When ABC decided to do a reboot of its hit ’80s family dramedy The Wonder Years, they could have probably come up with a story for almost any generation, but instead it chose to remount the show’s legacy rather than create a brand new one. The show’s success beyond its first year on TV at all was then largely the result of a special that aired shortly after the show’s conclusion in 1988, it became a retro television staple in syndication for many years, and long-form content sometimes inspired nostalgic and adult-themed specials. Of course, a remake could also make use of elements from the original, which includes the show’s rapport between its protagonists, its time period, and its general quiet sensibility.
But The Wonder Years reboot, launched at the end of September with a first season consisting of 13 episodes, remains a decidedly emotional one, weaving in themes of authenticity and fulfillment with moments of heightened humor and surprising grit. The new show centers on Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), the son of Kevin Arnold and his mother Betty (played by Martha Plimpton), and his three brothers, the eldest of whom is their father Phil, played by Josh Saviano in the original series. The premise of the show finds Kevin initially unsure of his biological father, while revisiting his youth and adolescence in the wake of having a son himself. The show features appearances by old series regulars Danica McKellar and Noah Wyle, as well as guest stars including Didi Conn, Dan Lauria, and Jane Curtin.
You might expect that a show with this pedigree would feature a stellar ensemble cast, but not even so much as a recurring character seems to fare better than Kevin himself. Savage, who was a thoroughly cool kid on The Wonder Years, here seems a different animal altogether. Instead of seeing Kevin as a dreamy flaky teenager, viewers see him as a hardscrabble kid with a prickly relationship with his family, and a browbeaten state of mind. Though we get brief glimpses of his childhood, every major event in Kevin’s life is a bit too clearly foretold, such as his adolescence. The same is true of the show’s depictions of his interactions with his siblings, who seem from the first episode to be a bunch of embittered teenagers. His relationship with his father is particularly awkward, and it’s only later that things seem to brighten for the couple. Instead of finding humor in their awkwardness, the series plays it straight, and seemingly for no reason.
The series does attempt a bit of satire of adolescence, but it feels rather contrived and forced — perhaps a bit too much so. Unlike prior prime-time sitcoms, for example, The Wonder Years doesn’t attempt to get into the head of its characters in a heavy manner, to the extent that the show becomes the most self-serious show on TV. Its primary purpose seems to be breaking even the most schoolyard of boy-and-girl patterns, giving it a singular, warm-hearted charm. At the end of the show’s first season, Kevin leaves in the middle of an important episode to go home, prompting his father to tell him that what Kevin is left with will almost certainly be the best thing he’s ever done. Kevin, whom The Times referred to as “a good kid,” then retorts “Good kid, huh?”
There are now 13 episodes of The Wonder Years left in the TV season — if the show can sustain its current caliber and momentum. If it does, it will likely see a rise from its first year ranking as ABC’s fifth-highest-rated show, which will also be a rarity for a primetime series from the ’80s. If it can’t, The Wonder Years might just remain a warm-and-sweet and wholesome reminder of a very ’80s television era. But if it can, all it might take is a memory of the simplicity and likability of The Wonder Years to take you back down memory lane.