In the last act of the pilot to The Wonder Years, the beloved coming of age series that followed a young boy (played by the deeply moving Fred Savage) grow and navigate adolescence during the late 60s and early 70s, three remarkable moments indicated that it would not be a typical half hour comedy. First, as Kevin Arnold (Savage) defies his mom, Norma (Alley Mills), by refusing to give his junior school principal a reasonable answer for misconduct, the camera cuts to a shot of Kevin’s father Jack (Dan Lauria), watching with a scowl and clenched fist. The adult Kevin (voiced by Daniel Stern) narrates that he believed he was soon to get a healthy dose of corporal punishment from his pissed off old man. The threat of violence that Lauria emits indicated that this TV dad is no Mr. Brady or Mr. Cunningham, men you respected but never cowered from. You fear for Kevin, unlike you have for any wise cracking TV kid before.
The Arnolds return home and the second stunning moment occurs. As Jack, Kevin and Norma approach the house, they’re met by the other two Arnold children, Wayne (Jason Hervey) and Karen (Olivia d’Abo). They’ve just learned that Brian Cooper, their teenage neighbor and the older brother of Kevin’s classmate and future girlfriend, Winnie, has been killed in Vietnam. The thought of punishment escapes Jack and he places his hand on Kevin’s shoulder to comfort his 11 year old son. It’s a rare expression of love between the father and son.
Finally, as the episode nears its end, Kevin and Winnie (played by the exceptional Danica McKellar) take a night time walk in the park. Kevin is still trying to make sense of Brian’s death, but he can’t fathom what Winnie must be going through. How does one deal with the loss of their sibling at such a young age? A part of her childhood has been stripped from Winnie. With puberty looming, she’s been thrust into adulthood faster than she wants. But it was the 1960s, a time of upheaval and social unrest. Everyone was growing up faster than they should.
Kevin and Winnie come to a place where they can sit on a rock to reflect. Instead of trying to say something profound, Kevin is silent. When Winnie shivers, Kevin gives her his jacket. And then they kiss. It’s the first kiss for both characters: tender, sweet and innocent. They’ll recall this moment for the rest of their lives.
In those last ten minutes of the show, the producers of The Wonder Years announced that this series would not be a sitcom with a canned laughter and forced guffaws. Instead, they created one of the first popular dramedies, one that’s had a lasting impact on television. I would compare this series to Freaks and Geeks or Parenthood, series that combined drama with social commentary and doses of humor to move the viewer and make them think. This genre is a rarity anymore. Even a network such as ABC Family has a hard time producing them, airing on the side of high concept YA shows instead.
The Wonder Years contained some of the most memorable television in the late 80s and early 90s, and the work the writers, producers and actors did each week outshined most of the comedies and dramas that were popular during the first Bush presidency. This beloved television show has been at the top of almost every list of Most Wanted TV on DVD for years. The holdup has always been the issue of music licensing. During its series run, The Wonder Years utilized over 300 classic songs from the 60s and early 70s.
In order to preserve the show as it was originally intended to be watched, whatever distributor that decided to handle releasing The Wonder Years would have to get the clearance of every song. And we’re not just talking about one hit wonders. Among the heavy hitters on the enormous soundtrack are Dylan, the Stones, Hendrix, the Who, Aretha, Simon & Garfunkel and Carole King, not to mention Joe Cocker’s memorable recording of the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which served as the show’s title song. In stepped StarVista Entertainment and Time Life, who performed a similar Herculean effort with their excellent China Beach complete series, to complete the task and release all 115 episodes of The Wonder Years with the music intact.
Music and behind the scenes machinations aside, I was just thrilled to see The Wonder Years for the first time ever. The Wonder Years premiered in the spring of 1988, my high school senior year and a time when I watched little to no television. That fall, as a college freshman, I didn’t even own a TV. By 1993, when The Wonder Years had reached its end, I had no idea what was going on and felt that I’d missed the boat.
With fresh eyes and my heart wide open, I can tell you that this series is a remarkable achievement in television. It was produced with the right mix of humor, nostalgia and melancholy. Most important, there is a deep amount of love felt with every half hour. While I loved watching the peaks and valleys of Kevin’s relationship with Winnie, as well as the challenges he faced with his best friend Paul (Josh Saviano), I still go back to “My Father’s Office,” which hails from season one, as my favorite episode. In it, Kevin spends a day at work with Jack and comes to understand why he is the way he is: a man of few words and little emotion. He also realizes that his dad is a great man. I could relate to”My Father’s Office” because my own dad was a lot like Jack. There was a generation of men who were taught to suppress everything and found it difficult to express their feelings. Dad was one of them.
The Wonder Years Complete Series comes in a collectible metal locker that stands about a foot and a half tall, a replica of the one used by Kevin and Winnie. The 26 DVDs are housed books that resemble three ring binders that include liner notes penned by star Fred Savage, series creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, and executive producer Bob Brush. Bonus materials include 23 hours of interviews and featurettes, including a 2014 cast reunion that finds all of the leads reflecting on their time on The Wonder Years and how the show changed their lives. Besides the extensive interviews of the main cast, notable actors who guest starred on the show also receive camera time, such as David Schwimmer, Ben Stein, Robert Picardo and Seth Green.
This isn’t simply a case of dumping the episodes on DVD. The producers took to mind the historical significance of the show and love the series has and created a keepsake that is worthy of the show’s greatness. Christmas is right around the corner and The Wonder Years makes for a great gift, a wonderful way for the family to sit around and unwind, reflect, laugh, cry and grow from the humanity in each episode.
The Wonder Years Complete Series is available exclusively through Time/Life.com