Dan’s Top 100 Everything: #2 The Wonder Years

Alright, let me try this as a Daniel Stern voiceover:

“It was the fall of 2011. I was a fresh-faced college graduate living in my parents’ basement. My girlfriend had moved back to college, and I was stuck listening to Adele and Katy Perry fifty times a day on the radio like every other kid in the United States. I was in four fantasy football leagues and waiting for the release of Mass Effect 3.

Let’s face it: I was bored. I spent my days working in a cramped office; I spent my evenings sipping Miller High Life and watching Office reruns, just waiting for something in my quiet suburban life to knock my socks off.

And then it happened. I found a show on Netflix that changed my perspective on growing up, not just for me and my family, but across neighborhoods and generations.”

The Wonder Years, probably my favorite show of all time, or at least the show that left the most indelible impression on my young adult soul, is a coming-of-age dramedy from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s that looked 20 years in the past to the cultural revolution of the late 1960s.

(It’s also one of the only things on this Top 100 where you can observe my love growing in real time; I wrote reviews of every episode of the first three seasons. Even though I cringe at plenty of my writing from nine years ago, it remains a personally-fascinating glimpse into my 23-year-old head.)

The show stars Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold as he grows from preteen to young adult. His family are co-stars, including his father Jack played by Dan Lauria, along with best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and on-off romance Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar).

It’s difficult to convey The Wonder Years in a few sentences. In some ways, the show is very familiar and ordinary: It’s structured like a sitcom, with 22-minute episodes and simple plots that resolve in three acts. The content, on the surface, is well-trodden family comedy fare: daily tribulations and misunderstandings. Our protagonists learn a little lesson. Expect more of the same next week.

Yet the show is so much more than that: Melancholy and reflective with tremendous literary ambition in the writing. The tone is fiercely earnest and sentimental and absolutely unlike anything before or since. Even in the age of “peak TV,” with renowned auteurs pushing comedy boundaries in shows like Louie and Atlanta and Master of None, I’ve never seen anything quite as evocative as The Wonder Years at its best.

The title’s double meaning — Kevin’s years of adolescence aligning with the tumultuous but vibrant era of cultural revolution — hinted at the multilayered approach to storytelling the show used. Historical and personal moments would often collide in amusing or moving ways: from rocket launches to rock ‘n’ roll, the tumultuous 1960s provide a fruitful backdrop to Kevin’s bildungsroman.

Few shows have so altered the course of television history as The Wonder Years, though you rarely see it on “best ever” lists: This was the show that pioneered the single-camera comedy as we know it today: Artfully shot and edited like a drama, with a fully scored orchestral and pop soundtrack, no live audience or laugh track, usually with a more dramatic backbone than your average sitcom. Even the DNA of the narration has lived on: think JD from Scrubs, or its spiritual cousin, the “talking head” of mockumentary shows.

The Wonder Years is anchored by a pair of all-time great acting jobs. Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold is a performance that belongs in any television hall of fame: He moors the show with humanity and comedy but also messy flaws (arrogance and impatience especially). So many of the show’s greatest moments are just extended close-ups of Savage’s face as he reacts to what’s going on around him. This (eerie and unsettling) YouTube clip of the show without narration drives it home: It makes you realize how much acting instinct and screen presence this show required of its lead.

What most people forget, though, is that Dan Lauria as Jack Arnold is nearly as central as Kevin, despite getting no narration to give us a peek in his head. Jack’s struggle to adjust to the changing cultural tides is a source of some of the show’s most impressive dramatic material: From buying a new car to filing taxes, Lauria could transform the mundane into riveting poetry.

As impressive as the leads and format influence are, it’s the talent in the writers room that elevated The Wonder Years. It also gives us one of the great “what ifs” in TV history.

The show was created by Carol Black and Neal Marlens, a married pair of experimental TV producers who were given carte blanche to create a unique prestige dramedy in a time when that concept didn’t really exist. They delivered 6 episodes to kick off the show’s run. The pilot aired after the Super Bowl, and the show took the TV world by storm.

That short first season is a damn miracle and revelation, even today when its ripples are felt everywhere. Every moment felt crafted and daring: The fifth episode, “The Phone Call,”  spanned only a few chronological minutes of time as Kevin tried to work up the bravery to phone his crush. The fourth episode, “Angel,” climaxes with the family eating dinner and arguing about war. There’s even a vague arc to the season — Kevin drawing towards girl-next-door Winnie Cooper as a school dance approaches.

