I’m actually kind of surprised The Wonder Years didn’t do a bad grades episode before now. It seems like one of the default plots for a coming of age show.
I really liked the way The Wonder Years tackled it. They essentially took the plot from Loosiers and reversed the roles of Kevin and Paul. The episode is less about Kevin’s actual academic issues, and more about the way he handles it. He denies it, squirms, pleads, balks at help because of his pride — before ultimately admitting to his parents that he’s not the natural math student he once was.
The episode works so strongly because of the quality of the actors involved and the serious way it presents the story. Fred Savage and Dan Lauria are so good, particularly standing out in that final scene when Kevin fesses up that he’s struggling. They make a relatively plain bit of script into a very effective scene.
Steven Gilborn does an excellent job as Mr. Collins. As a math major, I can tell you that he nailed the math professor vibe perfectly. I think it’s a bit detached from what you’d normally see in a high school math teacher, but it’s certainly not implausible. That straight-to-business, passionless attitude is common even among good math teachers. The feel of the math class was so good, I felt like I was back in one of my number theory classes.
(Brief math nerd detour) I also tried to keep up with the math. Someone on the writing staff certainly knows their set theory, but the presentation of material was wildly inconsistent: One week absolute value, the next solving quadratic equations? Even if this is some sort of advanced algebra class, there’s no way that the class would progress at that pace. Also, maybe math education has changed in the past forty years, but nowadays, it’s not until upperclassmen-level college courses that instructors require you to present numerical solutions as sets rather than just a number or list of numbers. Definitely can’t blame Kevin for going from seventh grade math to set theory and being confused. (/Math)
It’s far from the most riveting or funny episodes of the show (though there were some clever touches, like the Psycho shower screech when Kevin gets back his grades). But it tells a nice little story in a compelling, understated way. You won’t convince someone to be a fan of the show with this episode, but it shows us some different sides of characters we already love.
- I still can’t get over how much Paul grew and how deep his voice became so quickly. He honestly comes across as a little bit awkward right now.
- Winnie didn’t appear in this episode, thus ending a streak of excellent episodes that expand her character.