‘The Wonder Years’ Reboot Looks at the ‘60s From a Black American Perspective
ABC’s new take on “The Wonder Years” walks an entertaining line between family entertainment and repeat nostalgia. It is certainly admirable for the network to bring back a classic series with a Black American focus, and for the most part its season premiere is a pleasant time. A question to pose for the showrunners is why they settled for ‘60s kitsch instead of truly reimagining the show for a fresh generation. The original “The Wonder Years” aired from 1988 until 1992, starring Fred Savage in his iconic role reminiscing about growing up in late ‘60s, early ‘70s American suburbia. At the time it made sense considering viewers who were kids in its set era were in their early to mid-thirties when the show aired. The memories were fresh. While the ‘60s remain a vital, important decade, they are now at quite the distance for a Millennial or Zoomer audience. As TV it’s still a sweet, engaging escape.
Fittingly enough, Savage expertly directs the pilot. Our narrator is now Don Cheadle, whose voiceover looks back at his days growing up as a young Dean Williams (Elisha “EJ” Williams) in 1968 Montgomery, Alabama. In a direct connection to our own time, Dean remembers how it was a summer when rumors spread of a deadly pandemic that would kill many. Indeed, there was a deadly flu pandemic that year. Williams’s home is a comfortable, middle class family composed of mom Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh), music professor dad Bill (Dulé Hill), and teenage sister Kim (Laura Kariuki), and older brother Bruce, who is offscreen fighting in Vietnam. Despite the end of segregation, there are still silent divisions in the city between Blacks and whites. Kim is wearing Black Power buttons and poses as a Black Panther in photos. Despite the social changes taking place, Dean is facing all the usual hassles of being a 12-years-old. At school the teachers try to impose order (while being openly racist), while an older bully will gleefully punch Dean in the hallway, mocking him for acting “white.” His best friends are the smooth-talking Cory (Amari O’Neil) and Brad (Julian Lerner), a white Jewish kid who could befriend anyone.
Television has changed so much since the first “The Wonder Years” aired, that by sticking to the original format, this new version shows how much genuinely warmhearted programming has been lost. Every beat and joke is right on the nose, while every lesson is preached instead of evoked. As far as remakes go, you can’t fault it too much, since those tuning in will be getting what you could never mistake for anything other than “The Wonder Years.” How much you enjoy it depends on how much you like material that makes “This Is Us” look like HBO. This is not a series for those who want the grit and edge of modern TV. Creator Saladin K. Patterson has experience in the light and rowdier, having produced “Dave,” “Frasier” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Bill and Lillian talk like old Saturday morning specials, giving breakfast speeches on why their kids need to go to college. Fred Hampton would have never imagined that in 2021a cute punchline would be Dean finding a picture of Kim hidden in her book, posing in Black Panther gear with a shotgun. Some of the less cute humor does have more punch, like a bully making fun of Dean’s glasses and the nonchalantly racist white teacher telling the class that’s behavior typical of the Black kids.
There’s nothing too dreary about “The Wonder Years” and even racial tensions in ‘60s Montgomery are treated with comforting comic relief. Sometimes the show tries too hard to wear its woke ethos on its sleeve. Every time a white character does something clumsy, that may seem discriminatory, Brad reassures Dean with, “they’re not prejudiced.” It becomes a rather needless mantra. When Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, a random white couple walks up to the Williamses after a baseball game, with aghast faces saying, “We’re so sorry, we just heard.” More engaging is how it’s all from Dean’s point of view. At the age of 12 much of the world can still seem so naïvely innocent. When MLK is murdered, Dean recounts how he couldn’t quite understand how rage could then drive communities to riot. That night, while riding his bike, he sees his great crush, Keisa (Milan Ray), kissing another boy on some swings. At that moment, he understood how an enveloping anger feels. Never does that moment trivialize what was occurring historically, because for a kid, those are the memories that felt like the end of the world. Not a single casting choice is off and EJ Williams is sure to grab much and deserved attention. He’s empathetic and restless enough. Dulé Hill is also a standout as the no-nonsense father who takes on a real presence in Dean’s memories.
Maybe expanding real representation on TV does mean reviving a show like “The Wonder Years” in its original concept. By keeping it in the ‘60s it is a way for pop culture to reform itself and give Black America the kind of platform denied for so long. If things are truly changing, then it means Black American stories have the right to be told in the kind of irresistibly corny nostalgia of a show like this one. The jokes are pleasant banter, like Dean reflecting on how when parents say, “Stay out of grown folks’ business,” it means the topic must be about sex or money. Bill’s recording studio also has a particular scent, meaning as a musician he was lighting up with the rest of counterculture America. Someday other generations will need to have their moment in the sitcom sun. It is true there are already plenty of movies about life in the ‘90s. “The Wonder Years” is a trip down memory lane, but it casts a fresh and welcome eye.
“The Wonder Years” season one premieres Sept. 22 and airs Wednesdays at 8:30 pm ET on ABC.