The Wonder Years – Season Two Premiere: “The Heart of Darkness”
Seven months passed between the end of The Wonder Years‘ first season on April 19, 1988, and Season Two’s first episode – “The Heart of Darkness” – which aired November 30 of that year. In teenage time-passage perception terms, this felt like a long time, spanning as it did the end of my junior year of high school, the subsequent summer, the start of my senior year, and my 18th birthday.
It was a pretty dynamic and busy and fun time, so I guess it’s not surprising that in the years since, I’ve always felt like this episode was further along in the series.
Season Two is also the last Wonder Years season stamped with the intangible associations of being at home in the house where I grew up.
I mostly watched these episodes from our living room couch, or one of the chairs, or while reclined on the floor, propping my head up with a throw pillow. (Digression: Is there a physiological reason that kids lying on the floor watch TV from their stomachs, while as you get older, you flip over to your back?) Mom and dad are probably there. My two younger brothers are most likely getting ready for bed. The curtain covering the sliding glass door to our back porch is closed for the night. These are episodes where commercial time still meant it was time for a quick trip to the refrigerator or the bathroom, and they air early enough in the evening that I’m likely to stay up doing my homework afterward.
I also associate these episodes with my senior-year English teacher, Mr. Hoffman. I don’t remember the specific reference he made, but I do recall him asking one day in class if anyone had watched The Wonder Years the previous night, and mentioning that he liked the show. (Adam may be able to help me out on this one. Adam?)
There are 17 episodes in Season Two, which makes sense, since the combined total with season one makes for a standard-length 23-episode season.
So: “The Heart of Darkness.”
This episode stood out in my mind for a long time, most likely because it seems like I never caught it in syndicated broadcast, and I’m not entirely certain I saw it more than once or twice (assuming they re-ran it back in the eighties) until within the past few years, when on TV showed it. I have sometimes wondered – in particular, when ABC Family was airing the series during the day – if it was due to the show’s content.
Because this is The Episode Where Kevin and Paul Smoke Cigarettes and Drink Beer.
My mom did not like this episode and specifically said she didn’t want my brothers – who would have been in late elementary school – watching it.
The episode begins with the first of several dream sequences playing on Kevin’s typical junior high anxiety and including a great soundtrack use of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” Back in the real world, Kevin’s still kind of smarting from the whole Winnie/Kirk McCrae thing, and the fact that she’s suddenly hanging out with the popular kids isn’t helping. Kevin reacts by snubbing her in the hallway and then throwing his lot in with a detention-hall regular – Gary Cosey, played by Breckin Meyer. A couple forged parental signatures here, a couple lies to moms there, and Kevin and Paul (peer-pressured along for the ride) find themselves “partying” with Gary out in the woods at night.
Of course, when Kevin and Paul bring stuff like marshmallows to the campfire, they’re stunned to find their fellow seventh-grader there with his stash of smokes and beer.
It’s clear that Kevin and Paul are hardly partaking of the alcohol and tobacco – although Paul seems to drink of the beer a little more deeply than Kevin, who barely touches the stuff to his lips, it’s also apparent that his subsequent goofiness is an effort to fit in, and he’s not really feeling any intoxicating effects. The scene is played for some laughs – as adult Kevin narrates the moment where Paul is deciding what to do with the beer in his hand, he urges his younger friend to be the level-headed one and Just Say No, only to see Paul heartily knock the can back for a swig – but it’s also fittingly uncomfortable. There’s talk of girls and girlfriends and their “honkers” (context: not noses) or the lack thereof, and the possibility of reaching second base.
Gary winds up talking Kevin and Paul into exploring a nearby “cave,” which turns out to be a storm sewer, and then turns into a full-on jackass, trying to scare the guys with tales of dead bodies and going into an obnoxious fit of ghostly moans. (This scene still strikes home: It reminds me of a kid who lived a couple streets away when I was in elementary school. We were becoming friends until he slowly squashed a tadpole to death on the road and then drove me to near tears by threatening to lock me in his family’s cellar.)
I also have to note that being the parent of a high-schooler adds a whole new layer of perspective to watching this episode. I don’t remember when I had my first illicit beer – though I can say for certain it was a shared can of Old Milwaukee that someone’s older brother had stashed out behind a tree somewhere, and it was so revolting that I didn’t have a second illicit beer for a good long time.
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