The New Wonder Years might even be Better Than You Think
About three months I wrote a long article about why I thought the new reboot of The Wonder Years, re-imagined from the perspective of a black family in 1968 Atlanta could truly be a work of art if it was handled right. I’ve never been so delighted to be vindicated so quickly.
The original Wonder Years, as I said in the original article, was an exceptionally funny and wistful series that was about growing up in the 1960s that really didn’t touch on the 1960s. The new version, under the production of Lee Daniels, tackles it head on and doesn’t let go. The narrator (Don Cheadle, finally getting to use his comic abilities for a show that worthy of it) tells us about growing up in 1968, starting by comparing it to how it was to the world we live it right now: (There was a election year, race riots and a flu-epidemic) The series centers around Dean Williams, a twelve year old boy and unlike the Arnold family, they are neck deep in the 1960s. The father (Dule Hill in what’s arguably his best performance) is a musician who just had a hit record. The mother is a housewife is far more concerned about the family. Kim, his older sister is clearly active in the civil rights movement’s more radical wing. Dean has a best friend Cory, who unlike Paul has grown into be tall over the summer. The girl he worships is Kaisa. And he has a white best friend, Brad who really is an ally. His uncle is in prison.
The series starts taking the hard issues right on. The Pilot deals with the boys trying to have their team, which is all-black play the white team. The series has them attending a desegregated school but the racism is pretty much there, even when the teachers don’t want to admit it to themselves. They persuade their coach to do it, over the objections of everybody’s parents. Dean feels proud — until the game when the pitcher throws right at his head. From then on, Dean is battling the advice of his father and his coach who can’t agree on anything. Its comedy gold — and then the neighbors walk up and tell everybody that Martin Luther King, Jr. has been shot. The rest of the episode deals with the family handling the aftermath. Even this early, its pretty clear the Pilot is willing to go far further than the original was. Fans of the show remember the iconic moment when the episode with Kevin kissing Winnie for the first time. This time, the episode ends Kaisa kissing Cory, and Dean arriving just in time to see it.
What has convinced me more than anything this series could quickly become a classic was the second episode. In addition to all the torment going on the outside world, Dean has to deal with the new relationship between his best friend and the girl he loves. Dean’s approach to his anguish is mistaken for being grieving over King’s death, and in a wonderful series of actions, he begins to milk white liberal guilt, using as an excuse to get a higher grade and get out of gym class. Then things, just as they do in life, start to spiral. Cory and Kaisa are also in grief, so the teacher says for them to a report on Martin Luther King and what he meant to them. Dean doesn’t want to work with them, but he doesn’t want them to work together either. The story than involves to a beautiful interaction with Dean’s father who is far more literate than Kevin’s ever was on the series. The report Dean gives a work of art, and it’s pretty clear that Cory and Kaisa did nothing. When they all get A’s (which will no doubt cause a certain segment to argue about the roots of affirmative actions) Dean finally confronts them about it, and it becomes hurt and humorous. There are some truly magic moments the rest of the way (I won’t spoil them because they’re worth seeing) but it’s profoundly moving and hysterically funny all at the same time.
When I went to see what the ratings for the series were at imdb.com I was shocked, but not truly surprise, to see how low they were. Reading the lion’s share didn’t surprise me: many of them just used the word ‘woke’. I imagine most of them didn’t even bother to watch the original Wonder Years; they just don’t want anything that’s ‘theirs’ changed. (Not to get political, but I’m willing to be they think the same thing about ‘critical race theory’ even though they have no idea what it is.)
So let me be blunt: This version of The Wonder Years completely justifies the idea of the reboot. It takes what was a solid idea and completely rebrands it with a real feel and originality all its own. It is exceptionally well written and well-acted. It is wistful, poignant and hysterically funny, often within the same minute. It may very well be the most truly brilliant network comedy since The Good Place, and like that show, deserves recognition for awards. It may not be able to run as long as the series it’s inspired by, but it clearly deserves too. And it says a lot that a period piece may be by far the most relevant show on network TV today. It may be inspired by old material, but watching it, you can’t help but acknowledged it’s inspired. You want to assume that this rave is some kind of liberal guilt? I defended this reboot before I even saw it and often even the idea of a reboot is repugnant to me. And it does have one critical thing in common with the original: there’s some real great music in the background. Power to the series.
My score: 5 stars.