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ABC's The Wonder Years reboot with a Black cast brings a new, necessary perspective to a timeless classic

  • "From even the first 30 seconds, the new Wonder Years makes clear that there’s just as much to gain and appreciate from a look back at life 40 years ago — from a new perspective — as there was when the original show looked back at life 20 years ago," says LaToya Ferguson. "Especially when you consider how much things are currently still eerily similar, despite the number of decades that have passed; from the 'police talk' to the 'presidential election that created a racial divide' to a 'flu pandemic." Ferguson adds that Don Cheadle "makes for a very engaging voiceover, especially when the adult version of Dean has to process the day-to-day prejudiced actions and microaggressions he didn’t quite realize when he was a youth at the time. Dean and Cory’s white friend, Brad (Julian Lerner), constantly tries to let them know when certain white people 'aren’t prejudiced,' but his meter for such judgements is never quite accurate. But the key to this series will be to let the child version of Dean act and carry the material. The pilot offers a decent balance, but it is a bit touch and go at times, especially in the early beats of the pilot. However, as the pilot goes on, it becomes quite clear why EJ Williams was cast in the role; he is a child actor who evokes that sense of earnestness, of wide-eyed wonder and that feeling of just trying to make it through puberty. And the show’s pilot finds a perfect director — Fred Savage — to get that kind of performance out of the young actor."

