The Wonder Years Is Exactly What a Good Reboot Should Be

Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams) at his friend’s bar mitzvah on The Wonder Years. Photo: Eliza Morse/ABC

It’s easy to dismiss a reboot. Hollywood has made recycling past ideas and propping up recognizable IP such a blatant habit — it’s basically the industry’s primary business model at this point — that every time someone tries to take something old and make it new again, it’s natural to scoff and wave off whatever the project is.

But every once in a while, a reboot is handled with such care, intelligence, and clear intention that it can’t be waved away. The Wonder Years, an update of the 1980s ABC sitcom that flashed back to the ’60s through the eyes of an adolescent Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), is one of those reboots.

Created by Saladin K. Patterson, the 2020s version of The Wonder Years, which debuted last fall on ABC and returned from winter hiatus earlier this month, still takes place in the 1960s. But instead of capturing suburban America during that time through the eyes of a white boy, this Wonder Years focuses on a Black 12-year-old named Dean Williams, played by newcomer Elisha “EJ” Williams, who’s growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the latter half of a famously tumultuous decade. This version works from the same template established by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who created the original: It focuses on the everyday experiences of Dean as narrated by an older version of Dean, voiced by Don Cheadle, just as the previous one was narrated by an older Kevin (Daniel Stern) looking back on his youth. Some of the episodes even recycle story lines similar to the ones used the first time around.

That may sound like a lazy move, but the new Wonder Years installments that sync most closely with previous ones are among the most rewarding of the series so far. Reframing the episodes with a young Black man and Black family enables them to explore issues that would not have entered the sphere of Kevin or the Arnolds, while still maintaining the same warm and nostalgic tone. The parallelism also highlights precisely where the childhoods of a Black kid and a white kid can diverge, as well as how much our understanding of history depends upon who is describing their experience. All of that makes The Wonder Years the rare reboot that honors its source material while doing something all its own that is edifying without being too didactic or serious.

This week’s episode, “Brad Mitzvah,” is a great example of what I’m describing. Focused on the lead-up to the bar mitzvah of one of Dean’s best friends, Brad (Julian Lerner, an actor who needs to play a young Pete Davidson ASAP), this half-hour of The Wonder Years was clearly inspired by “Birthday Boy,” a quintessential episode of the first Wonder Years, in which Kevin’s best friend Paul (Josh Saviano) plans his bar mitzvah on the same day as Kevin’s 13th birthday. A jealous Kevin, resentful that he doesn’t have the same sense of community and celebration around his own “arrival to manhood,” decides not to attend. But — spoiler alert from 1989 — he eventually changes his mind and learns some important lessons about unselfishness and the true meaning of maturity.

At the time, “Birthday Boy” was the rare episode of television that depicted Jewish culture in a way that was authentic and reverent of its traditions. “Brad Mitzvah,” written by Yael Galena and directed, like many of the new episodes, by Savage, deals with some similar themes — what it means to truly “become a man” chief among them — but it acknowledges something that “Birthday Boy” didn’t: that Jewish people are often ostracized or mocked. Within the first few minutes of the episode, Dean acknowledges that Brad is treated differently by his peers, a dynamic he recognizes as one of the few Black kids at his newly integrated middle school. In an early scene, a bully throws a penny at Brad’s feet and urges him to pick it up. “At 12, I didn’t understand the complexity and hate behind the joke,” says Cheadle via voice-over. “I just knew they were targeting Brad because he was Jewish.”

When Dean’s parents, Bill and Lillian, played by Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh, learn that Dean’s been invited to this special occasion that will presumably be attended by mostly white people, they insist that Dean’s older sister, Kim (Laura Kariuki), who is also invited, accompany him. Bill and Lillian do a very careful dance to not alarm Dean while making it clear that some of the guests may not welcome him and his sister in the same way that Brad and his family do. It’s a dance that feels sadly commonplace for this family. It’s also definitely not a dance that Jack and Norma Arnold (Dan Lauria and Alley Mills) ever would have had to consider doing. Even though the new Wonder Years is still looking back at the 1960s, it’s doing so in a way that allows for sentimentality and also moments like these that consider the layers of othering in American society and how it feels to be a minority.

