The Wonder Years, a gentle, nostalgic look at Baby Boom youth and adolescence, told stories in weekly half-hour installments presented entirely from the point of view of the show's main character. Young Kevin Arnold, portrayed on screen in youth by fresh-faced Fred Savage, provided the center of the action. Adult Kevin, whose voice was furnished by unseen narrator Daniel Stern, commented on the events of his youth with grownup wryness twenty years after the fact. The series traced Kevin's development in suburban America from 1968, when he was 11 years old, until the summer of 1973, his junior year in high school. A typical week's plot involved Kevin facing some rite of passage on the way to adulthood. His first kiss, fleeting summer love, first day at high school, the struggle to get Dad to buy a new, color TV--these were the innocuous narrative problems of The Wonder Years. The resolutions seemed simple but often were surprising. Kevin the narrator always conveyed the unsettling knowledge that, in our struggle toward maturity, we make decisions that prevent us from going back to the comfortable places of youth. For example, when pubescent Kevin stood up to his mother's babying, he took pride in his new independence. But his victory was bittersweet--he realized that he had hurt Norma by reacting harshly to her well-meaning mothering, and he had lost a piece of the relationship forever.
Mundane situations that would resonate with most Americans' youth experiences were shaded by the backdrop of everyday life in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Hip hugger pants, Army surplus gear, and toilet-paper-strewn yards helped to place the show in the collective memory of the baby boomers who were watching it (and whose dollars advertisers were vigorously seeking). Attention to period detail was often thorough, but occasional anachronisms managed to slip through, such as the use of a television remote control device in the Arnold home in about 1970. The program often opened with TV news clips from the era--showing a war protest, President Nixon waving good-bye at the White House, or some other instantly recognizable event--accompanied by a classic bit of rock music. Joe Cocker's rendition of "I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends" was the show's theme song, played over a montage of home movie clips depicting a harmonious Arnold family and Kevin's friends, Paul and Winnie.
Much of the series' historical identification had to do with oblique connections with hippie counterculture and the Vietnam War. Kevin's older sister, Karen, was a hippie, but Kevin was not, and his observation of the counterculture was from the sideline. While Karen struggled to define her identity against the grain of her parents' traditions, Kevin, for the most part, accepted the world around him. He was portrayed as an average kid, personally uninvolved with most of the larger cultural events swirling about him. One serious treatment of the Vietnam War did take intrude in Kevin's personal experience, however, when Brian Cooper, older brother of his neighbor and girlfriend, Winnie, was killed. Kevin struggled to support Winnie, first in the loss of her brother and, later, after her parents' separation resulted from the brother's death.
Episodes of The Wonder Years were often based on challenges in Kevin's relationship with a family member, friend, authority figure, or competitor. Kevin's father, Jack; mother, Norma; sister, Karen; brother, Wayne; neighborhood best friend, Paul Pfeiffer; and childhood sweetheart, Winnie Cooper, were heavily involved in the storyline. Much of the action took place in and around the middle-class Arnold home or at Kevin's school (Robert F. Kennedy Junior High and, later, William McKinley High School).
While each episode was self-contained, Kevin's struggles and changes were evident as the series developed. In one episode, Kevin's older sister became estranged from their father because of her involvement in the hippie culture. Other episodes reflected that estrangement, and, in a later season, the program depicted Karen's reconciliation with her father. Kevin's observations and feelings, of course, remained central to exploring such issues. Although episodes sometimes showed how characters' perspectives shifted, the emphasis was on Kevin's own observation of his world. This acknowledgment of the character's egocentrism melded with a major program theme--adolescent self-involvement.
Sometimes, the primary point of the program was the effect of another character's struggle on the egocentric Kevin. He watched as father Jack quit a stultifying middle-manager's job at the Norcom corporation and as frustrated homemaker Norma enrolled in college classes and launched her own career. Often, Kevin spent much of his time reacting to the personal impact of such events, then feeling guilty about expressing his selfish thoughts. At the end of each episode, relations, although marked by change, became harmonious once again.
As an example of a "hybrid genre," the half-hour dramedy, The Wonder Years never amassed the runaway ratings of a show such as Cheers (though it did wind up in the Nielsen Top Ten for two of its five seasons). After a time, it was apparent to producers and the television audience that Kevin Arnold's wonder years were waning. Creative differences between producers and ABC began to spring up from such instances as Kevin's touching a girl's breast during the 8:00 hour usually reserved for "family viewing." Economic pressures, including rising actor salaries and the need for more location shooting after Kevin acquired a driver's license, also helped to end the show. During its 115-episode run, however, The Wonder Years generated intensely loyal fans and collected important notice.
The final episode on 12 May 1993 exercised a luxury few ending series have: tying up loose ends. Bob Brush, executive producer of the show after creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black left in the second season, took a cue from sagging ratings when the last episode was shot. In it, Kevin quit his job working in Jack Arnold's furniture store and struck out on his own. Sadly, for some viewers, he and Winnie Cooper did not wind up together. Unfortunately, the show's resolution occurred in the summer following Kevin's junior year in high school, so the formal finality of graduation, a rite of passage so familiar to much of the audience, was missing.
Among the awards bestowed on The Wonder Years were an Emmy for best comedy series in 1988--after only six episodes had aired--and the George Foster Peabody Award in 1990. TV Guide named the show one of the 1980s' 20 best.
Blum, David. "Where Were You in '68?" The New York Times, 27 February 1989.
Gross, Edward A. The Wonder Years. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer Books, 1990.
Kaufman, Peter. "Closing the Album on The Wonder Years." The New York Times, 9 May 1993.
Kinosian, Janet. "Fred Savage: Having Fun." Saturday Evening Post (Indianapolis, Indiana), January-February 1991.