After winning a surprise Emmy for Outstanding Comedy for basically inventing a genre of TV, the show returned with an order for 17 episodes. The second season is easily the show’s storytelling peak (if not innovation peak) as it explored its characters’ depths and complexities. The season has several masterpiece episodes, including its seventh episode, “Coda,” which shows Kevin’s heartbreaking decision to give up piano lessons out of fear. Other standouts include “Birthday Boy,” an investigation of cultural identity via best friend Paul’s bar mitzvah, and “Whose Woods Are These?,” perhaps my favorite episode, an apocalyptic vision of coming-of-age via paving over a neighborhood park.

Despite the show’s greatness, a behind-the-scenes earthquake partway through the season completely altered the course of the show’s history. Black and Marlens, the show’s creators and visionaries, abruptly resigned. Nobody will tell why; the official line, per this Rolling Stone oral history, is “personal reasons,” which is not very satisfying. I suppose it could just be burnout. It must be quite exhausting to push one boundary after another. But it feels something must have happened.

(By the way, there’s a great LA Times article from the time about the Black and Marlens adjusting to the show’s expansive success. It shows how canny they were in creating the show while also presaging both their departure and the show’s diminishing returns in later seasons… especially with narrator overuse.)

Neal Merlens and Carol Black at a Wonder Years reunion

Regardless, the show shifted gears from “transcendentally great” to simple “outstanding” as Black and Merlens left, and producer Bob Brush took over. Rarely was The Wonder Years quite as adventurous after those first two seasons; Black and Merlens’ DNA and spirit lived on in the show, but their Midas touch and experimentalism left with them.

It always makes me dream: What if Black and Marlens had hung on? What if their grand vision had guided the show for years and years? Could it have soared for another four-or-more seasons? Peaked even higher? What dark depths of adolescence and generational angst could the pair have plumbed?

Yet I don’t want to undersell what the show would continue to be. Under the new stewardship of Brush, the show remained phenomenal, especially through the third season, even though there are a few signs of fatigue: For every all-timer, like “Faith,” which delved deep childhood fears of death and an uncertain future, there’s a forgettable entry like, “Cocoa and Sympathy,” where Paul gets a crush on Kevin’s mom.

It’s the fourth season and fifth seasons where things got a little rocky. When I ranked every episode after my first full watch-though, I only put one episode from either season in the top 10 (“The Accident”). Episodes could feel formless or stilted as Kevin hit the heart of troubled adolescent life. The show leaned into teen drama — never its strongest writing topic. There were still plenty of amazing scenes and ideas within episodes, moments that ripped your heart out or busted expectations. But it rarely held together into 22 minute masterpieces like in Seasons 1-3.

Kevin and Winnie grew up

The sixth and final season is a return to form, albeit a tonal shift. Despite a great, heavy season opener in “Homecoming,” which depicted PTSD from Vietnam, the show shifted towards comedy and lower-key conflict, especially in the fantastic final stretch of 6 episodes. Stories included a wider circle of Kevin’s teenaged friends. Giovanni Ribisi joined in a recurring role as Kevin’s new friend Jeff, and he breathed a lot of life and charm into the show.

ABC decided not to pick the show up for a seventh season following some creative dissatisfaction with the show (again, I disagree, as I think the the final season is a return to form). The production was also mired with an ugly harassment suit against Savage and co-star Jason Hervey that was ultimately dismissed.

The final two episodes of Season 6 serve as a series finale. They work well as a closer: We get one more turn in the Winnie-Kevin romance, another symbolic tussle with the loss of innocence, and a lovely denouement voice-over that outlines the future of every major character.

But the conclusion of The Wonder Years provides the show’s second great “what-if” moment: What if the show had been renewed for just one more season? It would have brought Kevin to high school graduation, a natural ending point. The writers had the major story points of a possible seventh season already outlined, including a whopper: The death of Jack Arnold, Kevin’s dad.

It breaks my heart we didn’t get to see this show’s handling of the passing of the Arnold patriarch. The grief of unexpected death had always been one of The Wonder Years’ strongest veins, from Brian Cooper in the pilot, to Mr. Collins in “Good-Bye”. And with Jack’s long shadow on the show, it had the potential to be an all-timer plot point. At a minimum, it could have been a proper thematic capper to the show to mirror Brian’s death and signify passing of youth and of a generation.

