Revisiting The Wonder Years
It’s hard for me to express exactly why or how much I have always loved The Wonder Years.
I was a junior in high school when I met Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper and their families and classmates in March of 1988, and I fell hard for the show from the very start. Maybe it was because at 17 and in the second half of my junior year of high school, I felt very much on that verge of change where childhood seemed both distant and still within reach. Maybe it was because I loved The Princess Bride, and here was a new show with that funny kid (Fred Savage) in it. Maybe it was the Christmas Story-esque character presence of the adult narrator, which gave the show its signature serving of self-aware humor and nostalgia.
Looking at it now, it’s almost kind of strange the way this show seemed to connect with so many people my age. On its surface, The Wonder Years is dead-aimed at the younger Baby Boomer audience: Kevin does his growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the music and cultural upheaval of the era are so much a part of the show that they practically play supporting character roles.
And yet I feel – and I always have – like The Wonder Years belongs definitively to my generation, bridging as it did those last few teenage years and our steps into the early 20s and adulthood. Somehow, this show, with its Joe Cocker cover of The Beatles’ “A Little Help from My Friends,” and its older-sister hippie and its backdrop of the Vietnam War and generations in conflict and NASA’s Apollo missions – managed to feel as real and relevant to me in the late 1980s as any TV program or movie set in then-current surroundings.
The Wonder Years just never felt like an era-dependent show to me – it felt much more tied to the emotions and pitfalls and joys and concrete-serious ridiculousness of growing up through junior high and high school. And there is some evidence that I’m not completely off-base in this perception: My high-school-aged daughter is enjoying the series now, and she says the whole middle-school-note-passing, hallway drama, “Please ask Girl A to find out if Girl B likes Boy C” and “Does she like you, or does she like you like you” scenarios remain very much a part of that social landscape.
The Wonder Years was the first TV show that I remember watching from the pilot to series finale. Through my senior year of high school, three-and-a-half years in college, and into that dark post-graduate period, that weekly half-hour was an escape and a ritual and a comfort. With the right friends, it was a collectively-shared joy – our freshman year at Bowling Green, it seemed like Adam and I were constantly scrambling to write down bits of dialogue or narration that hit home. And when life sucked, The Wonder Years gave me 30 minutes where it was easy to forget.
The Wonder Years last episode aired May 12, 1993 – the day my dad died. Aaron came over, and he and my brothers and I watched the series finale together. I still have the VHS tape of that broadcast.
It was in the mid 1990s, when Jenn and I lived in Orlando, that I first started trying to collect the entire series on tape. The local WB television affiliate aired The Wonder Years in syndication weekdays around lunchtime, and I began filling VHS cassettes and labeling them as I’d mentally bookmarked them over the years: “The Tomato Lady”, “Lisa Berlini”, “Winnie Sleeps Over.” The station stopped airing its reruns after I’d filled about three tapes.
After we’d moved here to Ohio, it showed up again in the mid 2000s, and I would set the DVR to record the show, then spend several hours each weekend dubbing the digital recordings onto still more tapes until I had 113 of the 115 episodes, charted on guides I’d printed from the internet, and given their proper titles.
Within the last couple years, I had begun transferring these onto DVDs, but it was a slow trial-and-error process, and I had managed to put less than a dozen episodes onto disc.
We have just one barely-functioning VCR remaining in our house now – you’re rolling the dice against the Tape-Eating Gnomes every time you insert a cassette – and I’ve been watching The Wonder Years from time to time on the Hub network, which recently added the show to its lineup.
But now that the entire series is available for streaming, as Vizzini told Inigo Montoya, it’s “Back to the beginning!” for me.
It will take some time to work through all one hundred fourteen episodes (there’s a clip show from the end of Season Four which isn’t included in the complete run, for some reason), but I’m looking forward to rewatching them with my daughter, and writing about them.
I’ll visit Season One in its entirety – it’s only six episodes long, and we’re already watching Season Two – in my next blog entry.
Update: Season One blog entry is here!