The Nostalgia Fact-Check is a recurring Vulture feature in which we revisit a seminal movie, TV show, or album that reflexively evinces an “Oh my God, that was the best ever!” response by a certain demographic, owing to it having been imprinted on them early. Now, years later, we will take a look at these classics in a more objective, unforgiving adult light: Are they really the best ever? How do they hold up now? We’ve already reconsidered a number of once-beloved entertainments. This week, we consider The Wonder Years.
Background: Before there were Modern Family, Lucky Louie, or Freaks and Geeks, there was The Wonder Years — a realistic, single-camera spin on the traditional family sitcom. When it debuted in 1988, it was unlike anything else on television: a show set twenty years earlier, rolling out in real time as Kevin Arnold, a sixth grader, navigated adolescence for six school years/seasons. Rooted in the trappings of suburbia (white picket fences, neighborhood football games), all the classic sitcom character tropes were present: best friend Paul Pfeifer; girl-next-door Winnie Cooper; older, boorish, noogie-happy brother Wayne; rebellious older sister Karen; distant workaholic dad Jack; doting housewife mom Norma. And above all, it was set in an overcrowded house in a cookie-cutter neighborhood where nothing spectacular ever happened. Well, besides the time a young Mark-Paul Gosselaar stole Kevin’s date for the spring dance.
The show’s homespun aesthetic (fake, grainy home movies were episode staples) and emphasis on sentimentality made The Wonder Years an unstoppable nostalgia machine. Daniel Stern’s narration as Future Kevin gave everything that happened DEEP MEANING. You laughed. You cried. You mostly cried, but also laughed. And the show was not without its accolades: In its first season — only six episodes — it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, and made Fred Savage, then 13, the youngest person ever to be nominated in the category of Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series.
Because of music-licensing rights, the show has only seen limited release on DVD and VHS, but is available relatively intact on Netflix streaming, if you can overlook the noticeable lack of Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” in the opening credits.
Nostalgia demographic: Kids born in the late seventies, early eighties who grew up along with Kevin Arnold; parents of said kids who yearned for a little dose of their youth; anyone who grew up in the suburbs full of middle-class angst.
Fact-check: Having grown up in the Chicago suburbs, I watched The Wonder Years because I related to Kevin Arnold’s search for individuality in an environment that encouraged conformity — being yourself was a liability for me until about … second semester senior year. I liked that he wasn’t the coolest kid in school, and that his friends were a bunch of well-intentioned misfits who found each other by mocking the fancy lads and dainty dames. (Side note, I grew up in the 1900s.) Plus, his sibling dynamic was an uncanny inverse of mine. I was the oldest, followed by a brother and sister, and as a result I carried out the majority of the beatings. I wanted to revisit The Wonder Years because the timing felt right. Having been 29 when I began the quest through the show’s six seasons (I’ve since turned 30), I was thinking an awful lot about my childhood, remembering nights curled up with The Wonder Years and my parents.
I also wanted to revisit The Wonder Years because I related to Kevin’s unfaltering love of Winnie Cooper. I loved her, too (in the only way one can love a fictional person, which is deeply). I knew the type: This girl was nice to everyone, pretty, reasonably levelheaded and more popular than me. And for most of The Wonder Years’ run, Kevin Arnold got her. Wish fulfillment, methinks. Plus, as a TV critic, I’ve spent the past year or so in a variety of discussions about the appeal of period television (Mad Men) and the conventions of modern sitcoms. And nearly every comedy we today deem as “good” (Louie, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm) is single-camera and actively defies the caricature-driven tropes of multi-cam. Those two strains cross perfectly in The Wonder Years.
But mostly, I did it for Winnie Cooper.
After rewatching all 114 episodes available on Netflix, I got a whole lot of her. The girl who draws Kevin Arnold to do crazy things like drive to a resort hours away and take a job as a busboy, just to be near her. The girl who he has decided deserves a nearly $100 cashmere sweater (and we’re talking early seventies money here), therefore forcing him to demand a raise at his loony Chinese food delivery job. The girl to whom no others can compare, not even a smoking hot French speaker who makes delicious chocolate mousse from scratch. She is forever the object of Kevin’s eye.
