The Wonder Years: Season One, through Older Eyes
Note: I’m planning to write about seasons and story arcs of The Wonder Years as I revisit the series in its entirety via Netflix streaming. Earlier, I wrote about my personal history and memories of The Wonder Years during its original broadcast run. This blog entry takes at look at the six episodes which comprise Season One. Expect spoilers ahead – if one can be said to “spoil” a show that aired its last original episode more than 17 years ago. I’m also assuming readers are familiar with the main characters of Kevin Arnold, Winnie Cooper, and Paul Pfeiffer, and Kevin’s family, Jack and Norma (mom and dad), Wayne and Karen.
After waiting for so long to see The Wonder Years available for home viewing, I was thrilled to finally queue up the pilot episode on Netflix.
I was also a little wary of how much the original music used in the show would be changed. After all, securing the rights to use the catalog of songs from the TV broadcasts has long been understood as a major reason for The Wonder Years not being available on the home video market. So when the theme song began, and it wasn’t the show’s original Joe Cocker version of “A Little Help from My Friends,” I got a little spooked. (It’s a version clearly recorded to emulate the Cocker version though. According to Wikipedia, this version of the song was played when The Wonder Years originally aired in the U.K.)
Past that, though, the pilot strikes all the same chords it did when it first aired, the voice-overs of Narrator Kevin introducing us to his neightborhood and his family and his friends just prior to the beginning of his seventh grade year at Robert F. Kennedy Junior High. While there’s definitely a not-quite-settled-in feeling to some of the characters and writing, I still don’t think any other show has hit so squarely the tone and feel of a time and place seen through a 12-year-old’s eyes.
Kevin’s father, Jack Arnold, in particular seems a much darker character in these early episodes, brooding with his after-work drinks and prone to loud and angry outbursts that go beyond the usual TV realm of gruff-but-well-meaning dad role. (In a moment that still makes me a little uncomfortable, Narrator Kevin says his father had never struck him, “but he’d given Wayne a beating. Twice.” The revelation is key, given what happens a few moments later, but the show never really goes down that road again.
The pilot story centers on the start of the school year, typical family conflicts (rebellious older sister; butthead older brother), and adolescent friendships and relationships. Where The Wonder Years really defines itself, though, is in the pilot’s final third. To this point, it’s been heartfelt and genuine and funny and just sad enough in a very identifiable way.
And then Brian Cooper dies.
Winnie’s older brother only appears in three episodes of the entire show, and two of those are the pilot and its immediate follow-up. It’s taken me years to realize just how much the impact of that character’s death in Vietnam shapes several significant events over the course of the series.
Having screwed up royally and gotten in major trouble at school, Kevin rides home with his parents anticipating a severe punishment at the hands of his father. The three of them are met on the front porch by Kevin’s older brother and sister, who break the news about Brian’s death. It’s one of the series’ defining moments, bringing a real weight to the show, and setting up the iconic final moments, when Kevin and Winnie share their first kiss as he comforts her in the woods where they used to play. (MAJOR sigh of relief upon watching this one: Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” still accompanies this scene. In my mind, this song is as inextricably tied to the scene as Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is to John Cusack holding up a boom box. Maybe even more so.)
Episode two, “Swingers,” picks up immediately following the events of the pilot, opening at Brian Cooper’s funeral. (1980s pop culture afficionados, take note: The priest at the ceremony is David Lightman’s father – “This corn is raw!” – from WarGames.) Again, I’m incredibly relieved to hear Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” – you know, the “There’s something happening here…” song – playing on the soundtrack.
“Swingers” does a fantastic job of balancing the Cooper family’s with Kevin’s confusion in the wake of his kiss with Winnie, interwoven with the onset of junior-high sex education. Classic moment: Kevin’s gym teacher/sex ed instructor draws a diagram of the female reproductive system.
“Suddenly it became very clear why Mr. Cutlip had never been married,” Narrator Kevin recalls. “Any man who saw women that way would have no reason to.”
(This scene cracked my daughter up.)
And “Swingers” just moves from one great scene to another: There’s Kevin and Paul’s quest to buy a copy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” Wayne’s know-it-all doofus advice, and the post-first-kiss unease that casts Kevin and Winnie’s friendship in a new light.
