“1968, I was twelve years old. A lot happened that year. Dennis McLain won 31 games, The Mod Squad hit the air, and I graduated from Hillcrest Elementary and entered junior high school…but we’ll get to that. There’s no pretty way to put this: I grew up in the suburbs. I guess most people think of the suburb as a place with all the disadvantages of the city, and none of the advantages of the country, and vice versa. But, in a way, those really were the wonder years for us there in the suburbs. It was kind of a golden age for kids.”
With all of the television I’ve watched over the decades, it’s more than a little surprising to me that I missed out on The Wonder Years. I heard a lot about the show, but it never looked interesting enough for me to try it out. The long delay in the DVD release was another good reason the show continued to escape my notice. Now that the show is out on DVD and I’ve had that inevitable encounter, I can’t imagine what it was that kept me away for so long.
The show takes place in Anywhere, USA. The pilot begins in 1968 and is told from the point of few of a contemporary adult looking back on those early years of his life. Anyone who is a fan of A Christmas Story will appreciate the narrative style of The Wonder Years. While it is mysteriously never mentioned in the tens of hours of extra features, there’s no question that A Christmas Story and the works of Jean Shepherd were a huge influence on the voice and style of the series. Here narrator Daniel Stern offers the same kind of storytelling, even down to the odd observations and slip into occasional fantasy. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s seeing the people and places around him from the perspective of his younger self. It’s not an intentional unreliability. He’s Kevin Arnold, and this is the story of his own…wonder years.
Kevin Arnold (Savage) is about to enter junior high school at the newly named and dedicated RobertF.KennedyJunior High School. He’s going with his best friend, the geeky, somewhat socially inept Paul (Saviano) who is also allergic to everything. That particular trait was played down after the first season. The girl next door is Winnie Cooper (McKellar). He’s finally noticed that she’s grown up a bit, and she becomes his first love.
The family consists of father Jack Arnold (Lauria) who worked at an office and appears to be a gruff, often unapproachable man. Remember this is through the eyes of a 12 year-old, and Jack softens as Kevin grows older. Mom is Norma Arnold (Mills). It’s the 1960’s, so she is naturally a housewife who rarely questions Jack. Later she eventually begins to work outside of the home, and you see the view of women’s social roles begin to change as the show moved naturally into the 1970’s. Kevin had an older brother Wayne (Hervey) who was the typical older brother bully. While he might see it as his job to torment Kevin, he would defend him if someone else tried to hurt him. Older sister Karen (d’Abo) was a hippie complete with the flowers, beads and love-child mentality.
The series started in 1988 airing its pilot in the coveted post Super Bowl timeslot. While there were only six episodes produced that season, The Wonder Years became the first, and still only, series to win Best Comedy Emmy with so few episodes. In fact, the show cleaned up in awards. One season four out of the five nominations for best writing were Wonder Years episodes. Of course, that split the vote, and the odd show out won that year. The show went on to collect 10 Emmy Awards in its six years with an additional 16 nominations.
Quality comedy shows are rare these days. If you dump the toilet humor, innuendo, manic and plain droll shows from the lineups over the years, we would have a lot of dead air. The Wonder Years didn’t rely on any of that for its laughs. Instead the show delved into an innocent sincerity that managed to connect with its audience. This is one of those perfect storms where the quality permeated every aspect of the series. The show might have been set in a specific time period, but the moments themselves were timeless. As Kevin grows older, he goes through the same kinds of things kids still go through today. The context might be radically different, but those emotional beats have been around as long as we have. The writers didn’t feel the need to hit you over the head with punchlines until you were numb. The audience has been trusted enough to get it…and we do. A lot of that is the writing, but I can’t say enough about Fred Savage. He was a natural. At such a young age he was expected to carry the show. It’s all through his perspective, so he’s in every scene. At times he’s called upon to merely reflect an emotional beat delivered by the narration. Without saying anything, Savage manages to reach out and touch you with whatever it was he was going through at the time.
