As I wrote in my review of “The Wonder Years: Complete Series,” this coming-of-age TV comedy-drama gets it right. 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. “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 1987 series 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.
Kids Kevin Arnold’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, 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 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.
If you didn’t have the money to plunk down for the Complete Series or want to test the waters, Season 2 is a great place to start. There are continuing storylines, but you don’t have to have seen Season 1 to understand, enjoy, and appreciate Season 2. Nothing here is backstory dependent, and the voiceover narration gives you a pretty good sense of Kevin’s past as well as his current thought process.
This season has a few classic episodes, like the “Star Trek” riff where Kevin and his friends encounter “alien forms” (girls), Kevin’s participation in a class walkout to protest the Vietnam War, Kevin standing up to his brother, Kevin and Winnie’s second kiss, and his attempts to keep developers from destroying the gang’s beloved Harper’s Woods.
The four-DVD set contains all 17 episodes from Season 2 as they were originally broadcast and with most of the music intact, including classics by Bob Dylan, Carole King, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Cream, Bing Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Traffic, Diana Ross and the Supremes, James Taylor, Nat King Cole, The Miracles, Judy Collins, and Donovan.
There’s a little more grain than we’re used to getting in contemporary series, but the show has always had a rough look to it to “age” it. 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.
The audio is an English Dolby Digital 2.0 that, because of the great soundtrack, 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.
One of the entertaining roundtables from the Complete Series featuring Savage, McKellar, and Saviano is included, along with the featurette “The Times They Are A-Changin’: The Era” and separate interviews with Lauria, Mills, and voiceover narrator Daniel Stern.
“The Wonder Years” was highly believable and highly entertaining—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 it remains one of the best coming-of-age shows to hit television. It’s funny, fresh, thought provoking, insightful, and evocative of the era. Twenty years later it still holds up, and Season 2 is a good place to start