Watching the Wonder Years 24 Years Later….Some Thoughts

Like any television watching adult knows, the summer viewing schedule is often littered with reality shows, repeats and random cable shows so when faced with a decision to read or perhaps binge watch an old television show, I chose to binge.

And I chose to binge on The Wonder Years.

Now, I have not watched The Wonder Years since it went off the air in 1993. Twenty-four years and when deciding to watch a show you have not actually seen for almost a quarter of a century, there are dangers involved in this task:

1. It will cease to be funny or charming and will have lost all of the appeal and humor it once had or you once thought it had. I’m looking at you ALF and also quite possibly Small Wonder.

2.  It will still be funny and you will love it still but you will start noticing more and more flaws that you hadn’t noticed in the first viewing. I love you Friends but let’s be honest, Ross could be kind of a dick. 

I went in with trepidation and snacks which is really how you should binge watch anything and I came up with observations.

It’s very scientific so get your pencils.

1. Kevin Arnold is a flawed protagonist

There are internet rumblings. Kevin Arnold is a jerk. Kevin Arnold yells too much. Kevin Arnold is the worst. There’s even a website listing everything that was wrong with this character.

My response:

Why would you want to see a show about a perfect person?

Also why are we criticizing the behavior flaws of a fictional character between the ages of twelve to sixteen. I would be willing to bet that most of us are at our worst between those ages.

Daniel Stern’s narration, however, shines light on Kevin’s behavior, reflecting on the good, the bad and the not so pretty. The adult version of Kevin Arnold fully admits to the times where he made an error, rushed to judgment or perhaps did not show himself in the best light. The narration took the show to a more vulnerable place with the adult version exposing his worst moments along with the best.

The Wonder Years also proves that we are the products of our environment, Therefore Kevin Arnold’s short tempered moments make perfect sense. Let’s take the episode where Kevin gets a puppy from his grandfather and his father Jack keeps going back and forth as to whether or not they will keep the dog. At the end, Kevin yells at his dad about his flip-floppiness. Jack Arnold’s response?

“You remind me of somebody.”

That line in itself shows one of the many messages of The Wonder Years:

You can never truly escape who you really are. You can never truly escape your surroundings.

Jack Arnold was short tempered so it made sense that his children might carry that on. I fully disagree with those internet rumblings. Besides, it didn’t seem like anyone was ever that intimidated by Kevin Arnold…even when he was all yelly. Instead, they all just seemed to brush it off as a quirky personality trait or gave it right back to him.

 2. Friendship Growing Pains

I am lucky enough to have two friends whom I’ve known for over thirty years so the friendship between Paul and Kevin feels even more familiar now than it did in 1988. The Wonder Years did a terrific job at reflecting those growing pains.

In a season six episode where Kevin and Paul are playing poker with friends, there’s a realization that they’ve both changed. That their friendship at that moment in time might be going in separate directions but with the imagery of Paul and Kevin as old men playing poker with their friends, their friendship will come back together.

While that moment had no true meaning to me back then, now it most certainly does. Back then, I probably took it as the end of their friendship. Watching it again, it’s not the end…it’s just simply another direction. A temporary detour and that’s the way it usually is when you’ve known someone that long. Your relationship ebbs and flows. Sometimes you need each other more than anyone because they just know things without you having to explain yourself but other times….other times, you go off, explore your own life away from that person. Sometimes you don’t speak for years, sometimes you lose touch for a time but they will always be there because they simply mean too much and their place in your life is just too special for you to truly let go.

3.  The show will be never be dated because it already was

The Wonder Years premiered in 1988 yet took place in the late 60’s, during the Vietnam War. A brilliant move in retrospect because it never ran the risk of becoming dated. The storylines were universal regardless of the decade. Yes, there were protests and young people dying overseas. There were race riots and turbulence in the sixties but when you’re twelve, your world is not that big. When you’re sixteen, your world still isn’t quite that big.

Take the episode that had Wayne’s friend Wart returning from Vietnam. When Kevin Arnold delighted in finally catching the owl mascot of the rival high school during homecoming, he spotted Wart sitting on a bench with his clothes off. Wayne approaches him and Wart’s line, “nothing fits” weighed heavily. The world had expanded in a violent way for Wart, a way that it had not widened yet for Kevin who was still young, still sheltered.

So while they did touch on some dramatic moments, it was only to widen the world of Kevin Arnold, forcing him to think outside himself which is a relatable part of growing up, learning that the world is so much bigger than you can ever imagine.

4. Winnie and Kevin were not meant to be

This was controversial at the time. People were upset. It would have been like Ross and Rachel not getting together but thinking it over, it actually makes sense that Winnie and Kevin were not meant to be. Fred Savage stated in an interview that Winnie and Kevin getting married would have almost ruined the fantasy because Winnie was truly the dream girl.  Danica McKeller had referred to her character as a bit of a mystery and it’s true.

