age during the time. Marlens acknowledged the series would have been different “and not as good had we not grown up in that period. I think having that advantage of just living through it as a kid coming of age gives you a certain perspective you can’t get any other way. That was just good luck for us. So many of our audience had come of age or had been a parent or a grandparent during that period and was familiar with it.”

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