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    • The Wonder Years reboot fails to capture the magic of the original: "The Wonder Years was like few other sitcoms when it premiered in 1988," says Stephen Robinson. "It had a cinematic feel with clever humor that recalled some of the better Woody Allen movies of the period (specifically 1987’s Radio Days), but there was a depth and poignancy beyond simple nostalgia. This extended to the now classic theme song, Joe Cocker’s 1969 cover of The Beatles’ 'With a Little Help From My Friends.' Like The Wonder Years itself, the song is bittersweet and almost heartbreaking. It immediately threw down the gauntlet, separating the series from other 1980 family sitcoms with saccharine theme songs and stories. ABC’s remake of The Wonder Years, which premieres tonight, has little in common with the original other than its name. (Fred Savage, who played Kevin Arnold in the original series, is an executive producer.) For one, there’s no mistaking this series for a movie. Its single-camera format with quick cutaway gags is more reminiscent of recent sitcoms such as How I Met Your Mother and Everybody Hates Chris, which were both narrated by an older version of the lead character." Robinson adds: "Series creator Saladin K. Patterson has said it was important to focus on a Black, middle class perspective, which is admirable, but it feels at times like he’s just remade The Cosby Show (there’s probably a market for The Huxtables without the repulsive Bill Cosby). What set the original The Wonder Years apart was its unflinching look at middle-class life. The Arnolds didn’t live in a Capra-esque small town but the suburbs, which is described as having 'all the disadvantages of the city, and none of the advantages of the country. And vice versa.' Kevin’s father, Jack (Dan Lauria), didn’t have the job of his dreams but instead came home each night angry and just a little more broken inside. Both Bill and Lillian are college graduates, fully content in their professions, and the only question for the kids’ future is whether they’ll attend a historically all black college, like their parents, or a newly integrated one. The show’s pilot also promotes the Cosby-esque myth that a comfortable middle class existence provides a refuge from racism. Middle class white people are presumably kinder and more tolerant than their lower income brethren, which is both classist and fundamentally untrue, as viral cell phone videos from the past few years would demonstrate."
    • The Wonder Years is full of potential, but its pilot takes on too much: "This Wonder Years seems less interested in nostalgia than in exploring what growing up against history does to one kid," says Daniel D'Addario. "Credit the pilot of The Wonder Years 2.0 with this: With brainpower that’s rare for a contemporary network sitcom, it makes its characters’ relationships feel vivid and real against the backdrop of changing times." D'Addario adds: "In trying to address quite so much in a 22-minute pilot, The Wonder Years can feel rushed, as it takes on subject matter that deserves a bit more breathing room...The raw material is here for a strong show: The entire cast, including and especially the younger members are warm and likable, with Williams delivering a refreshingly unmannered turn and Cheadle doing his best to anchor us in the story. And the pilot’s final insight — that these were years of wonder because the family was a single still point in a rapidly changing world — is nicely communicated (even if the episode-ending music cue, in what may become a hazard for this show, is a bit familiar). It’s worth hoping that future episodes, not likely to have massive historical events to depict each time, manage to show change in ways that are easier for the show to get its arms around. This is an evidently big-hearted show whose pilot has great fundamentals but tries to juggle a bit more than it realistically can in less than half an hour. That’s suggestive of ambition, which makes a viewer hope this show finds its voice and its pace in the coming weeks."
    • The reboot is a bit more broadly comedic than the original series, in the current ABC sitcom mold: "On the other hand, keeping the 1960s setting feels overly loyal to the original: Shouldn’t this be set in the 1990s or so? (Dean would be a senior citizen by now.)," says Dave Nemetz. "The pilot settles into familiar kid sitcom rhythms: Dean has a best friend, a bully, an excitable Jewish pal and a crush on a tough tomboy who borrows his comic books. Williams does a nice enough job as Dean, but it’s a tall order for him to match the instant star power that a young Fred Savage had as Kevin Arnold. This version also puts more of a focus on the parents than the original did… which is understandable, because Hill is so good here as dad Bill. He’s a music professor, a funk musician and an all-around cool dude (in fact, 'Be cool' is a constant refrain of his), and Hill makes him a warm, magnetic presence from the very first frames. Fans of the original series will be bracing themselves for a sharp dramatic turn late in the pilot, and indeed, there is one — two, actually. But they just don’t pack the same emotional wallop that the pilot’s twist did. That seems to be the overall story with this version of The Wonder Years: a decent enough remake, but one that lacks the groundbreaking verve of the original and pulls its punches a bit."
    • The Wonder Years tries to draw comparisons with today, but with more joy: "Setting the story in 1968 seems designed to show how eerily similar life's problems then mirror ours today, with Black schools being defunded and closed and Black and white communities self-segregating," says Melanie McFarland. "The script even references pandemic fears, except back then a flu strain was the source of our worries. However, despite all that, this look back through time leans more intensely toward joy than sorrow. Don Cheadle's gentle narration as adult Dean sets and maintains that tone, although Dulé Hill's calm, fatherly presence as Dean's father Bill, a musician who works as a professor to pay the bills, solidifies the show's kindness. Really, though, this entire cast harmonizes beautifully, especially when Bill is seen romancing his wife Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh) in moments they steal for themselves. There isn't a lot in the first episode that announces much distinctness or originality in the overall approach of this new version of The Wonder Years, and maybe that's the point. Dean's sister Kim (Laura Kariuki) is a lot like Kevin's sister Karen, only she's more drawn to the views of Eldridge Cleaver than Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, how much of today's broadcast primetime audience knows any substantial about Eldridge Cleaver? Not a lot, I'm guessing."
    • The Wonder Years is full of promise: "The child actors are great finds, and the adult cast — featuring Saycon Sengbloh as Dean’s mother and Allen Maldonado as his baseball coach — evince a roundedness that you hope will mean story lines dedicated to their characters, too," says Inkoo Kang. "But the initial chapter suggests that the show’s in-flux environs are the star: Dean has trouble figuring out who he is when he has to play different roles in different contexts, while his parents are forced to consider whether the survival strategies that worked for them, like attending a historically Black college, are best for their children, who are growing up in a slowly integrating era that’s simultaneously defined by racial progress and violent backlash. One thing’s for sure: You’ll want to return to this world."
    • The Wonder Years, like Dean itself, seems to want to be a great uniter, bridging relationships across race and class: "But whenever the series threatens to go too far in the direction of prioritizing teachable moments over the characters being used to convey it, it pulls back with a wry observation, an unexpected joke or a lovely character beat that grounds us back in the Williams family’s orbit," says Angie Han. "Series creator Saladin K. Patterson, whose long list of credits run from Frasier to FXX’s Dave, and episode director Fred Savage, who starred in the original Wonder Years, have the rhythms of a network family sitcom down pat, and the episode rarely goes very long without landing a solid joke...If the new Wonder Years occasionally teeters while looking for the right balance, its foundation seems solid enough that it should be able to find surer footing in no time. That the series manages to invoke nostalgia for bygone days while also remaining relatively clear-eyed about the challenges of that period, both in adolescence and in American history, is no small feat — and it accomplishes this while delivering the cozy appeal of the best family sitcoms, including the one that gives it its name. As it turns out, another thing that hasn’t changed much about growing up over the decades is that there’s still a Wonder Years to come home and cuddle up to."
    • Dulé Hill signed on to The Wonder Years following the killing of George Floyd because he wanted to show that loving Black families have always existed and will always exist, even in the midst of struggle: “As I go along in life, I see that out of bad and challenging times, there’s also a beauty and a brilliance and a light that comes,” he says, adding: “I wanted to tell the deepest story that hopefully could relate to where we are today."
    • The Wonder Years showrunner Saladin K. Patterson explains the premiere's big twist

    TOPICS: The Wonder Years (2021 Series), ABC, Dule Hill, Elisha “EJ” Williams, Saladin K. Patterson




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