THE WONDER YEARS: COMPLETE SERIES – DVD review

Fans of “The Wonder Years” have been waiting for the series to finally come to DVD, and patiently so, because they know the problem:  getting permission for the series’ backdrop ‘60s and ‘70s music. It’s the same reason why “WKRP in Cincinnati” took so long to make it to DVD, and not all of the original music is here. Conspicuously absent are the Doors and Neil Young, who wanted a more money. But Joe Cocker’s soulful riff on The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” still anchors the series’ theme song, and most everyone else finally settled.

That’s amazing, if you think about it. Since the series was made in 1988-1993, the idea of intellectual property rights has stoked a new era of me-first greed that stands in sharp contrast to the decades the half-hour comedy drama portrayed, when the songs went hand-in-hand with social movements, and the main goals were advancing civil and women’s rights and ending the Vietnam War.

Lots of things can shape a person, and just as WWII defined a generation, so did the Sixties—which historians date from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 resignation. And “The Wonder Years” managed to capture the perfect storm of events that were always in a family’s consciousness even as the father tried to put food on the table, siblings fought and sought to find their place in the world, and the mother tried to hold them all together.

Like “Leave It to Beaver,” the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this half-hour comedy-drama shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in “A Christmas Story”—an adult version of the main character. And you knew that the series would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

“The Wonder Years” gets it right. Kids Kevin’s age were too young to worry about a draft number, but too old to ignore the events that were shaping history and the lives of Americans—things like the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing, Woodstock, the Apollo 13 crisis, and events that were an outgrowth of Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and the increasingly violent anti-war protests. The result is a series that combines the innocence of childhood—of who likes whom, and passing notes—with a world that’s pushing them to grow up more quickly.

Fred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin Arnold, who at 13 became the youngest actor ever nominated for a Primetime Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series Emmy. His doe eyes reflected innocence, while his impish smile was a sign that he could say or do something impulsive or mischievous at any moment. The girl next door, Winnie Cooper, was also well cast, with Danica McKellar perfect as someone who would be both a best friend and love interest over the course of the show’s six seasons. And for comic relief and guy-to-guy matters there was bespectacled Paul (Josh Saviano), a brainy pal who was also Kevin’s best friend. The tone was wink-wink one minute and woe-is-me another as this group navigated the halls of junior high, then high school and all of the problems that seem so major to this age group: crushes, dates, tormentors, cliques, and run-ins with teachers and coaches.

On the home front, older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) was obviously fond of his brother but lived to torment him, while much older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was so caught up in the ‘60s that she was a flower child from the very first episode. The parents were extremely well cast, with Dan Lauria returning from work each day grumpy and feeling chewed up and spat out, and Alley Mills deferring to him while also trying to act as mediator when he got on the kids.

In a typical episode, the adult Kevin considers a phenomenon—like a new car in the neighborhood—and then moves forward into a plot that’s central to the world of a ‘tween-age boy. But current events and pop culture continue to work their way into the half-hour dramedy, and the full-color notebooks that accompany the DVD packaging are full of voiceover narrator observations.

It was all highly believable, highly entertaining, and as good a way of understanding the impact of events on individual lives as any. But the heart of this series was adolescence, still, and “The Wonder Years” is one of the best coming-of-age shows to hit television. It’s funny, it’s fresh, it’s thought provoking, it insightfully and colorfully captures the era, and it plays well 20 years later.

All 115 half-hour episodes are included on 26 single-sided DVDs, plus over 23 hours of bonus features. Right now, Season 1 is available through retailers, but “The Wonder Years: Complete Series” is only available through Time Life/StarVista Entertainment.

Video:
The series spanned six seasons, so predictably the quality varies from season to season, with a little heavier grain than we get in current DVDs. But because the title sequence is shot like a rough home movie, there’s nothing incongruent about the episodes that follow. The grain and level of detail add to the sense of nostalgia that became the show’s hallmark.

Overall, colors are bright and nicely saturated, edges have decent delineation (considering it’s SD), black levels are sufficient, and there’s nothing too terrible to distract from the plots, the characters, and the acting. “The Wonder Years” is presented in 1.37:1 aspect ratio.  I shudder to think how much this set would cost if it were remastered in addition to being priced to reflect how much song permissions must have set them back.

Audio:
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 that you’ll wish were Dolby Digital 5.1, but there’s a clarity, at least, that does justice to the songs that were so important to the series. Closed captions are in English, and on the feature only—not the bonus features.

Extras:
The extras begin when you open the box. Inside is a cool, sturdy replica Kennedy Junior H.S. metal locker that comes with decorative magnets. Open the locker door and you’ll find two “notebooks” that house the DVDs and whose pages offer detailed episode information, production photos, and yearbook-themed artwork. Also included is a replica yearbook with printed cast signatures and featuring tons of photos and cast-character quotes, with liner notes penned by Fred Savage, series creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, and executive producer Bob Brush.

As for the features themselves, the 2014 reunion interviews with key cast members are a joy to watch. They have fun reliving the series together, and you can see the affection that they all still have for each other and the show. For me, these were the bonus features that were the absolute best to watch. But there’s a lot more, including 12 new featurettes: “With a Little Help from My Friends: The Early Days of The Wonder Years,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’: The Era,” “My Generation: The Kids Grow Up,” “When a Man Loves a Woman: Kevin & Winnie Forever,” “Bookends: Kevin & Paul,” “A Family Affair: At Home with the Arnolds,” “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons: Fan-Favorite Episodes,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow: The Wonder Years Love Stories,” “ABC: Teachers That Made a Difference,” “Both Sides Now: The Music That Made the Moments,” “From the Vault: Alley Mills and Bob Brush Letters,” and “That’s a Wrap! Mark B. Perry’s Farewell Set Tour Season 5.” You can’t rate these, as they’re all of high quality and worth watching.

In addition, there are never-before-seen outtakes (including alternate versions of that first kiss, which gets talked about to death), individual interviews with seven cast members and guest stars, in-depth interviews with the producers and other production personnel, and the one-hour finale as it originally aired, including a deleted scene not seen by the general public until now.

Guest stars also get into the act, and fans may be surprised to see Seth Green in episodes, or David Schwimmer. All of that just adds to the nostalgic quality of the series.

“The Wonder Years: Complete Series” is a bit pricy ($249.95), but if you happen to have a daughter who’s into American Girl dolls it won’t seem like that much. The minute she sees the locker she’ll want to claim it for her dolls, and if you’ve been to American Girl Place you know you’d pay $80-100 for something like that. But taking out the notebooks and putting them on your bookshelves to score points by letting her have the locker? Priceless.

My only complaint is that the cardboard pockets that the discs are supposed to slide into are way too tight, and it’s almost impossible to get the ones near the end boards out without bending the cover. I’ve never been a fan of this type of packaging, but this set is by far the worst when it comes to getting DVDs out.

Bottom line:
There are plenty of coming of age stories, but the classics for me are still “Stand by Me” and “A Christmas Story” in film, and “The Wonder Years” on TV.  In each, you get the full impact of adolescence, but with an important plot twist that puts everything into sharp focus. This is history that will never repeat itself.

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