The Wonder Years, famous for being the show that made a generation of kids nostalgic for a decade they’d never even set foot in, finally arrived on DVD this month following the resolution of a years-long music rights tangle. Neal Marlens and Carol Black’s comedy drama ran for six seasons between 1988 and 1993 on ABC, following Fred Savage’s Kevin Arnold through his late-sixties and early-seventies suburban adolescence.
Thematically, stylistically, and tonally, The Wonder Years blazed a trail for television comedy and teen-focused drama that was subsequently traipsed down by numerous shows, from the superlative Freaks And Geeks and My So-Called Life to How I Met Your Mother, Malcolm In The Middle and countless others. Its innovative film-style use of a single-camera, lack of laughter track, fourth-wall breaking, ‘home video’ flashbacks, experimental fantasy interludes, and, unforgettably, its parody-magnet first-person narrator, have since become mainstays in modern TV comedy.
In casting terms too, several big names today had a leg-up thanks to appearances in the show. The Wonder Years didn’t just launch the successful TV directing career of Fred Savage, but was an early showcase for the likes of David Schwimmer, Juliette Lewis, Giovanni Ribisi, Seth Green, and more.
Join us then, as we trace the TV shows that owe a debt, spiritual or otherwise, to The Wonder Years…
Freaks And Geeks
In superficial terms, the name of its high school (William McKinley High, as also seen in Glee). In substantial terms, its period setting, suburban locale, and joint focus on life in the school corridors and around the dinner table of a lower-middle class family. (Additionally, though Sam Weir’s risible Parisian Night Suit in Looks And Books was inspired by its creator’s own foray into the world of High School fashion, check out Kevin Arnold’s first choice of wardrobe for his Junior High debut and tell me that’s not the same joke…)
Tonally, at first there may not seem to be a great deal in common between Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s mordantly funny single-season high school comedy and the notoriously nostalgic The Wonder Years. Freaks And Geeks was famously unsentimental (something that, with the network reported to have asked its creators more than once “Is there any way it could be a little less depressing?”, very likely contributed to its premature cancellation). If The Wonder Years looked fondly back on the golden-rimmed teen days, then Freaks And Geeks took a warts and all approach to the disappointments, humiliations and betrayals of adolescence.
That said, The Wonder Years didn’t duck the difficult stuff. Both shows even feature a family death in their opening episodes – Lindsay’s grandmother in Freaks And Geeks, and Brian Cooper, Winnie’s older brother in The Wonder Years – events that are catalysts for what follows. Model student Lindsay’s retreat into nihilism following her grandmother’s dying words that there’s no afterlife precipitates her teenage rebellion. Brian Cooper being killed in Vietnam not only kick starts The Wonder Years’ weaving-together of national and personal history but also the on/off relationship between Kevin and neighbour Winnie.
And The Wonder Years had its cynical, comic moments too. In the first series, after learning that his parents first met when his dad returned a tie to the shop where his mother worked, Kevin aimed for a touching instance of father/son complicity by telling his dad he needed to use the phone “to return a tie”. “Since when do you wear ties?” answered his clueless dad, ruining that, and countless other would-be special moments. Homer Simpson eat your heart out.
See also: Modern Family (which Fred Savage has directed – particularly for The Wonder Years-esque episode in which the Dunphys sell the family car.)
Speaking of which… True or not, the internet hasn’t ignored the striking similarity between Kevin’s best friend on The Wonder Years, Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano, who sadly didn’t grow up to be Marilyn Manson, however long that rumour endures), and Bart’s counterpart on The Simpsons, the hapless Milhouse.
Leaving aside the overwhelming physical resemblance (side-parting, thick glasses, prominent nose – Milhouse basically looks like a caricature of Saviano’s Wonder Years character), Paul and Milhouse are also peas in a pod when it comes to their allergies (add Freaks And Geeks’ Bill, played by Martin Starr, to that list). That’s where the resemblances stop, however, as Paul’s character is shown to be academically smart, going on to Harvard and then a successful career in law (just like Josh Saviano himself), whereas Milhouse – unless he’s a very late developer – er, isn’t.