Or, rather, the idea of her. Details about Winnie’s life, like things she might say that aren’t sound bites about their relationship, are often left by the wayside when episodes end, so that future Kevin can learn a valuable lesson about love. Winnie Cooper is a device of convenience. She’s a constant foil to Kevin’s hair-brained schemes, or the person who eggs him on when he’s being a wet blanket — like the time his friends want to hit up a dive bar in the hopes the Rolling Stones will show up. She has her own little acoustic guitar solo that plays when she enters and gives Kevin googly eyes. It’s like she’s a fictional girlfriend whom future Kevin Arnold is inventing for the sake of telling a compelling story. At the beginning of the show, it worked wonders; but by the end, given that Winnie showed very few signs of making Kevin a better person or demonstrating much of a personality of her own, I started to wonder what Kevin saw in her, especially given the myriad other women who cycled into his life and really shook things up.
I guess that’s nostalgia for ya: It smooths over the rough edges. So even though there are moments when it’s obvious Winnie and Kevin are not meant to be together, it’s enough that he wants her so badly — that every time she enters the room, there’s literally a theme song that plays. The show’s not shy about playing up the fantasy of the girl next door.
It also takes every conceivable opportunity to point out the larger implications of everything Kevin does. When he visits his father at work, he learns what it means to be a man, to provide for his family. When Wayne gets his driver’s license, he learns that relationships with older brothers can be complicated. When Paul’s sister reveals her crush on Kevin and invites him to a dance, this becomes a lesson in, you know, growing up — to recognize a level of maturity and act accordingly, even though he clearly doesn’t feel the same way about her.
I don’t really mind that The Wonder Years is so gung-ho about being meaningful. But the overuse of a framing device gets repetitive. Pretty much every episode falls into this general pattern: larger idea introduced, applied to something specific happening in Kevin’s life; he thinks things are going to shake out one way, but they shake out another, and he learns from it; cut to summation about Life. I’m the kind of person who loathes the wrap-ups Modern Family feels the need to shove in at the end of every episode. So 114 episodes of The Wonder Years created more than enough opportunities for me to roll my eyes. Does an evening spent playing poker with the guys really need to end with, “Standing there on the edge of adulthood, we knew that the problems of men were not easily solved. That life was a risk. That growing up … was a gamble”?
I chalk it up to The Wonder Years playing to an audience that wasn’t quite comfortable with a sitcom that treads uncomfortable ground. In one episode, Wayne’s dating a young Carla Gugino, who for no reason other than typical teenage confusion decides to make out with Kevin while Wayne’s upstairs getting popcorn. At one point, despite Kevin beating Paul at basketball every time, he’s surprised to learn that Paul’s been secretly getting good, and he can’t bring himself to see Paul as anything more than a perpetual klutz. And in probably the most overtly cringe-humor episode, Kevin and his dad set out to build a treehouse together, only to discover that their neighbor is a hot single woman with a propensity for gardening in low-cut tops. Terrified to acknowledge that they’re both getting pleasure from peeking over, the two abandon the project altogether. These are complicated situations that hadn’t yet appeared on television in quite as blunt a fashion.
The Wonder Years’ ace-in-the-hole remains Fred Savage. Seriously, the kid is incredible; he outshines his young co-stars by leaps and bound. Even in the pilot, ostensibly when he’s the youngest he’ll ever be in the show, he handles the episode’s sharp emotional arc with aplomb and a crisp New York Jets jacket. It mostly centers on Kevin’s first day of middle school, ending with the news that Winnie’s beloved older brother was killed in the Vietnam War. And with little more than a raised eyebrow (a Savage tic that serves him well throughout the series), Kevin conveys disgust at the cafeteria food, lust for a now spectacle-less Winnie, and comfort when he finds her alone in the woods, bawling for her brother. It’s no surprise I aspired to be more like Kevin Arnold. He was everything to everyone with that eyebrow raise, and it could save even potentially sappy plotlines.
Because the show was so stylistically ahead of its time, there’s nothing particularly odd or dated about it. Even without HD, it still looks pretty good — plenty of sweeping shots of Jack Arnold’s furniture shop, or Karen’s college hippie den — and is pretty historically accurate to the sixties. Plus, it’s a period piece, so I reveled in the lack of bad eighties haircuts and references to Bo Jackson’s thriving NFL/MLB career. Though The Wonder Years was made to represent a specific period in history, it’s universal enough not to show its age.
So yes, the show can be ham-fisted, but it also contains an emotional core that holds up. Like Kevin Arnold, I grew up in a similar, quintessential “Anytown USA” suburb. But as The Wonder Years points out, there’s a story in each of those identical homes — hundreds of them, in fact. Revisiting The Wonder Years reminded me that we’re all from somewhere, and that even though I might think stories from my childhood are boring or unspectacular, there’s gotta be someone who finds them interesting, universal, maybe even … Wonder-ful?
And obviously, that person will be my Winnie Cooper.