Credit must be given to all of the actors here. We hear so many stories of child actors going bad and often dying young or broke. All of these kids went on to have successful lives even though none of them really pursued acting much after the show ended. Fred Savage is a renowned director. Two of the kids went on to Harvard, and Josh Saviano is now a corporate lawyer. Danica McKellar went on to college and discovered she loved math. Now she writes textbooks on the subject. Older brother Jason Hervey is a producer these days. I have to believe that a lot of this has to do with the way this show was run. There was accountability here and a more nurturing environment than one typically finds on a Hollywood set. The result was not only well-adjusted kids but a final product on the screen that was always genuine. Maybe the humor didn’t always land just right, but the show always felt more real than most dramas ever do.
Many of the things these characters were experiencing were shared by the actors who played them. When Kevin and Winnie shared their first kiss, it was also the first for both Fred and Danica. The writers were smart enough to pay attention to the kids off-set and pulled many ideas from what they were dealing with at the time.
You can’t say enough about Daniel Stern as the narrator. I mentioned Jean Shepherd earlier, and he really does have much of the same cadence. He had the most important job on the show and never got a credit in the show for it. All of that emotional force has to come through in the narration, or it doesn’t matter how good the script or actors are. It’s the foundation of the piece. It was also the best job on the show. He could work in his PJ’s and apparently often did. He even recorded an episode from his bed covered with a sheet. It also helped that he was one of the show’s more prolific directors. It allowed him to connect with Fred Savage as well as the tone of the show. Another actor performed the narration on set to provide Savage with timing and emotional beats.
The show had its share of talented guest stars. Just about any child actor of note working at the time found their way to the show. We’re talking early showings from the likes of Seth Green, David Schwimmer, Robin Thicke and Juliette Lewis who went on just two years later to be nominated for an Oscar. The adult guest stars were pretty solid as well. Star Trek’s Robert Picardo was playing gym teacher Mr. Cutlip here and also playing in China Beach at the same time. Both shows were set in 1968 at that time. Ben Stein also played a rather alarmist and dire science teacher who loved to show clips of global devastation.
We saw all of these people through the eyes of the growing Kevin. What makes the show work so many years later is that fans can change their own perspective. Kids who related to Kevin and Winnie now relate to the parents or the teachers.
The show was created and originally written by husband and wife team Neal Marlins and Carol Black. They set the show’s tone and guided it for its first two years. It was Bob Brush who should really be credited with allowing the show to prosper. He was the hand that guided each script and set the tone for the show’s production. Interestingly, Steve Miner was the director of the moving pilot episode. Yes, the same Steve Miner who made quite a name for himself in the slasher movie industry with such franchises like Halloween and Friday The 13th.
While the place and time could be anywhere, the 60’s and later 70’s played a huge part of the background on the series. Many of the iconic moments of the day are present, but the show never hits you over the head with them. Of course, you have to deal with the Vietnam War. Winnie’s brother becomes a casualty in the pilot. The television often intruded with its images of war. But Kevin was too young to truly appreciate or understand the times he was living in, so these things must always remain just below the surface. The moon landing and near-tragic mission of Apollo 13 play their parts.
The series appeared to end at an odd time. The characters were in their junior year of high school. Many of those involved appear to agree that taking them to graduation would have been the most logical step. Ratings had begun to drop, and by the final year the show dropped out of the year’s top 30 shows. There appears to be a huge contradiction among those involved whether they knew the final episode would be the last. Bob Brush insists he knew it as it was written. The cast claim they did not know even as they were filming the final episode. That’s likely closer to the truth. The episode relies on an end narration to tell you how everyone ended up in life. It doesn’t look like it was originally written that way. It does tie up the characters’ lives, and as series finales go, it was better than most. This collection includes the single-hour version as well as the two-part version. Many fans were upset to find that Kevin and Winnie didn’t end up together, but the show would have lost the sincerity it crafted for six years if they had. Rarely do people stay with their childhood first loves. It also would have been impossible for the older Kevin to tell us this story in the way he does if Winnie were still a huge part of his life. She works better as a fond memory than she ever would have as a wife. All due respect to fan opinion, the show stayed true till the end.
