We Shouldn’t Have To Wonder About This Series’ Chances At Renewal
Why The Reboot of The Wonder Years Deserves Another Season
We are coming to the end of the 2021–2022 broadcast season. There was a time I used to dedicate this period in my blog to advocate for network series that were ‘on the bubble’. I’ve done it less frequently as the quality of so many network offerings have diminished to the point that most of them either aren’t worth saving or get cancelled before they get a chance. But there are still some broadcast series worth saving and this column will argue for one of them.
It’s not really a surprise that the series airs on ABC; this is, after all, a network with a long and storied history of developing extremely brilliant series and just as quickly cancelling them. This is the network that has decided to let Station 19 and The Good Doctor keep on going, while letting far more exceptional shows like American Crime and For the People die just as arbitrarily. I suppose this is where the constant reader of this blog expects me to advocate of A Million Little Things or Big Sky, two exceptional dramas that I keep insisting the Emmys should nominating for awards and never happens. Both series are, like they have been in past years, on the bubble and may very well meet their end in a few weeks. Instead, I’m going to do something none of you who read this blog would expect me to do: advocate in the strongest possible terms for a reboot to be renewed.
There has rarely been such hostility towards the revival of a series before it even aired the way that so many people reacted when ABC announced that they would be rebooting The Wonder Years under Lee Daniels’ province with an African-American family. How dare they make a ‘woke’ series of one of the most beloved shows in TV history? How dare they give it they ‘ruin’ the same way the networks have done with The Equalizer and Walker, Texas Ranger? The fact that the original The Wonder Years was looked on with harsh criticism in the 1980s for daring to look at the 1960s in the same way and was never a ratings bonanza is, of course, lost on so many people. The fact that so many of these critics who have been ranting about the damage to America since the 1960s — a decade primarily about racial struggles — would not see the double standard is just as lost on them. The series is currently ranked with a 5.9 rating on imdb.com, even though the lions share of the reviews for individual episodes ranks between a seven and eight range. It’s clear that just the idea of it caused so much resentment in closed minded people who have obviously never even watched the series that they have heavily weighted their rankings in advance.
I was more than willing to be fair to the series and it more than justified my faith. It’s extremely well written and acted from EJ Williams and Dule Hill down, and is just as comic and entertaining as the original series. I had no problem putting it on my top ten list for 2021. Watching the series over the past several months, I am struck by a couple of things that may shock some people: 1) how it is not a ‘woke’ series at all, and is in fact only slightly more political in its views than the original, and 2) that it fundamentally looks at the issues of family and friendship in a deeper way that the original series.
Much of the original Wonder Years focused less on the relationship between Kevin and his family then with his friends and growing up. The new Wonder Years is far more focused on the idea of family and how it affects you. Dean has a tricky relationship with his sister Kim, who does believe, casually, in the idea of black militancy. She’s also just as determined to find a place for herself in the world, which includes working at a diner. During one episode, we saw Kim’s relationship with her friends from high school who found Dean ‘cute’, but were actually pumping him for information about her ex-boyfriend. Simultaneously Kim was engaged in a troubled relationship with one of her fellow waitresses, a slightly older white girl. The white girl is a racist, right? Wrong. In actuality, the white girl has been in a situation like Kim’s and it ended up leaving her a single mother. The two end up becoming closer and the episode ends with Kim babysitting her son.
The reboot also demonstrates that generational differences didn’t start with the 1960s. In ‘Country Dean’, the Williams family visits Dean’s grandparents and it becomes clear almost from the moment Lillian sets foot in the door that she and her mother never got along. Lillian is a very skilled professional — we saw in an early episode that she practically runs the accounting office she works in — but none of that seems to make a difference to her mother, who is set her ways and utterly refuses to accept her daughters help in a land dispute, even as it becomes increasingly clear that her parents need the help. The episode actually ends with Lillian and her mother helping birth a calf and Dean sees a side of his mother he never knew, and learns from a neighbor that her mother can’t stop bragging about her daughter when she’s not there.
We’ve gotten a closer look at Bill’s father over the last few episodes, most recently in ‘Goose Grease’ where Dean tries to bond with his father in a hunting trip and ends up exposing three generations of Williams’s men to chicken pox. Grandpa Cisby refuses to rely on going to a doctor even as Dean worsens, and there’s a very clear reason other than stubbornness. He tells his son that “one of his friends was treating at Tuskegee and he keeps getting worse.” (Don Cheadle, the narrator says, quietly: “That’s the part of history they still don’t teach enough in school.) It does illustrate a greater fear that so many African-Americans have always had of medical professionals and when they are forced to go to the hospital (Dean develops blood poisoning) it’s telling that its Grandpa Cisby who decides to be brave and get his blood drawn for his grandson.
But the best episode to date has been ‘Love and War’. We’ve heard in bits and pieces that Bruce, the oldest Williams child, has been fighting in Vietnam, and at the end of Goose Grease, the Williams’ learn that he was wounded in action. Bruce is recovering a VA hospital when the Williams’ meet his much older girlfriend (she’s about seven years older than him). They’re not inclined to like her, and even less when they learn she’s divorced and has a young son. Dean sees the child as a rival for his brother’s affection and wants him to suffer. The episode is very funny in this regard, particularly as the Williams’ get to like his girlfriend despite that, and when the Williams parents try to thwart Bruce’s efforts to move in with his new girlfriend, Kim says: “You don’t want to hear this, but you probably drove him to doing just what you want him not to.” It actually gets funnier when they learn he proposed and she says: “I told you so.”
But the show reaches a serious tone when Bruce, who has spent the episode refusing to discuss how he got wounded or why he’s ashamed of his Bronze Star, tells the family of his combat experience and how his injury came at the cost of one his closest friends, Brian. He feels the same guilt that so many soldiers who came home have always felt, that his fallen comrades will never get to have a wife and family, and that he didn’t deserve the medal. Bill gently tells his son: “They didn’t give (the medal) for who you were during the war; they gave it to you for who you were before.” And you get a sense that there’s a stronger ties between the Williams’ parents and the oldest child then their ever was between the Arnolds and their oldest child.
ABC actually provided a link between this version of The Wonder Years and the original in the last minute by showing Dean and Bruce looking at the picture of Brian and his kid sister. Dean asks her name: “Gwendolyn. But he called her Winnie.” And those of who remember the original will recall Winnie Cooper learned her brother died in Vietnam in the Pilot of the original. Some will no doubt scoff at this as a throw in to the fans. To them I’d say two things: first, a lot of soldiers died in Vietnam, and two, barring some really radically anti-aging computer graphics does anyone really think we’re going to see Danica McKellar, especially after this series has gone out of its way to ignore any real link to the original until now? Both versions may be set at the same time; they’re not filmed there.
The Wonder Years more than deserves to be renewed and ABC has given it more confidence that some of their other series, giving it a full season renewal rather than cancelling it early. But you’d think given its quality that they’d be willing to show the same level of confidence they were willing to give Abbott Elementary, another high quality comedy series that also deserves to be talked about for Emmy consideration. Considering the fact black-ish ended its run last month, ABC needs all the great comedy series it can get right now. And seriously, if they’re willing to give The Goldbergs a tenth seasons after all the crap it’s going through with Jeff Garlin, this should be a no-brainer. On a personal level, I really want to see how the future unfolds for the Williams clans. The 1960s and 70s were different were very different for them and the Arnolds, but the fact that its willing to show that many of the same problems did affect them is a note of optimism we need in television — broadcast in particular — right now.