Growing Up Is Hard to Do: A ‘Wonder Years’ Retrospective

Executive producer Bob Brush and actor Dan Lauria ruminate on The Wonder Years timeless nostalgia.

The year was 1997. I was 12 years old. A lot happened during that year of my life. Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State, South Park hit the air, and I graduated from Owen Marsh elementary school and entered junior high.

This was also the time when I sat on the floor of my room with a copy of Nickelodeon magazine and came across a one-page ad for a television show that I had never heard of before. The program was going into syndication on Nick at Nite, Nickelodeon’s late night programming block. At the time, Nick at Nite was like a strange bridge between my world and that of my parents. As a kid, I loved watching Robin Williams on Mork and Mindy, Mary Tyler Moore on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. These were perennial classics that I enjoyed, but I couldn’t identify with them completely. Characters on Nick at Nite dealt with problems like marriage, work, and the complexity of adult relationships, conflicts that weren’t exactly foreign to me, but ones that I could only identify with in a secondhand sort of way.

In the midst of these more adult-oriented programs, along came a show whose promotional material featured three kids my age, standing together in a school hallway, clutching books and folders for class. “Meet Kevin,” the text read. “Kevin likes Winnie. His best friend is Paul. Watch them all grow up together on The Wonder Years”. The ad promoted a special weeklong run of some of The Wonder Years’ best episodes, tag lined “from boy to man in five nights”. Every night that week, I set the VCR to record The Wonder Years, and every day after school, I rushed through my homework so I could watch each episode.

Looking back on it now, that week in October 1997 was a transformative one. There are products of culture that you really like. There are those that you fall in love with. And then there are those, the rarest of them all, that you so thoroughly identify with, that so completely speak to you in the specific time and place in which you discover them, that you start to believe that they were made just for you. That’s what The Wonder Years became to me. In all of my 12 years, in all of the movies and shows that I had seen, I had never come across a character like Kevin Arnold. He seemed to embody every foible, fear, anxiety and hope that my own 12-year-old self experienced.

Finally, here was a show I could call my own.

Whenever someone starts talking about the past, especially his childhood, it’s easy to tell when the sheen of nostalgia starts to set in. He’ll get a far-off look in his eyes and begin ruminating on what “simpler times” they were back then. But if we were completely honest with ourselves, we would admit that being a kid isn’t any easier than being an adult. In some ways, it’s a lot more difficult. Adolescence, the transition between the two stages, is often the most confusing, painful, and exhilarating period of an entire lifetime. That’s why there are countless books, shows, movies and songs that try to capture the reality of the awkwardness of growing up.

The Wonder Years is one of those attempts, and it’s about as honest as they come. “The idea of The Wonder Years was that, for that very brief period of time between innocence and cynicism, it’s a really special time,” says executive producer Bob Brush. “The fact that it caught it on is just a credit to the universality of the message of the story itself.” The show runs on the engine of nostalgia, as an older Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrates to the audience the complicated events of his childhood growing up in the suburbs, as his younger self (played by Fred Savage) experiences them first-hand.

Debuting on 31 January 1988 on ABC, just after Super Bowl XXII, creator Neal Marlens called it “a bit of Americana after the quintessential example of Americana.” Marlens, who created the show with wife Carol Black, conceived The Wonder Years as a love letter to the postwar generation growing up in the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Many events in the series relate directly to important historical events like the Apollo moon landing, the war in Vietnam, and Nixon’s re-election.

There was a lot about The Wonder Years at the time that was revolutionary. It was a single-camera comedy without a laugh track in a world where every other comedy on television was three-camera and filmed in front of a live studio audience. It dealt with delicate themes like death, friendship and first love without straying into oversentimentality or sappiness. It handled adult subjects like sex and alcohol with a frankness that was rare in primetime.

The delicate balance between honesty and schmaltz is maintained in part due to the show’s framing device. The perspective that Stern’s narration brings to the proceedings is a much-needed touch of irony as he frequently chides his younger self for taking things so seriously and retroactively rolling his eyes at all of his dumb mistakes. “One reason people try to copy it is Fred’s character and the narration,” says actor Dan Lauria, who played distant father Jack Arnold. “Everyone these days tries to make the kid smarter than everyone else. In the narration on The Wonder Years, a lot of times, the kids says, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done that.’”