Alas. There have been more tragic TV cancellations, but if I had one magic “undo button” on all of TV’s premature axings, I’d think long and hard about using it to get a final season of The Wonder Years.

Somebody buy me this box set

Until about 10 years ago, The Wonder Years was near the top of any list of classic TV that was impossible to watch. The show, with its amazing soundtrack of vintage pop classics, became prohibitive to distribute to streaming services thanks to music licensing challenges. When the show finally hit digital airwaves around 2010 (about when I watched it), it had replaced some original classics with stock covers. This included a mediocre replacement for the credits track “With a Little Help From My Friends” by Joe Cocker, something that infuriated critics and fans. (As a first-time viewer, it didn’t bother me; I found the covers barely noticeable, even when I knew the original.)

Perhaps a bit overrated in the show’s legacy is Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper, the archetypal “girl next door.” McKellar, now a mathematician, children’s author, and Hallmark star, displays the approximate emotional range of potato salad for most of the series. The writing doesn’t do her many favors — it’s not until halfway through the second season that she gets even a few lines as anything other than an inscrutable love interest, despite many interesting things going on around her.

The show’s voiceover, its single most defining formal feature, could also be a burden as much as a boon: At its best, it provides resonance that elevates and frames the ongoing drama in profound ways. At its worst, it’s grating white noise, an overused crutch no better than an anonymous laugh track. Particularly in the show’s later seasons, moments that really should have breathed in quietude or comic tension are instead drowned in dumb narration. You get used to it, but it’s still a bummer.

The last of the show’s glaring warts is one that I didn’t think too much about 10 years ago, but tarnishes my more grown-up viewpoint: The Wonder Years is entirely too white and too male for a show partially about cultural revolutions. Women characters are often shallow or shrill, and rarely as likable or nuanced as their male counterparts. Characters of color are almost nonexistent.

The show’s perspective is specific, idiosyncratic, and WASP-ish, which the show does thoughtfully grapple with now and again. Mostly, though, the characters’ relative position of privilege in an era when that type of privilege was being challenged feels like a major blind spot.

All of that said, The Wonder Years, despite its time capsule trappings, is really about topics more timeless and apolitical. Coming-of-age is really leaving-of-youth, and this show is at its best when it leans into that idea, with associated subtext: the totems of childhood become specters of lost innocence, of memories both golden and tarnished.

The show’s lovely final shot

Just about every episode of The Wonder Years ends the same way it begins, with Daniel Stern giving some reflective but sentimental narration, so I’ll turn things back over to him:

“That autumn, I watched every episode. It may not have been perfect, but nothing ever is. And I learned something: Nostalgia isn’t simple. It isn’t just the memories of sunny days, but of loss, and the way that struggle defines us. When I think of Kevin and Winnie and Jack and the gang, I sometimes think of their flaws and weaknesses. The ways they aren’t what I wish they were today. But they were what I needed then. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back with wonder.”

A couple other assorted thoughts:

  • If I had to pick the show’s absolute peak, it would be the ending of “Don’t You Know Anything About Women?” which transforms a love triangle into a meditation on the existential struggle of finding a perfect life partner, scored beautifully to “Unchained Melody.” It is my favorite TV moment ever. I paid it a brief tribute on this site back in 2018.
  • Earlier this year, a reboot of The Wonder Years was announced by ABC starring a black family. The intriguing bits of news were Fred Savage’s and Neal Marlens’ involvement, in addition to a few other big TV names. Color me cautiously intrigued.
  • The show featured some fun appearances of actors who would go on to bigger fame: Giovanni Ribisi as Frank, David Schwimmer as Karen’s love interest Michael, Alicia Silverstone as a one-episode date of Kevin’s, and a handful of others
  • Danica McKellar holds one of the world’s lowest Erdos-Bacon numbers: the sum of your degrees of co-star separation from Kevin Bacon in acting plus your degrees of co-author separation from Paul Erdos in publishing mathematical papers. Her Bacon number is 2, her Erdos number is 4, and so her Erdos-Bacon number 6. The only people with smaller numbers are famous scientists making cameos in shows/movies, so I consider her the “true” title holder for independent achievement in acting and math. Her closest competitors are Mayim Bialik, Colin Firth, Natalie Portman, and Kristen Stewart, all at 7.

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