Like The Simpsons, which has gained years of comic mileage from not revealing the US state in which Springfield is located, The Wonder Years was similiarly evasive about ever putting a name to its location in order to maintain its suburban ‘everyplace’ feel. All this though, is more a kind of sitcom multiple discovery than direct influence. Though The Wonder Years debuted on TV a year before The Simpsons officially began, the latter show’s (Milhouse-less) animated shorts were already airing as part of The Tracy Ullman Show when the former began, so the two are properly contemporaries.
Incidentally, both shows also share at least one writer/producer in David M. Stern, brother to The Wonder Years narrator, Daniel, which probably helped when The Simpsons pulled off the best Wonder Years parody in 1991 episode Three Men And A Comic Shop, featuring the guest voice of Stern himself.
See also: South Park (for Stan’s “You know, I learned something today” take on The Wonder Years’ teachable moments.)
Malcolm In The Middle
There’s plenty connecting these two family shows in terms of content, but it’s the stylistic devices that seem to really make them of a pair. Malcolm In The Middle’s equivalent of The Wonder Years’ narrator is lead Malcolm’s straight-to-camera fourth-wall breaks (something the earlier show also does, though rarely – as early as season one in Angel, with a look from Kevin directly to camera).
Dream and fantasy sequences too, though used less frequently as The Wonder Years went on, occur repeatedly in both shows. Kevin memorably imagines beating up his sister’s cheating hippy boyfriend (a young John Corbett) in one early fantasy interlude, and later pictures a public humiliation at the hands of the girl he wants to ask to a dance in The Phone Call.
See also: Moone Boy (also set nostalgically in the past, and a fan of the in-story narrator and outlandish fantasy sequences) Boy Meets World, Blossom.
How I Met Your Mother
Once again, the narration of an older version of the protagonist is the key common element between the two, especially considering those final words of The Wonder Years when Kevin’s son interrupts his reminiscence to ask “Hey dad, wanna play catch?”, to which he replies, “I’ll be right there”.
But it’s not only Ted Mosby’s framing narration that mirrors the voiceover in The Wonder Years, but also its use of pop culture parody. The recently concluded sitcom delved repeatedly into popular culture, as did The Wonder Years in its Star Trek: TOS spoof in episode Just Between Me And You And Kirk And Paul And Carla And Becky, when Kevin imagines Winnie and friends as aliens while he and Paul number amongst the Enterprise crew.
See also: The Inbetweeners (a crude kind of anti-The Wonder Years), The Goldbergs, That ‘70s Show.
My So-Called Life
The Wonder Years was one of the earliest TV shows to really acknowledge the inner emotional lives of children and teenagers. Kevin Arnold wasn’t a wise-cracking punch-line delivering sidekick to the main story, he was the main story. Likewise, Winnie Holzman’s mid-nineties drama, My So-Called Life, was innovative for according weight to teenagers’ (sometimes very real, in the case of physically abused kids Rickie and Jordan and neglected addict, Rayanne) problems.
Its use of a narrator, though, is the real legacy The Wonder Years left to My So-Called Life. Although Claire Danes’ character narrates events as they happen rather than Stand By Me-style as an adult looking backwards, both narrations share a common sense of irony.
The Wonder Years was built on a combination of fond sentimentality and sharp irony. Its comedy arose from the gap between the knowing hyperbole of its adult narrator and the comic banality of Kevin’s experiences (Seeing childhood friend and perennial love interest Winnie Cooper wearing Go-Go boots and fishnet tights for the first time, adult Kevin remarks that “even the familiar was cloaked in the vestments of the devil”; his first bus ride to Junior High felt like “approaching the portals of manhood”). Winnie Holzman does this in My So-Called Life, but a shade lighter. Take Angela’s account of starting to hang out with Rayanne because if she didn’t, she “would like, die, or something”. We’re in Angela’s shoes, no doubt, but her earnest sincerity raises a fond smile amongst adult viewers.
(To boot, The Wonder Years also gave AJ Langer and Devon Odessa, My So-Called Life’s Rayanne and Sharon respectively, early roles in 1993 episode Eclipse.)
See also: Dawson’s Creek (but mostly for the on/off childhood sweetheart thing)
The Wonder Years season one and the complete series are now available on DVD in the US.
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