We as an audience never really knew Winnie Cooper. We only knew Winnie Cooper through the memory of Kevin Arnold. To Kevin Arnold, Winnie was flawless. She was perfection. Of course there were glimpses into Winnie’s pain. Her parents divorcing and then later reconciling, her brother dying in Vietnam. Yet Kevin did seem oblivious to her pain at those moments quite possibly because it would ruin the image he had of her and also because he was twelve. It was the scene after Winnie was involved in a car accident and the two whisper to each other through the window that they loved each other that forced Kevin to see that the happiness and bliss he had been feeling may have been the polar opposite of what she was feeling.

So maybe having Winnie and Kevin getting married might have ruined that image.  Even adult Kevin keeps up that image of perfection. Winnie was the girl next door. She was an ideal, a dream. She was never meant to be his reality. We were never meant to know the true Winnie Cooper because Kevin Arnold didn’t really know the true Winnie Cooper.

5. Child Stars Gone Good

We hear so many stories. Hollywood is littered with tragic stories of child stars who have fallen victim to substance abuse problems, legal problems, just problems but for every cast of Different Strokes, there is the cast of Wonder Years. At the end of the series , the fictional characters of Winnie, Kevin and Paul are off to accomplish great things but so were the actors who portrayed them.

Danica McKellar went to UCLA and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. She even co-authored a paper called Percolation and Gibbs States Multiplicity for Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller models, which you know….duh.

She had also written five math books specifically geared towards pre-teen girls to get them excited about math. I wish she had written these when I was in high school, although when I took the CSET for math and science, I picked up Math Doesn’t Suck to use as a study guide and they are so well written and easy to understand. I recommend it for anyone who wants to improve their math skills.

It would have been amazing had the producers added this math genius part of Danica McKellar to character of Winnie Cooper. I was only a couple years younger than Winnie Cooper so it would have been pretty cool to see a female character around my age excel in math like that.

Fred Savage has continued with acting, starring in The Grinder with Rob Lowe which was really funny. It was like the story of Josh Saviano. Lawyer and actor….where does one end and other begin? Seriously, it’s like they took him and separated him into two characters.

Fred Savage will also be appearing in Friends from College on Netflix and if you have not watched his appearances guest hosting Live with Kelly, you really should. He’s also become a director. After leaving Stanford in 1999, he concentrated fully on directing. He’s directed everything from Boy Meets World (I heard he had an in….apparently the guy who played Cory Matthews is like a brother to him) to Even Stevens, It’s Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, Party Down, Greek, Casual. He’s become an incredibly respected television director.

Oh and also Josh Saviano who played Paul Pfeiffer is not Marilyn Manson although I would like to restart that rumor and not have it die because of the truth.  So I guess we can call that a hashtag alternative fact?  Josh Saviano actually went to Yale and is a corporate lawyer who now specializes in helping actors with their brands, He was also in a few episodes of Law and Order SVU.  He may not actually be Marilyn Manson but maybe he really was the inspiration for The Grinder? Perhaps he should use his lawyer skills to discuss royalties with Fred Savage and Rob Lowe?

It’s not just the main three who are thriving. Jason Hervey is a producer producing reality shows and a lot of wrestling shows. Looking at his producer credits, is it weird that I now desperately want him to appear in the next season of GLOW?  He also produced a really interesting show coming out at the end of the month on A&E called Dope Man which is a documentary that follows an an ex-con struggling with a heroin addiction while he help others. It’s in the same vein as Intervention which means it will be amazing, difficult to watch and necessary.

Alley Mills, Dan Lauria and Olivia D’abo are still acting and doing quite well.

There’s just something comforting knowing that a show about nostalgia and hopeful happy endings transferred off screen. Everyone involved has had happy endings of their own….at least professionally. I can’t speak for them personally but judging them solely by social media posts alone, they all seem to know how to have a good time.

6. The Guest Stars Complete Me

David Schwimmer. Alicia Silverstone. John Corbett. Mark Paul Gosselaar. Juliette Lewis. Soleil Moon Frye. Carla Gugino. Jim Caviezel. Giovanni Ribisi. Seth Green.

I mean, come on!

It’s pretty cool watching the show now and seeing people who you now know from something else. I mean, was there a time when Alicia Silverstone wasn’t Cher, David Schwimmer wasn’t Ross and John Corbett wasn’t Aiden who was too good for Carrie Bradshaw?

There was.

My favorites?

Giovanni Ribisi  was perfect. I loved his character and he was so much more subdued than he was on Friends as Phoebe’s step brother. While he was fantastic on Friends, I kinda loved seeing a him in The Wonder Years. He added humor and seemed like a good match for Fred Savage.

Also, the episode with Carla Gugino called Triangle is definitely worth a watch again. Carla Gugino plays Wayne’s girlfriend who ends up making out with Kevin. I loved the quieter moments with Kevin and Wayne, the moments where you could tell they actually truly loved each other and the ending of this particular episode proves it.

And yes when David Schwimmer appeared on screen as Karen’s boyfriend Michael, I did say that he shouldn’t be there because he had to move to New York, change his name to Ross and tell Rachel that they were on a break.

