Few TV shows ever have so accurately observed the condition of the suburban teenager as The Wonder Years did. One may regard the series, which ran for six seasons (from January 1988 to May 1993), as an exercise in nostalgia. Coming into the middle of a revival that celebrated the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s, it benefited from fortuitous timing, but as a story of growing up as told by an adult man, the timeframe made perfect sense.
Some may accuse the show of being an apologia for the oppression of nameless bourgeois suburbia, or right-on rhetoric to that effect. Indeed, in the pilot episode the narrator does defend suburban life, arguing that far from being anonymous, suburbia has plenty individual stories to tell. Like that of Kevin Arnold. It may be rose-tintedly nostalgic, it may be middle-class, but it is also profoundly human. Kevin’s stories are not extraordinary; they are universal, at least for those growing up in similar western middle-class circumstances. Imagine the teen embarrassment at having to take a three-year younger girl to a dance where everybody is a head smaller than you, as Kevin has to in one of my favourite episodes.
Fred Savage as Kevin was outstanding. The nuances of his body language were as articulate as his delivery of the scripted lines. Daniel Stern narrates as the adult Kevin, and Savage expresses the inner life exposed in the commentary, with a half-smile here or raised eyebrow there. He was wonderfully understated. And we can recognise the people around him. People much like them existed in our own families or in the circles of our childhood friends. The obnoxious brother Wayne? Know him. Geeky friend Paul? Know him? Grouchy dad Jack? Know him. Kindly mom Norma? Know her. Schoolmate Hobson? Oh dear, yes, I know that son of a bitch too.
I don’t think the female roles are as well realised. Winnie looks like she is going to cry even when she’s full of joy. Nemesis Becky Slater is one-dimensional. Sister Keren too often slides into the realms of caricature. But so does Wayne, even as his obnoxiousness is awesome. The thing is, we are watching these people exclusively through the filter of Kevin’s memories, with all his biases. So Winnie is soft as a melting marshmallow because that’s how Kevin sees her. Keren is an overcompensating hippie because Kevin remembers her that way. And Mrs Arnold might be sexy, for all we know, but Kevin won’t see her like that, so nor shall we.
Twenty years ago, when I first watched The Wonder Years, my empathy resided almost exclusively with Kevin. I was in my mid-twenties, and remembered well being a teenager. Now I have a teenage son (whose superb quality of character reminds me a little of Kevin Arnold’s more admirable qualities), and I can identify with the father, too. Well, not entirely. Although Dan Lauria, who played Jack Arnold, was about the age I am now when the show was filmed, he seems to be so much older, at least in my mind (I bet Jack Arnold wouldn’t write blogs about Twattery in Pop). But I can see the father’s point of view now.
Lauria’s performance was admirably subtle, at least if one looks carefully. There is an almost imperceptible moment in the first season in which Lauria captures the loving father beneath the grumbling gruffness. Kevin and his dad had bonded during a day spent in Jack’s office. Back home at night, Jack lets Kevin look through his telescope. As Kevin looks through the instrument, Jack has his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He gently strokes it with his thumb, as fathers do. It’s a beautiful scene. I somehow grieve Jack’s death, though fictional and post-scripted in the final episode to 1975.
The first four seasons (the first consists of only six episodes) are as good as any half-hour show on TV. By the fourth season, the storylines became more laboured, and by the fifth the steam was beginning to run out. The sixth and final season, in which Kevin suddenly grows up, was one too many. Still the latter seasons featured the always watchable Giovanni Ribisi (and a more regular future Friends star, David Schwimmer). In The Wonder Years we were also introduced to Juliet Lewis, as Wayne’s girlfriend, and John Corbett (Northern Exposure, Sex And The City, My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as Keren’s libertine hippie boyfriend who gets fiercely interrogated by little Kevin. And Teri from Albuquerque (pictured right), whom Kevin kisses while on holiday in Ocean City in season 3, went on to become porn star Holly Sampson (article here).
Alas, The Wonder Years is not available on DVD (though it’s not difficult to find the entire series on the Internet), apparently because of licensing problems with the many songs featured in the show – several repeatedly, such as The Byrds’ Turn Turn Turn, The Temptations’ My Girl, Joni Mitchell’s version of Both Sides Now, Joan Baez’s Forever Young, The Association’s Cherish, Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The title song, Joe Cocker’s version of With A Little Help From My Friends, was astutely picked — suitably nostalgic with lyrics that invoke the broad premise of the show (that is, the importance of relationships). The songs were well chosen — not many TV shows were scored with pop numbers back then. The pedantic music fan will of course be mildly irritated when scenes are scored by songs that had not yet been released at the time. But evident care was taken to ensure that songs that featured in a storyline – playing in the background on the radio, perhaps, or being referred to by name – already existed at the time the scenes are set in.
Here is the theme song, the abbreviated version of Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Fiends:
Theme from The Wonder Years.mp3
And so on to a mix of songs that featured in The Wonder Years. In brackets are the year of the song’s release, followed by the season and episode number it appeared in. As usual, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R (sorry folks, no cover this time).
1. Joe Cocker – With A Little Help From My Friends (1968 – 4/68)
2. The Beach Boys – When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) (1964 – 6/111)
3. The Association – Cherish (1966 – 1/6)
4. Lovin’ Spoonful – Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind (1965 – 3/44)
5. Percy Faith Orchestra – Theme from A Summer Place (1960 – 2/23)
6. The Chordettes – Never On A Sunday (1961 – 2/23)
7. Hank Williams – Hey Good Lookin’ (1953 – 4/51)
8. Marty Robbins – A White Sport Coat (1957 – 6/113)
9. Johnny Rivers – Swayin’ to the Music (Slow Dancin’) (1977 – 6/105)
10. Jackson Browne – Jamaica Say You Will (1972 – 5/70)
11. Elton John – Seasons (1971 – 3/40)
12. The Spinners – Could It Be I’m Falling In Love (1973 – 6/109)
13. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – You’re All I Need To Get By (1967 – 3/37)
14. Fontella Bass – Rescue Me (1965 – 4/58)
15. John Fred & The Playboy Band – Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) (1968 – 5/89)
16. Ronny and the Daytonas – Little G.T.O (1964 – 5/74)
17. Jo Jo Gunne – Run Run Run (1972 – 5/85)
18. Iron Butterfly – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968 – 2/20 & 3/40)
19. Mott The Hoople – All The Way From Memphis (1973 – 6/106)
20. Randy Newman – I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (1968 – 4/68)
21. Tim Hardin – If I Were A Carpenter (1966 – 5/73)
22. Joni Mitchell – The Circle Game (1970 – 3/27)
23. Joan Baez – Forever Young (1974 – 4/47 & 5/83)
24. Pachelbel – Canon In D Major (2/13)
More TV themes