Like the previous Wonder Years, the show focuses on the sorts of conundrums that confront any typical preteen. In “Brad Mitzvah,” it’s the fact that Dean’s girlfriend, Charlene (Milan Marsh), tells him he can no longer be friends with Keisa (Milan Ray), the Winnie Cooper equivalent in the reboot, because neither Dean nor Charlene should have opposite-sex friends. Dean is so upset by this and conflicted about Charlene’s dictatorial style that he gets distracted from helping Brad practice his bar-mitzvah speech. Eventually, like Kevin Arnold, he realizes his error and supports his friend, an echo of the moral in “Birthday Boy.”

But Dean also learns something else via his interactions with Charlene and Keisa, and from Brad’s bar-mitzvah remarks, in which he talks about how he’s often embarrassed by his Jewishness but no longer wants to feel that way. “So from now on, I’m not just going to stand by while people make fun of me, or try to make me feel bad,” he says. “Instead, I’m going to stand up for myself, for my people, and for what I believe is right.” Dean concludes that he shouldn’t be manipulated by others and breaks up with Charlene, which doesn’t quite result in the outcome he wants. (Keisa remains mad at him.) But, as older Kevin says in the final scene of the episode, “I gained self-respect. And if that doesn’t make you a man, I don’t know what does.”

This is a twist on “Birthday Boy,” in which Kevin initially has so much self-regard that he expects Paul to change his bar-mitzvah date so Kevin can have his birthday to himself. As illustrated by a scene in which Dean’s parents urge him to be respectful at the bar mitzvah, a lot of Dean’s existence and, really, his safety, require him to conform. It’s important for any kid to learn to follow their own moral compass. But it’s that much more important for a kid like Dean to feel empowered to do that in Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the ’60s, a setting in which many still view him as lesser than.

If you never watched the original Wonder Years, you could still watch this episode and find it entertaining and sweet. But considering it in conversation with its 1989 counterpart makes it a richer experience that doesn’t diminish the first — I rewatched “Birthday Boy” recently, and it’s still a beautiful piece of television — but definitely deepens the impact of the follow-up.

Several 2021/2022 The Wonder Years episodes work in this way. In the pilot, the bad news Dean must confront isn’t that someone he knows — Winnie Cooper’s brother, Brian, in the original — died in Vietnam. It’s that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. Instead of getting to comfort Keisa with a kiss, the way that Kevin once did for Winnie, Dean sees that his best friend Cory (Amari O’Neil) has already gotten there first. With a less rose-colored eye, this Wonder Years, like its predecessor, uses the events of the ’60s to show how the heartbreak of childhood and the heartbreak of history can commingle in our memory.

The new Wonder Years also pushes its boundaries a little bit further. Instead of having Kevin discover that his mother has been reading a book he and Paul have been trying to get their hands on — Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) — Dean realizes that the porn magazines in the Williams’ basement actually belong to his mom, prompting a conversation between them about healthy sexuality, women, and being respectful. In “The Workplace,” which first aired in October, Dean visits his mom at the office, a change from the original Wonder Years episode where Kevin visits his father at work; instead of seeing a parent who is beaten down by a job he hates, which is what Kevin witnesses, Dean realizes how hard his mother works and how skilled she is at what she does. In The Wonder Years’ first Christmas episode in 1988, Kevin tries to pay Winnie a visit to give her a present, only to find that the Coopers have gone away because they can’t bear to spend their first holiday at home without Brian. In the new Wonder Years’ first Christmas episode, the Williams family welcomes their oldest child, Bruce (Spence Moore II), home for the holiday after he’s finished a tour in Vietnam. This almost feels like a gift to those of us who remember the 1988 version, because this time, we get to see a family that has not been shattered by that war, at least not yet.

This is what a smart reboot does: It builds upon what came before and honors the legacy of the original while doing something new and different. It seeks to illuminate and not just re-create. It proves that sometimes something worthwhile can be shaped out of the familiar, as long as the process is in the right hands. And The Wonder Years is certainly in some good ones.

The Wonder Years Is Exactly What a Good Reboot Should Be