The Wonder Years provided a window into a very specific type of American childhood: white, suburban, and middle-class. To suggest that Kevin Arnold’s experiences are similar to what everyone experiences at that age would simply be untrue. In fact, one sad problem with the show is that the Civil Rights movement and all of its history-shaping events are all but glossed over. Still, producers tried to appeal to the widest amount of people they could by never identifying where exactly it takes place (the proverbial “Anywhere, U.S.A.”).

In the same way, the Arnolds were modeled after a typical white middle-class American family. There’s the workaholic father Jack, cheerful stay-at-home mother Norma (Alley Mills), irritating older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), and free-spirited older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo). While they may seem like stereotypes, each character is fully defined and the episodes about family dynamics are some of the most deftly handled on the show.

In recalling his inspiration for Jack, Lauria, who was born in Brooklyn, speaks of his own father: “Jack was a man of few words. I wasn’t married, didn’t have children, but my father was a truck driver. He came home every night and was like Jack; I think most fathers were at that time. They put in that 60-hour week. Bob Brush told me, ‘You’re the only actor who asked for less lines.’ One show, they wrote me a beautiful speech, and I did it. Then I said, ‘Can we shoot this again? I have an idea.’ And I just said, ‘Mmm.’ And it was one of the funniest lines in the show.”

In addition to his family, Kevin is rarely without his best Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), the bespectacled, lanky kid that he’s known for all of his life. Like all friendships, Kevin and Paul’s isn’t always the smoothest, as the tension of growing up together wear on them at times. In one episode Paul, who has never lost a driveway basketball game to Kevin, tries out for the school basketball team. When Kevin learns that Paul is actually pretty good on the court, he is dismayed, and has to come to grips with his friend becoming his own person, even if that means changing the dynamics of their relationship.

All of these stories are well worth the price of admission, but the emotional core of the show is distilled down to one central relationship: the on-again, off-again romance of Kevin and literal girl-next-door Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). Neighbors since birth, Kevin notices Winnie in a new light on the first day of seventh grade when she blossoms overnight into a young woman “with fishnets and go-go boots”.

When Winnie’s older brother is killed in Vietnam, it’s Kevin who comforts her, and the two share a first kiss in the woods. For the rest of the series, Kevin pines for Winnie, Winnie (sometimes) pines for Kevin. They date, break-up, and get back together. There is a lot to The Wonder Years, but the Kevin/Winnie dynamic always drives the show forward.

Seven months after The Wonder Years premiered, the show walked away with a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Fred Savage became the youngest actor nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. While it never enjoyed the same amount of fame as other shows that were on around the same time, like Cheers, The Wonder Years continued for five more seasons, until it was abruptly canceled in 1993.

Even now it’s hard to tell exactly why The Wonder Years spoke to me so much. I didn’t come of age in the late ’60s or the early ’70s, and had no reason to be nostalgic for that time period. I was the oldest sibling, not the youngest, in my family. I had nowhere near the charm and attention from girls that Kevin received, but I did have about as many crushes as he did. Most importantly, I met the girl of my dreams in college, not junior high.

Still, I can’t deny the fact that Kevin’s experiences somehow felt exactly like mine. The anger at a new pimple, the heartache at seeing the girl you wanted to ask to the dance go with someone else, the confusion and insecurity that comes with seeing your parents fight and not really knowing what’s going on between them — these things and more I identified in ways that even I didn’t understand. Sometimes I felt like I knew Kevin, Winnie and Paul better than I knew my own friends.

What I appreciated the most about The Wonder Years was that it never felt like the writing was giving me what I wanted to hear. In fact, as Bob Brush admits: “I don’t think we ever thought that we were writing for young people at all. We had the feeling that we had all been there, and no one would go back if they had a choice. But I think there was really a sense of trying to write the truth. That was the barometer.”

