The Wonder Years S03E19 – The Unnatural

After the set-up of the episode — Paul struggles athletically; Kevin is marginally better; Paul has some jealousy — I was worried that The Unnatural would turn into a thematic clone of Loosiers: that competitiveness can divide friendships, that Paul’s ego is easily bruised when it comes to his athletic struggles, that Kevin is a natural rally point for some of the school’s losers. Then, it turned into something a lot more interesting: an exploration of inheriting success versus earning it yourself.

Kevin comes to tryouts to support Paul’s doomed attempt to try out and make the baseball team. His words catch the ear of Coach Ted, who gives Kevin a shot. With nothing to lose, Kevin steps up to the plate and hits the ball deep into centerfield, earning him an invitation back to tryouts while Paul gets cut. Kevin wants to turn the opportunity down, but Jack shows an unprecedented level of interest in this extracurricular, so Kevin decides to give tryouts a stab.

But then something strange starts to happen: Coach Ted pays more attention to Jack — who happened to save his life in Korea — than Kevin. Kevin plays his heart out, yet constantly struggles in try-outs. For some reason — that he begins to suspect has something to do with the coach’s allegiance to Jack rather than Kevin’s own achievement — Kevin continually avoids being cut even as he struggles out on the field.

Eventually, Coach Ted implies that he sees heart, effort, and spark in Kevin. But the way he says it and the way Jack presumes Kevin will make the team actually have the opposite of their expected effect — they convince Kevin even further that he’s being gifted a spot on the team rather than earning it himself. He accepts he’s getting a spot whether or not he deserves it, and his last tryout effort suffers because of it.

Then, he spots the coach’s list and sees he’s actually been cut, and Kevin makes a revelation. He looks around him — at the supportive friends and crowd — and remembers that he really hadn’t made it there himself; the support around him helps him succeed more than he ever could on his own. At the same time, he’s not being gifted anything; he has to earn it, and the realization that he hasn’t earned it has the ironic effect of motivating him more making the team would have.

It’s a small story, but it’s told well. The episode, particularly the last scene, captures the American mysticism of baseball and uses its simple metaphor of a pitcher vs. batter as a struggle to succeed and maintain a dream in the face of adversity. In fact, the episode almost goes too far with it; that last scene of Kevin hitting a home run is built up so much, I was briefly convinced the show was going to pull out the rug and lead us to one of its anti-climaxes, like the time Kevin tried to punch the bully.

But the episode works overall and it has a nice, unusually sweet ending to reinforce its themes of kids rising above what they’re given and earning their own way in the world.

Other thoughts:

  • I was really glad to see Paul cheering for Kevin at the tryout. His struggles at the tryouts was the inciting event of the episode, but he managed to get over the grudge quickly enough.
  • I’m always pleased to see Winnie further developed as Kevin’s girlfriend. Here, she not only appears for his majestic (perhaps fabricated) home run, but struggles to see through what’s really bothering him about tryouts. I will say, though, that it seemed slightly out of character for her to be giving generic baseball platitudes; she’s more the sensitive, emotionally perceptive type.
  • This is two episodes in a row that give us a peek at Jack at his warmest. In Faith, he recreated tax receipts with his wife; here, he cheers his son on at baseball tryouts.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

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