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ABC's The Wonder Years reboot complicates our idea of nostalgia as its integrates "TV's Memory Lane"

  • "Nostalgia is itself a kind of time machine, and TV has generally let white characters drive it," says James Poniewozik. "Freaks and Geeks, That ’70s Show, Happy Days, Brooklyn Bridge, American Dreams, The Goldbergs — these stories of fads and family and regrettable fashion choices, with occasional exceptions (Everybody Hates Chris), have not made for the most diverse of genres. TV’s wellspring of Boomer remember-when is The Wonder Years, the dewy-eyed look back at 1968 from the vantage of 1988, when the pilot introduced Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), entering middle school in a generic suburb, his hormones coming to a boil in sync with the larger society." While the original Wonder Years "was not Pollyannish about the old days," the "the recurring theme, underlined by Daniel Stern’s voice-over, is that Kevin is learning about the larger world just as the larger world is learning unpleasant things about itself," says Poniewozik. "To an audience that shared Kevin’s experience, it says: Sure, a lot of things started going wrong then, but we were just kids, figuring it all out. We didn’t start the fire!" Poniewozik adds: "Your relationship to history has very much to do with which side of history your ancestors were on. And how comfortably you revisit the past depends on whether you assume the past is friendly territory for someone like you. You don’t have to watch sitcoms to see this. The political culture-war rhetoric of nostalgia — appealing to the audience’s sense that the past was better for people like them, before their childhood favorites were recast or canceled — has been as central to Trumpist conservative campaigning as any policy plank. The 'Again' in 'Make America Great Again' is doing a lot of work. Great for whom? All this gives ABC’s new version of The Wonder Years, centered on a Black family, an immediate sense of purpose: to integrate TV’s Memory Lane, to complicate our idea of what nostalgia means, to show us what it looks like when someone else climbs in the time machine." In ABC's Wonder Years reboot, "race isn’t a special-episode topic here," says Poniewozik. "It’s part of life. It’s in Dean’s sister’s Black Panthers T-shirt; in the taunts of the bully who picks on Dean for carrying a lunchbox 'like you’re white' (the insult “confuses me to this day,” the adult Dean says); and in a key scene, when the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination breaks while Dean is playing baseball against a white school friend’s team." In the original Wonder Years, which begins months after the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy, MLK is an afterthought. "For Kevin, King’s murder is one of many sad things in the world that echo his personal melancholy," says Poniewozik. "Dean, like Kevin, is a kid who doesn’t keep close tabs on current events. He has a crush too, and it’s only when he sees her kissing another boy that, he says, 'the anger I was seeing on the news made a little more sense.' Still, The Wonder Years makes clear that Dean can’t experience history as background noise to the extent that Kevin did."

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    • The Wonder Years is the latest example of "the emptiness of the Black recast": "No one should expect any sort of Black political or social education from The Wonder Years but the metanarrative around the update does imply a level of progressive politics that the show seeks to tap into," says Tirhakah Love. "As we’re learning in the political world, liberal politics almost never equate to more power for Black people. In fact, Black creators in both mediums would likely consider that the practice of shoehorning Black people into white uniforms actually does quite a disservice to representations of Blackness. The Black Recast, then, could be a lot more regressive than we think...Representation, itself, feels like a distraction not just from the racist underpinnings of the industry but from the ways Hollywood very much exists within an imperial project that seeks to propagate false notions of reality. When reboots and the Black Recast wed, it can mask a practical issue central to the remake-industrial complex—it steals precious time and resources that could be distributed to original IP from non-white, non-straight creators." Pointing to a recent Atlantic article on how Black writers had to “negotiate authenticity" with their white bosses on Black TV shows, Love adds: "A Black recast is, to some degree, one of the most ubiquitous examples of Blackface, wherein white executives mask their interests and demands behind a Black mask and deem it 'Black art.' Our present version of nostalgia is a multidimensional mirror. The white version of The Wonder Years was a 1980s look into a 1960s America that, having lost the Vietnam War, was ripe for revisionism. Now, as the current generation reckons with our losses in terms of race and class freedom, another revision is at hand. This time in Blackface—and perhaps even more regressive than ever before."
    • How The Wonder Years reboot composers channeled the 1960s with their music: “Our hope is that people feel the humanness of the music,” says Jacob Yoffee, who with and Roahn Hylton were tasked with creating a sonic landscape to connect the era with the story. “It’s been important to us that every piece can be performed by a band without heavy use of ‘studio magic.’ Within the world of show, the father has his own band, and our vision is that the entire score could be performed by that band. So we’re using instruments that would have been common in jazz, funk, soul, and R&B at the time. It’s thrilling because this era is one of my favorites musically, so getting to paint with these sounds is a real gift.”

    TOPICS: The Wonder Years (2021 Series), ABC, The Wonder Years (1988 Series), Elisha “EJ” Williams, African Americans and TV, Music and TV, Retro TV




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