Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
Welcome to Kevin Arnold’s “wonder years.” The Arnold family is a typical suburban family growing up in the 1960s, dealing with changing attitudes in a climate that will soon redefine America. Jack (Dan Lauria, Independence Day) and Norma (Alley Mills, The Bold and the Beautiful) love their kids but struggle with timely matters including changes in national attitudes towards race, sex, and politics. Their children include the pensive Kevin (Fred Savage, Little Monsters), typical big brother Wayne (Jason Harvey, Back to the Future) and hippie-in-the-making Karen (Olivia D’Abo, Greedy). Kevin spends his time at school and playing with his best friend Paul (Josh Soviano, The Wrong Guys) while being smitten with the girl next door, Winnie Cooper (Danica McKeller, Sidekicks). Through it all the adult version of Kevin (voiced by Daniel Stern, City Slickers) looks back at his childhood, always with amazement, during both the good and bad times.
You know that you’ve created a successful television who that stands the test of time when just the mere mention of its title can bring back sweeping memories. Yet, those memories aren’t of the specifics of the show, but of the feelings contained within the series and its characters. There are few shows that can flood my brain with such specific feelings like The Wonder Years. Even though I didn’t grow up during the show’s historical setting (the early 1960s), I feel as if the show was speaking to me about my childhood. It touches on things that are universal to most of us–first love, new discoveries, crushing disappointments. Historically there have been better television shows, but I don’t think there’s been a better show that dealt so deftly with the longing that comes with looking back on your formative years.
There is so much about The Wonder Years that is pitch perfect. The opening credits of old grainy home movies of the Arnold’s set to Joe Cocker’s cover of The Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends” sets the mood up right away. The stories are rooted in the innocence of childhood, and in losing the innocence of childhood slowly, one small piece at a time. While the show is never mean spirited or crude, it also doesn’t shy away from subjects that touched many of its viewers (indeed, the first episode of the show opens with Paul getting drunk and smoking cigarettes–or possibly pot–around a campfire). Actor Daniel Stern lends his considerable talents as the narrator of the show, a middle aged Kevin looking back on some of the best years of his life. Stern’s narration is–and I know I’m using this word a lot–pitch perfect. The stories touch on a variety of issues, sometimes weighty, sometimes frivolous, but always affecting.
The performances are all uniformly excellent; there isn’t a bad cog in this entire nostalgic machine. Fred Savage is able to give Kevin a wide eyed innocence with just a touch of mischief. Often child actors can be cloying or annoying, but with Savage the show’s creators found a perfect Kevin Arnold. Alley Mills and Dan Lauria as Kevin’s parents give solid, funny, sometimes heartbreaking performances as his caring parents. Lauria especially finds nuanced complexities in Jack, a man who loves his children but whose mind set is often a slave to the times he grew up in. The child actors are surprisingly effective and–thank the good Lord–not at all cloying or too sweet for their own good. Jason Harvey plays a perfect ‘big brother’, the kind who will sit on your chest while spitting and sucking up a green, slimy loogie over your face. Danica McKeller probably ushered many a young boy into puberty and Josh Soviano is the perfect nerd, allergic to just about everything under the sun.
Talking about The Wonder Years makes me realize that it’s actually really hard to talk about The Wonder Years, at least in the way I really want to discuss it. Maybe that’s the magic of the show: it has to be experienced, not written about to death. I suppose the show will ring truer for certain viewers than others, but the heart of the show should speak to anyone who has gone through childhood and came out the other end relatively unscathed.
Each episode of The Wonder Years: Season Two is presented in 1.33:1 full frame. StarVista has done a nice job on these transfers, even if they aren’t as sharp as I’d anticipated. The transfers can sometimes come off as a bit soft, though I’m not sure that wasn’t an artistic choice (to give the show a dream like feel). Colors are bright while the black levels are solid. Each soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo in English. While none of the audio tracks blew me away, overall the mixes sounded solid with the original period songs chiming in distinctly. There are no extra soundtracks or subtitles included on this set.
Extra features include a roundtable discussion with actors Fred Savage, Danica McKeller, and Josh Saviano, a single featurette (“The Times They Are A-Changin’: The Era”), and bonus interviews with actors Dan Lauira, Alley Mills, and Daniel Stern.
The Wonder Years is a show best experienced rather than read about. The entire series is a near perfect exercise in the agonies and triumphs of childhood. Although the setting in the 1960s, The Wonder Years still rings true even in 2015. Fans will be delighted to have this series in its original form with the original music, which was integral to the success of the show. Recommended.