Was that wrong?

7. Sibling Bonds 

Is there anything more complicated than the relationship between siblings?  You hate each other, you love each other. You can treat them horribly but G-d forbid someone else tries something.

The Wayne/Kevin relationship was intense. When we first meet Wayne, he seems like a monster, making Kevin’s life miserable. The episode where Wayne sucks up Kevin’s science class hamster with a vacuum cleaner comes to mind but as they get older, you see a bond form. They actually like each other despite their best efforts.

Kevin truly does care about Wayne. I mentioned the Triangle episode earlier but another episode that truly sticks out is New Year’s Eve when Wayne’s girlfriend, Bonnie, dumps him and goes back to her ex husband. Bonnie stands there telling Kevin that he must hate her. His response? “I’m so sorry….but not for you”.  Kevin then proceeds to search for Wayne, finding him in a laundry mat, drinking and throwing socks in a washing machine. Wayne also covers for Kevin as well as seen in The Lost Weekend when the Arnold parents go out of town, Kevin throws a party that goes wildly out of control and Wayne covers for him, taking the fall.

Wonder Years showed just how complex relationships with siblings can be and that never changes.

8. Spotty memory makes for great episodic television

In the eighties, you could have a child drive a car into a house in one episode and by the next, it’s as if it never happened. I’m looking at you, Full House.  This was a common theme for a lot of 80’s sitcoms. Things just happened never to be spoken of again.

The way The Wonder Years was set up, this very 80’s way of doing television, was the perfect fit. It didn’t matter if a girl featured in one episode was never mentioned again or a sport Kevin played in another was also never spoken of again. When you tell stories about your past, you pick and choose. You add your own embellishments. You make yourself look better or worse then you really were. Some characters or moments are really significant just for certain things. It works.

It also works because Kevin is not always in the right and as mentioned in the episode where Kevin hits a homerun and is carried out of the park, he says that it may not have actually happened that way. The Wonder Years is about selective memory and what you choose to remember. We are listening to certain stories in the life of Kevin Arnold and we’re listening to an adult looking back on his childhood, only showing the innocence, the successes, the failures, the moments you wish you could erase. It doesn’t need to be perfect or consistent or completely accurate because it’s all told through the memory of an adult and usually the stories of your childhood are never quite consistent.

9. No reunion but there should have been a seventh season

This one is obviously not the fault of the cast or crew but there should have been a seventh and final season. I didn’t think much of it at the time but now, yes, they needed a seventh season but now it’s too late.  Unlike Gilmore Girls, Arrested Development and Full House, there was always a bit more realism attached to The Wonder Years and now that Kevin Arnold would be older than his narrator, a reunion doesn’t work.

We needed that final season. It was necessary and for a show that won a Golden Globe, an ASCAP award, a Casting Society award, a DGA, a Peabody, a TCA, two WGAs, two Viewers for Quality Television awards, three Humanitas prizes, three BMI awards, four Emmy awards and four Young Artist Awards… more than earned a proper goodbye. Yes, the ratings had fallen in that final season and it was no longer a top 40 show as it had been the previous season, but still….it never got a true chance to say goodbye.

I get that it probably cost too much to make but it could have had a reduced season or maybe the network could have trusted the fans. True fans will stick with a show. The fans who had been elementary aged kids in season one were teenagers by season six and seeing Kevin in more adult situations would not have been as upsetting as maybe the networks thought it might be. I mean, the show began with Winnie Cooper’s brother dying in Vietnam….I think the fans would have been fine.

We had watched these characters grow up and not seeing them graduate high school, go to prom, get into college made that final episode a little jarring. It was a fine finale but it was a season finale, not a series finale.

And there’s what happened to Jack.

We learn from the narration in the final episode that Jack passes away. This was more shocking to me than Winnie and Kevin not ending up together. Jack did not seem to have any health problems throughout the run of the series and his death came out of nowhere. What if they had had Jack pass away in the seventh season? Watching the Arnold family adapt to a new normal that they hadn’t been expecting might have been interesting to watch but we never got that chance.

I was okay with Winnie and Kevin not ending up together, I understood the reasons but there were too many other loose ends. There  was also Karen who shows in the final episode visibly pregnant although without Michael, her husband, so maybe Michael really did move to New York and changed his name to Ross?

Or maybe that’s another Wonder Years message?

Sometimes things just don’t go as planned and you have to accept the goodbye even if it doesn’t truly feel like it, even if there are loose ends and more stories to tell. Sometimes the goodbye just comes when you aren’t quite ready and you just have to accept that sometimes things happen that are simply out of your control.

10. It still works

The Wonder Years still holds up. Despite my issues with the finale, it still works…..even twenty four years later.

The stories are timeless. Growing up is never easy, relationships are complicated and things don’t always end up the way they should. It will always work because the stories will always resonate depending on the age you are when you watch them.

The older you get, the more stories you have to tell.

The more you get to learn and make each year you get…..a wonder year.


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