Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.



(Note: This has always been one of my favorite old pictures. When I removed it from the photo album to scan, I found written on the back, “Mother’s Day – May 1973.”)





Dad died the same day ABC aired the last episode of The Wonder Years. I watched it Sunday morning for the first time in awhile.

Still miss him.

May 13, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

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.

Heart of Darkness - The Wonder Years

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.

November 20, 2011 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Ohio, Television | , , | Leave a comment

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.

Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper - The Wonder YearsHaving 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.”

Cutlip Class Wonder Years

(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.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, geek, Television | , , , | 2 Comments

Revisiting The Wonder Years

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.

Wonder Years tapesIt 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!

October 16, 2011 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, eighties, Ohio, Television, writing | , , , | 4 Comments


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