Everyone has their favorite episodes, and mine tend to be the earliest ones. As Kevin’s character becomes more worldly, there is little left of the “wonder” years to go around. I ended up more with favorite moments than actual episodes. I loved Kevin’s visit to his father’s office. It was a turning point in his life, and we see Jack in a slighter different light from then on. In the first episodes he’s merely a grouchy bear who comes in from work looking for his drink and peace. From that moment forward we saw a more balanced version of him that actor Dan Lauria absolutely picked up and played perfectly. I’m not a romantic, so the first kiss really didn’t do much for me, but I know it is considered a classic moment of television and made many of the millennium “best of” lists. For me, the best moments were between Kevin and Paul. We all remember those delicate negotiations as a child, and it brought back plenty of memories as I watched them grow and the relationship evolve and change. I was also just a few years younger than Kevin, so I remember much of the same culture and times.
You might be asking yourself what took so long for this show to finally land on DVD. The answer is that once again, the powers that be here did something right. The music was a huge character of this show. Each episode is loaded with the songs of the era. They weren’t merely inserted to place us in the time. They were carefully selected to enhance the emotion of the moments. I don’t know who selected this stuff. The plethora of interviews isn’t exactly clear, but most of these selections were spot-on, saying in a few lines of song what twenty pages of script couldn’t have accomplished. But of course that created an almost insurmountable problem with putting the show out on home video. The songs weren’t licensed for home video and cost a small fortune to include. Too many shows like WKRP In Cincinnati opted to replace the music to get the show out. That experiment failed miserably, and the official release of that show lasted just one season. Time Life and Star Vista’s decision to pay for the original music to remain was both brave and essential. I think you’ll find it was worth the wait it necessitated. I can’t even imagine the show starting with anything but Joe Cocker’s soulful rendition of The Beatles’ A Little Help From My Friends.
It’s not just the music that needs to be commended here. These guys did this release with the fans in mind. They did it right and will likely find themselves greatly rewarded for the effort. Not only is every single song included, but this is the largest collection of extras I’ve ever encountered on a television series release. Each season has a collection of extras that are drawn mostly from various interviews and pieces of a reunion of the characters. These aren’t just short promotional interviews, either. Each last from 20 minutes to nearly an hour. There are over 30 of these included in this set. You get features on the music, school days, the family, the generation, the relationships and tons of focus features on the characters. There is over three hours of the reunion footage found throughout the collection. Each season has a collection of extras that average 2-3 hours. Then there are four bonus discs each loaded with about five hours of extra features. Trust me when I tell you that every aspect of this show gets a plenty of coverage. The final figure came in at nearly 40 hours of bonus material.
You also get a metal locker that looks like the school lockers on the show. There are some magnet decorations you can use or not. Inside the locker you’ll find two folders that contain the discs. This is the only flaw I can find and my only complaint with the release. All of the discs are in cardboard sleeves. That means you have to handle the playing surface, and you need two hands to get them back in the tight space. There’s also too high a chance to scratch them, and I recommend you substitute better sleeves or cases for your discs if you want them to last. You also get two notebook-styled booklets that give you plenty of information on the show and each episode. Then there’s a yearbook that contains some whimsical stuff from the cast and crew. You get plenty of photos and drawings in these booklets. A lot of thought and money went into putting this set together. These guys knew this was going to be quite an event for fans, and you just will not be disappointed. How could you?
With the arrival of this set to review, I was immersed in this world for weeks. It was a rather pleasant journey that brought me back to my own childhood, in many ways. It’s nice to know that it will sit on the shelf from this point forward, giving me future opportunities to explore those nostalgic moments in my own life. I suspect that will be the lasting value of this collection. Thank God that these guys gave us something worthy of that place in our home video collections. “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house like a lot of other houses, a yard like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back, with wonder.”