It’s been more than 30 years since “The Wonder Years” premiered, introducing viewers to 12-year-old Kevin Arnold, who navigates life in a nondescript suburban town with his best friend Paul and longtime crush Winnie.
Set against the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War, the coming-of-age story starring Fred Savage won a Peabody Award in 1989 for pushing “the boundaries of the sitcom” and leading to “new modes of storytelling.”
Now, “The Wonder Years” is returning via a reboot that strives to maintain the spirit of the original while also telling its own story.
Like the original series, “The Wonder Years” — which premieres on ABC Wednesday night — begins in 1968. But this time, the remake revisits this period by centering the story on a Black middle class family in Montgomery, Alabama. Specifically, viewers see events unfold through the eyes of 12-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha Williams), voiced in narration as an adult by Don Cheadle.
“Something we wanted to make sure didn’t happen is that people think this is an exact copy,” Williams told the pop culture website The Undefeated. “The original show was unique and they set the bar pretty high. We don’t want to meet the same standards. We want to go even higher than that. There’s always room for improvement. If the improvement keeps coming then we can hopefully go higher than what the original did.”
What to expect from ‘The Wonder Years’ remake
The pilot episode premiering Wednesday was directed by Savage, so there is inherently a strong connection to the spirit of the original.
Throughout its run in the late 1980s and early 1990s, “The Wonder Years” had a unique blend of comedy and tragedy. In setting up the story, though, the first episode was substantially heavier, with Winnie’s older brother being killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Similarly, the pilot episode of the “The Wonder Years” remake doesn’t shy away from weighty subjects — according to the Los Angeles Times, the episode beings with the following narration: “Growing up, Mom and Dad gave me the police talk about how to handle yourself around cops.”
The pilot episode also includes the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and how that tragedy affects each character, USA Today reported. Although this period in history is well documented in pop culture, those behind “The Wonder Years” remake believe the new series stands apart for its focus on a Black middle-class family.
“We’ve certainly seen that time period represented, and the civil rights movement represented in great ways that tapped into what the struggle was,” Saladin Patterson, the the series’ writer and executive producer, recently told USA Today. “But usually from a different lens than what a middle-class experience would have been.”
“A lot of Black families were lower middle class and middle class,” producer Lee Daniels added. “And they have not been depicted in this era properly.”
Actor Dule Hill, who plays the father, Bill Williams, said that while he was a fan of the original series growing up, the remake tells a “wider story.”
“As much as I loved the original, I was aware of not seeing myself as much as I would have liked,” Hill told The Undefeated. “There’s a wider story that could be told, which is part of why I said yes to this role. To be able to look back at the late 1960s and explore a story of a full African American family who go through their ups and downs and are connected in love in the midst of everything around us. … It’s an important story and it’s my honor to be a part of this cast.”
Why remake ‘The Wonder Years’?
There are a lot of parallels between the original and the remake.
The theme song will continue to be Joe Cocker’s soulful rendition of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser. The story continues to be told from a 12-year-old boy’s perspective, with reflective narration from his adult self.
The friend and family dynamics are similar, too. In addition to 12-year-old Dean, the Williams family includes the parents, an older sister who is a “rebel” and an older brother who is in Vietnam, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But at the same time, this is a completely different family from the Arnolds of the original “Wonder Years.”
“Totally new characters. A different city. A different environment,” Patterson told the Montgomery Advertiser. “But still thematically related to the concept of that time in our country’s history being looked as wonder years of sorts for the middle class and the middle class dream. How people were wrestling with what the American dream was and then what the reality of society was at the same time.”
“I hope it’s the beginning of what we should be doing, which is seeing the fullness of ourselves reflected on our television screens,” Hill told The Undefeated. “The country is very dynamic and diverse — we’re not just one group of people. I think the more we can highlight the different stories that we have to tell, the fuller our viewing experience and our living experience will be.”
For young actor Elisha Williams, whose character is at the heart of the remake, he hopes the series will remind viewers of the power of love and family.
“The world needs to have an example,” he told The Undefeated. “There are billions of people in this world, so everyone’s example can’t be the same, but I believe that this family can set an example for what families should be like. No family is perfect, obviously, but there are different ways to come together as one. It shows togetherness, love and joy, and that’s what the world needs right now.”
How to watch ‘The Wonder Years’
“The Wonder Years” airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. MT. The episodes are available for streaming the following day on Hulu.