(In which we meet the Arnolds and discover the dangers of high flying, Jr. High Cafeteria Food)
The Wonder Years plunges us headlong into the rapidly unraveling diaspora of the Suburbs in late 1960s America. Told from the point of view of Kevin Arnold (an adolescent Fred Savage) with help from his adult, modern-day self in voice over (Daniel Stern) it is a coming-of-age story about one boy, his family, and the country as a whole in a time of tumult.
We start in the summer of 1968, the last summer of Kevin’s childhood. This is mainly used as an introduction to Kevin (your average 12 year old), his antagonizing older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), and his two best friends asthmatic Paul Pfeiffer and girl-next-door Winnie Cooper (Josh Saviano and Danica McKellar). There is also a brief mention of Winnie’s older brother, Brian, who is the epitome of cool in the neighborhood. Working on his El Camino and smoking cigarettes, he is an authority figure that all look up to, and commands enough respect to get Wayne, to stop beating up on Kevin during one of the many neighborhood football games.
Later at dinner, Kevin’s hippie-ish teenage sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo), mentions at the most inopportune time that she’s going on birth control-which is going to give their father Jack Dan Lauria) a coronary judging by the look in his eyes. I imagine she’ll be the vehicle in which a large part of the rapidly-changing world of the late 1960s will be introduced to the world of Kevin Arnold. The family dynamic is a good setup for comedy and drama: the buffoonish but bullying older brother, the sister and parent’s worlds colliding, and Kevin, the participant observer providing commentary for our benefit. It’s solid stuff, and it makes sense why this holds up over time.
Introductions out of the way, we fast forward to Kevin’s first day of Middle School and all the trials and tribulations one encounters there, including dope smoking greasers, doe-eyed love birds and strict disciplinarian administrators. Also the ever-present mystery of adolescent girls coupled with the troubling fact that Winnie now falls into that category. There is a lot of unspoken tension between her and Kevin as he begins to discover he can have feelings for someone he always just considered a friend.
Things go off the rails quickly for Kevin. Wayne teases him to distraction which causes Kevin not only to offend Winnie but also to run afoul of the school’s assistant principal. This ends in a parent-teacher conference, which will no doubt lead to an unspeakable and horrific punishment by his father later.
Sidebar: I love that the father is an authority figure to be feared here. Watching so many tv shows where the father is often a comic buffoon (think Home Improvement) it’s refreshing to see a strong and downright frightening father character. Harkens back to my own childhood. Often my dad could adjust our behavior with a look and if he told you to do something, he never had to tell you twice. He was loved but feared.
But tragedy strikes just before the hammer falls with the news that Brian Cooper (Winnie’s older brother) was killed in Vietnam. Shocked at the tragic turn of events, Kevin takes a walk in a secluded part of forested suburbia and finds Winnie there, quiet and vulnerable. He comforts her as best he knows and then in a moment of bittersweet tenderness they share their first kiss. The episode ends with a pleasant monologue about both the stereotypes and the human details of those years and how much it meant for those who lived it.
“Because we know that inside each one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love.”
This is essentially the main thrust of the TV show, telling a family’s story through a pivotal period of history with modern day hindsight providing narration. I just like the way it was written out. A bit self-serving, but you see what they are getting at and it still works.
As far as independent pilot stories go, this one is pretty nicely built. Not only is it a good standalone short story, it sets up a lot of potential for further adventures in this world. And with Savage’s affable performance (and Stern’s humorous hindsight commentary) I could see there being a rich and enjoyable show in this. On a deeper level there is a sense of parallels between Kevin’s own end of innocence and that of the nations as a whole. Had the title not already been taken I could easily see this show being called “Growing Pains.”
My Notes From a Drunken Haze While Viewing (including misspellings!):
- Is Fred Savage yelling the word “Hot Dogs” at the 8mm BBQ?
- Nixon & hippies & other such 60s things.
- Lots of classic 60’s rock….no wonder it took so long to see this again. Silly rights issues! I’m blaming Lars Whats-His-Face for this show being in Legal limbo for so long.
- Daniel Stern has one of those voices that makes you want to wax nostalgic and giggle at the same time. He’s like a slightly more rugged Rick Moranis
- Ah Whinnie Copoper….still cute as hell even in her 12 year old glasses phase. (This sounds kind of awful coming from a grown man, but keep in mind I’ve had a crush on Winnie Cooper since I was 11 years old.)
- Laughed w/in two minutes. Good sign.
- Classic hero character (This being Brian, Winnie’s older brother. He doesn’t like bullies so he saves Kevin’s day by threatening Wayne. I also like how we don’t see him up close, he’s kind of mythic in the distance.)
- The mother (Norma) really is a great archtype, and I being one of those kids raised primarily by my mom, it makes sense to me. Also, she has the feeling of being stuck in a bygone era while the world around her is rapidly changing.
- Witty & sharp the dialogue is even after all these years.
- Dad gets a drink at the end of the day – I could get used to this lifestyle!
- Voice over is hilarious re: Vodka tonic. (This being the bit where the kids are as still and quiet as possible when father comes home because he needs his medicine after a no doubt grueling day at a no doubt thankless job.)
- Is both sides now a 60s song? (Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell (it is). I remember hearing it for the first time as a re-release in the early Aughts and thought for some reason it was from that decade.)
- Best way to prepare for jr. high girls: looking at them naked. (This was a VO punch line referring to the boys looking “Our Bodies, Our Selves”)
- 2 boys looking at porn together….oddly there is something wholesome about this…
- Visual gag re: the clothes. (Kevin dressing himself on the 1st day of Jr. High. Colorful, but the gag is just that, a gag. It does give us an excuse to hear older brother Wayne’s obnoxious laugh.)
- She will always be Winnie. “Vestments of the devil.” Hilarious. (Referring to Winnie’s clothing choice for the 1st day of school where she looks a lot more womanly than when summer started. The writing in this is quite good and enjoyable to the ear.)
- Venice High!
- Robert Picardo!!! I forgot he was the gym teacher in this. This makes things so much better. He looks so pissed off. Body Educator! (I’ve often thought Picardo was one of the strongest actors on the Voyager crew and while his character here is slightly more one-note, he’s still awesome at his craft.)
- Hottie pants Whinnie (Gwendolyn, now shes all grown up)
- Kevin……he’s got a way w/ women. “I don’t even like her!”
- “Conversation was getting stale.” (Another great VO line while talking to the prickish principal about taking food out of the cafeteria. This ends with a frustrated Kevin throwing his apple in a high arc back into the room and a girl screaming as it narrowly misses her. The principal is not amused.)
- “Id like to take him home now.” Oh god that is one scary delivery!
- Is that Burbank? (I work in locations and let me tell you, it’s ruined me on Hollywood. I’m always scoping out the background for geographical features I may recognize.)
- Music is somewhat cheesy but still understated. Its palatable.
- I remember really liking the lighting in the kiss scene. I still do. Warm and soft.
- And cue the “When a man loves a woman”
- I think I may have taken a lot more romantic cues from this show than I realized.
- Blow hard tv generation, some poetry at the end w/ a nice long pull.
- Sorrow and wonder. Quoting: “There where moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder.”