I remember one episode in particular, season three’s “Summer Song”, in which Kevin has a summer romance with a girl he meets during a family vacation. She lives in Albuquerque, and after they part ways, she writes him a letter. “She wrote of our night at the beach,” the narrator recalls. “She told me she missed me so much that she cried herself to sleep at night. And she promised to write to me, until we saw each other again. I keep that letter in an old shoebox. It was the only letter she ever wrote me.” I remember just being blown away by that, how much like real life that is. There aren’t too many TV shows that respect you enough to tell you the truth about how life sometimes turns out. But The Wonder Years did.

Since 1997, the only copies of The Wonder Years episodes I owned were those five videocassettes. When TV on DVD became a thing in the middle of the ’00s and revolutionized the way we watched television, naturally I checked for a release date for The Wonder Years constantly. I wasn’t the only one; fan demand for the series has been high ever since it went off the air.

The problem was in the music. Music is one of the most powerful agents when it comes to nostalgia, and The Wonder Years uses it to great effect. Unfortunately, when the show aired on television, no one thought about licensing for home video. And with the amount of music the show used, many said it would never happen. Recent streaming versions on Netflix and Amazon replaced many original songs with covers, including the iconic theme. It just wasn’t the same.

But now, 21 years after it went off the air, The Wonder Years has finally made its glorious debut on DVD. Even still, not all episodes are exactly as they were when they aired; some music licenses proved impossible to secure. While over 100 episodes remain entirely unaffected, there are about 15 instances where songs are a replaced with a re-recording or another song altogether. Normally that wouldn’t be too big a deal, but for a show that hinges so thoroughly on musical choice, it’s a tad disappointing.

Still, it’s better to have The Wonder Years in some form than not have it at all, and the set is well worth the wait. Encased in a tan miniature metal locker that will remind you of your own junior high school days, the 26 discs contain all 115 episodes and over 15 hours of bonus footage including cast interviews, behind the scenes footage, and featurettes. And what junior high locker would be complete without customizable magnets you can use to decorate, declaring your love for a classmate or sharing school pride? Also included is a “yearbook” with cast signatures, photos and recollections of the set, a true gift for any fan of the show.

So at long last I can share my love for The Wonder Years with others. Except there’s one problem: I’ve tried. I’ve watched the tapes with my parents, my friends, my wife, anyone willing to listen. Most of them just don’t get it. Not that they don’t like the show. But there aren’t many people who understand the appeal of the show to me, except me.

Which leaves me to wonder: what would be different if I hadn’t discovered The Wonder Years until now, as an adult? Would I still love it? My guess would be yes, but not in the same way. Like any favorite thing that you keep revisiting throughout your life, I see new things in The Wonder Years the older I get. For example, I used to see Kevin’s parents, Jack and Norma, as secondary characters. I only cared about what happened to Kevin and Winnie. But when I watch the show now, I find myself sympathizing with Jack and Norma more than with the younger characters. Now those stories of marriage, work and adult relationships, the ones that were so abstract to me all those years ago, are the ones I identify with.

I grew up with The Wonder Years, and it grew up with me. In a way, the show, so heavily steeped in nostalgia, has become a form of nostalgia itself. Is it really as great as I think it is? Perhaps not, but I would never be able to honestly formulate an answer to that question. Like it or not, it has come to define a certain period of life for me, so much so that I when I think about it, I can’t help but think of that insecure 12 year old in 1997 who felt for the first time like there was someone else who was going through the same things he was — even if that person was a fictional television character.

That’s perhaps The Wonder Years biggest legacy to me. The fact that an older Kevin, wiser and surer of himself, narrated the show proved that he had made it out alive. That gave me hope that surviving adolescence was possible, and that maybe, if I didn’t take myself too seriously, I might even have fun.

“I think for any generation the idea to get out of it,” Bob Brush says, “would be the idea that there is a depth and a meaning to human relationships that is critical — to become a full person you have to understand others. Which is the process of the wonder years: coming to grips with the fact that the world is not ideal and by accepting that fact you can embrace your own life and the life of others around you. I think that was kind of the message — that life is tough, but that family counts, and that forgiveness matters.”

Kevin Arnold couldn’t have said it better himself.

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