Why I’m Actually Looking Forward to the Reboot of The Wonder Years
Or the Real Reason Most People Don’t Like Reboots
I have repeatedly made clear that I think that the main reason network television is in dire straits is because they keep trying to reboot existing properties rather than come up with new series. That being said, I wouldn’t mind if the networks did reboot certain series — mainly ones that were ahead of their time and could have more scope now. Wiseguy was a series decades ahead of its time and if the right people were to bring it back, I think it could work brilliantly no matter who played the lead. Similarly Quantum Leap — which would use sci-fi to take a daring look at our history and was canceled before its creators could end it properly — would be extraordinary if it were moved to a modern setting. I know we have a lot of time-traveling series, but what made that show great was how it looked at history through the lives of ordinary people, something that we could use now more than ever.
I also know the real reason that so many people are angry about all the reboots these days — and it really has nothing to do with their quality then or now. I’ll probably get burned in effigy in some circles for saying this, but Magnum P.I. was just a cute caper series, not St. Elsewhere or Moonlighting. But make Higgins a woman and it’s like they decided to colorize Casablanca. The Equalizer was little better than 1980s pulp, and I don’t think people would be furious if Brendan Gleeson was playing the lead role instead of Queen Latifah. They’ll howl and scream about not having original plots, but these stories flew on the characters charisma rather than brilliant writing. To change the series means you have to look at it differently. And no one wants to accept that something in the past might not have been as brilliant as it was when you were younger.
This brings me to ABC’s remake of The Wonder Years this fall, this time done with an African American family. Again the usual outrage about how you’re destroying a precious icon. The reason that I actually think this version could be at least more imaginative than so many remakes is that it actually could cover the territory that, to be honest, the original series barely touched at all.
Now to be clear, I loved The Wonder Years. There have been few series at the time or even now that have been more radical then when it premiered after the 1988 Super Bowl. It looked at childhood in a way that no series had ever done, the awkwardness, the struggles of first love, the difficulty of getting along with your parents and it was more than willing to deal with serious issues than any comedy series before. One of the most moving storylines involved Kevin and his relationship with his math teacher that ending with one of the most powerful moments I remember ever seeing before. It was painful and it was earnest and it showed us that childhood was never as much fun as we remember it when were adults. That may have been the reason that it was never a hit series the same way The Cosby Show and The Simpsons or indeed the lion’s share of ABC’s other comedies of that era. It was lucky to get the six seasons.
What The Wonder Years wasn’t was a story of growing up in the 1960s. It was about growing up while the 1960s happened. That’s why when Daniel Stern in his opening monologue mentioned Denny McLain winning 30 games and not Bobby Kennedy being shot or the chaos at Chicago or even Tommie Smith and Carlos Leon’s stand at the ’68 Olympics. Oh sure, Kevin’s sister was very clearly a flower child and a hippie but let’s not forget she quickly she disappeared from the show after season 1 and was mainly used for comic effect from then on. I remember a story-line about a protest in the Vietnam War during high school, but I’m pretty sure Kevin was more concerned about it appearing on his permanent record than actually taking a stand. Nixon came up a few times and they may have mentioned Woodstock, but honestly in the Arnold household the biggest generational conflict we usually saw about the sixties had to do with the father not liking the Beatles. I don’t remember an African-American character. I sure as hell don’t remember an African-American regular.
I have a feeling that a lot of the popularity of The Wonder Years came from a certain group of people who wanted to remember sixties culture but not have to deal with the chaos. They wanted to hear the music but not hear the protests, see clips of The Smothers Brothers, but not have to find out why the series got cancelled. In other words, the nostalgia factor was in effect; this was not the 1960s of Huey Newton but rather Sally Draper.
There was a series about the real sixties going on contemporaneously on ABC. It was called China Beach and if anything, it was more radical than The Wonder Years. It took place at a nurse station in Vietnam starting in 1967. The series confronted the war dead on, mostly from the perspective of the doctors and nurses who had to patch up the wounded, but also from those of the soldiers, the women who supervised and the ‘caregivers’ — one of whom was an actual prostitute. (One of the actors, Robert Picardo, would appear memorably in both series; as Kevin’s gym coach on The Wonder Years, and as a doctor on China Beach. He did his best comic work and dramatic work, respectively.) One of its episodes — ‘Tet 68’ — was once considered by TV Guide as one of the 100 greatest episodes in Television History. It looked at the perspective of the offensive from every angle, and ended with the accidental death of a series regular. Everything about the 1960s was here, not just the music or Vietnam, but issues of race, gender, the protests against the war and the counterculture, and in the final season, how so many of them looked back on that time. Most of the cast — including Dana Delany, who deservedly won two Best Actress Emmys — would never do better work. But the series was always struggle for survival, and in the fall of 1991, it was cancelled. Show-runner John Wells would be a part of many brilliant series over the next twenty years (ER and The West Wing are some of the most memorable) but would never do anything as different for broadcast TV ever again.
China Beach has basically disappeared from the memories of the public consciousness. So in its own way has The Wonder Years. It’s been out of syndication for more than twenty years; it wasn’t released on DVD until decades after it debuted, and it’s nearly impossible to find streaming. I have a feeling that’s the main reason people are upset that it’s being rebooted, particularly in this fashion.
And the main reason I think The Wonder Years might be a good reboot is because it wouldn’t be able to ignore the chaos of the sixties that the Arnold family was basically able to. Winnie Cooper never had to burn her bra. Wayne Arnold never had to worry about going to Canada to escape the draft. And Kevin sure as hell never had to deal with decisions about busing. (Or if he did, I don’t recall.)
The 1960s were about race. And in an atmosphere where we can’t even agree where America was ever racist to begin with, I can see why a lot of people wouldn’t want to see this version of The Wonder Years premiere. Now, if the series had been about an African American family in the 1960s and was simply called My Race through Childhood (or something similarly innocuous), I have a feeling the outrage wouldn’t be nearly as pronounced. Those same people would be annoyed, but since it’s not a cherished 1980s property, they can disregard it. There have been series like that in the past; most memorably I’ll Fly Away and In the Heat of the Night so we know original ideas like that are viable. Hell, Chris Rock did a story almost like this for UPN called Everybody Hates Chris and nobody screamed that he was ruined their memories of the 1970s.
But this isn’t the 1990s or even the 2000s. You need a brand to get remade. No one really cares about the actual The Wonder Years; I reckon a lot of the people who are pissed even watched it when it was on the air. They’re just changing another thing about the past. The fact that it is actually dealing with an aspect of the past they don’t want to look at may not even be relevant. The actual quality of the show is irrelevant. It’s just another talking point.
Will this new version of The Wonder Years work? I honestly don’t know. But it’s the kind of reboot I would argue for. The previous version succeeded more as a work of nostalgia. The reboot would actually be relevant — no one can say that looking at what it was like to be a black child, then or now, doesn’t matter — and it would be doing so by holding up a mirror to so many of the social constructs that the typical comedy or drama takes for granted. There’s a better argument for this version now than there ever was for the original then. And I’m pretty sure in both, the music will be great.