Episodes three and four – “My Father’s Office” and “Angel,” respectively – establish the series’ approach to stand-alone stories that focus more on the Arnold family than the ongoing junior-high struggles. They also begin to round out a few of these relationships and characters, again setting things up for echoes and recurring themes down the road.
“My Father’s Office” looks at Kevin’s relationship with his dad, whom he accompanies to work for a day. Jack Arnold gets some depth to work with, and there’s a funny fantasy sequence in which Kevin imagines himself as an office boss, with his siblings as his subordinates.
“Angel” – which marks the first major role for actor John Corbett, who later starred on Northern Exposure – is built around on the Vietnam War and the household conflict beween hippie Karen, her new boyfriend Louis (Corbett) and the Arnold parents, particularly Jack. It does a nice job of positioning Louis as both a pompous ass and a guy who’s genuinely scared and upset by what’s going on around him. (Of course, he is totally a dick because he’s a little too Free with the Love for Karen.)
The penultimate episode of season one, “The Phone Call,” introduces Kevin’s first post-Winnie-kiss crush: Lisa Berlini. Junior high society is in full play, with a lunchroom pass-it-on scene and Kevin wrestling with the dilemma of actually calling a girl on the phone. And while it’s a fine episode, it’s really best viewed as a lead-in to the season finale, “Dance With Me,” which has always been one of my all-time favorites. (Other than the series-closer, it’s the only Wonder Years episode I videotaped long before I started trying to collect the whole run.) So let’s get to that one.
If you were to ask me to pick one episode that best captures everything I love about The Wonder Years, it would be “Dance With Me.” Not to say it’s my favorite ever, or that it’s the best written or most powerful, but for sheer representation of the things that really make the show what it is, “Dance With Me” is tough to beat. Watching it for the first time in a long while, it really struck me how much the writers packed into this 23 minutes of television.
Opening up the morning after “The Phone Call” – adult Kevin informs us that he and Lisa had spent “close to four complete minutes” talking with each other, and his feelings have clearly deepened over this amazing experience.
So, in the wake of a homeroom announcement regarding an upcoming school dance, we get: awkward hallway conversation with Paul and Winnie in which Paul breaks out in itches and sneezes at the mention of a girl who likes him; Paul cluelessly mentioning Kevin’s crush on Lisa, which catches Winnie by surprise; lunchroom flirtation over burgers and fruit cocktail. This is Wonder Years Middle School at its borderline-cliché but fantastic best.
After passing Lisa a note asking her to the dance, Kevin gets that response every seventh-grade boy lives for: the “Okay” with a smiley face in the O. Five minutes later, of course, Lisa gets asked by some prick named Brad – Mark Paul Gosselaar! – face-to-face in the hallway. And she says yes. (Narrator Kevin’s priceless comment: “I had it in writing. Perhaps there was some sort of legal action I could take.”)
At home, Kevin mopes over an I Dream of Jeannie episode – fooooooreshadooooooow! – and then decides to go to the dance after all.
It’s during an Arnold-family music-and-dance montage that I noticed the first musical substitutions made for the newly-streaming episodes of the show. Where Jack and Norma used to dance to “The Girl from Ipanema” and Wayne goofed around to “Louie, Louie,” we hear different songs now. And though I recognized the switches immediately, they’re not game-changers. (Frankly, these are trades I’m OK with, as opposed to the practice of editing the episodes’ content, which happens from time to time in syndication.)
The episode finishes up at the dance itself and hits that perfect mix of nostalgia and melancholy and humor and reality, from Kevin and Paul resorting to trash can basketball with punch cups to Kevin’s heartache at watching Winnie with an eighth-grader to Kevin’s attempt at making her jealous by dancing with a girl he doesn’t even know. We’re treated to a brief, hilariously-imagined scene involving Winnie in the title I Dream of Jeannie role (including laugh track!), and then a classic episode-closing moment and voice over as Kevin and Winnie slow dance to the thankfully-still-part-of-the-soundtrack “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Otis Redding.
Watching it again, I think that if the show hadn’t been picked up for full-season release, this would still have served as a great bookend to three hours of really, really good television.
Fortunately, there was more to come.