In 1988, 29 million households watched the ABC premiere of “The Wonder Years,” a critically-acclaimed family drama set in the 1960s and featuring one of the most transient periods in American history. The show gave in to viewers’ collective love of nostalgia while pushing the boundaries of the sitcom genre with its realism and vulnerable approach to adolescence.
Now, more than 30 years after the show premiered, âThe Wonder Yearsâ returns to ABC (as well as Hulu) on Wednesday night with a whole new family at the center of its agenda. Set around the same time, amid racial strife, war and an influenza pandemic that has killed 100,000 Americans, the sitcom this time focuses on a middle-class black family, the Williams, living in Montgomery. , Alabama.
Directed by “The Wonder Years” alumnus Fred Savage, who played 12-year-old Kevin Arnold in the original, the new series feels like a relic of the past, from the costumes to the musical references to the set design. Yet it has never been so opportune.
We live in such a polarized era, in which the days seem so shifted that it can be easy to forget that this country has gone through equally tumultuous times in the past. The review of “The Wonder Years” provides a clear glimpse into that past and allows viewers to connect modern movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo to an earlier era. Of course, telling our story through a sitcom makes it more digestible for those who might otherwise dismiss these important topics.
Despite the uncertainty and chaos of the ’60s, much of what made the original series magnetic was its consideration of the worries and concerns of tweens and teens. Like its predecessor, this version of “The Wonder Years” vividly captures the last years of “pure pure childhood” – as the grown-up Kevin puts it in the original series pilot. This time, they are experienced by Kevin’s counterpart, Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams), as viewed in hindsight of himself as an adult.
While the Williams are a Southern black family living during the civil rights movement, Dean is primarily interested in baseball, living up to the perceived perfection of his siblings and tomboy Keisa Clemmons (Milan Ray), who is the object of his obsession. Yet the events of the 60s directly affect Dean in a way they never touched Kevin.
In the show’s opening scene, adult Dean (narrator Don Cheadle) mentions that his parents once had “police talk” with him; in the original, racial profiling and police brutality are things Kevin never faced. And the plot is set for deeper engagement with the Vietnam War. In the previous series, Winnie’s older brother (Kevin’s love interest) dies in war. This time Dean’s older brother Bruce is the one fighting.
Plus, the world around Dean is changing rapidly, and it’s not just overseas; its neighborhood and its school have also been transformed. Although Alabama passed a law banning school desegregation in 1966, by 1968, when the show opened, integration had taken effect.
In the context of the tale, Dean’s all-black elementary school has closed, with Dean, his best friend, Cory (Amari O’Neil), and the rest of the neighborhood kids dispatched to the now co-ed Jefferson Davis Junior. High school. How ironic that the school was named in honor of the President of Confederation.
As the reboot begins, adult Dean notes that the race riots of the previous summer caused an exodus of whites, or âwhite robbery,â from Montgomery. At the start of the school year, most of the students at Dean’s School have adjusted to integration, but moments of micro-aggression and outright racism persist, of white students’ refusal to use the water fountain to the insensitive remarks of a teacher.
As per the original show, the reboot pilot for “The Wonder Years” opens right now before everything changes for Dean. As he focuses on winning a baseball game, perhaps the most horrific moment of the year occurs: the death of Martin Luther King Jr. It was news that would ricochet through the black community and the world, effectively changing everything that was to follow.
Despite all its acknowledgments of the social unrest of the time, however, âThe Wonder Yearsâ is not a heavy show. Many black families, like the Williams, lived whole, robust lives in which they did not have to consider whites and whiteness in every moment of their existence. Adult Dean notes that his all-black neighborhood was a hub of warmth and safety, filled with entrepreneurs, veterans, and a whole community of people like him.
The new “Wonder Years” has moments of absolute joy and lightness, but it also proves that history continues to scream at us from the past. Over fifty years later, if we continue to ignore the lessons of previous generations, we will find ourselves in an endless cycle of repetition. This is the very reason why a rebooted show resonates so much right now.