Stars – Fred Savage, Josh Saviano, Danica McKellar, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills
Creators – Neal Marlens and Carol Black
Released by StarVista Entertainment / Time LIfe
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
When a TV series makes its debut following The Superbowl is it guaranteed an incredible lead in audience. Also it had better be good. The Wonder Years premiered in 1988 with an affectionate and humorous look at growing up in the mid sixties. There series hit just the right chord with baby boomers and an even stronger chord with those who were parents. The problems and issues facing young Kevin Arnold in middle school translated easily to people of any era. The show was set in any town USA though Kevin wore a New York Jets jacket. We got to see him struggle with his first kiss in an embarrassing yet charming episode. The show also integrated the issues of the era including The Vietnam War, Civil Rights and the burgeoning Women’s Movement. The first season ended with the news that the kid next door, the really cool one, had been killed in Vietnam just weeks after he left.
The six seasons follow Kevin (Fred Savage) from middle school through high school. Most episodes center around him, his best friend Paul (Josh Saviano) and Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). The show was blessed with three child actors who came across as very natural. Kevin’s older brother Wayne is a noogie dealing obnoxious jerk. His older sister is a gorgeous flower child who spouts an endless flow of hippie jargon. Both of them are drawn very broadly but the show is seen from Kevin’s point of view and that is how it must have looked to him. Dan Lauria plays his dad. One of the strongest episodes of the entire series, “My Father’s Office” follows Kevin as he visits that office to find out just what dad does all day. The father is presented as this hulk that comes home from work drained. The whole family is afraid to even speak to him. He is a gruff and all powerful figure. To see the human side of this adult man revealed to his son is surprisingly tender and moving. His mom is played by Alley Mills as a typical housewife whose impression of herself slowly awakens during the course of the show.
Innocence is what The Wonder Years does best. Everything is seen through Kevin’s eyes. We see his painful growth as he falls in and out of love with Winnie Cooper. He seems to never be sure of himself, having to bounce life strategies off of his friend Paul. His struggles with life, school and his parents drive most of the shows. There are times when we see poor Kevin running straight into a brick wall. In a stroke of genius the show deflects any overload of embarrassment by having Kevin’s older self deliver a voice over looking back and commenting on these instances with an amusing hindsight. This also prevents the chance of viewers overdosing on too much sweetness. The innocence never gets too saccharine thanks to Daniel Stern’s marvelous line readings. His voice is such an integral part of this show. Stand by Me (1986) employed a similar technique with Richard Dreyfuss looking back on a nostalgic summer in his life. With Danny Stern on the track every week that voice takes on a strong character able to give us that unique vantage point on Kevin’s current predicaments.
The show was held up for many years apparently due to having to iron out the agreements to use the large amount of songs that were featured on the soundtrack. We get to hear a nice collection of rock, pop and soul specific to the era. All the tunes are recognizable big hits that were ubiquitous on the radio back then. Some of the choices may seem a bit obvious for a few given scenes but they work so well you’ll sit back and grin despite yourself. They serve to anchor the series in that sixties time frame so well. Kudos must also be paid to the musicians that contributed the incidental music. There is a pretty acoustic guitar theme that seems to follow Winnie around. The Wonder Years is an entirely pleasing experience that comes heartily recommended. The writing is so strong in almost every instance. Sure you’ll find a few that fall short but the vast majority of the series is written, produced and directed with a very sure set of hands.
Video – 1.33:1
The episodes are framed just like they should be as it was originally shown. This show was shot with a single camera, very much like many of the hour long dramatic and action shows of the era. Sitcoms usually had that glossy super bright sheen. It was a great decision to shoot this half hour shown in the film format. It gives it some justifiable weight letting it stand apart as more of a drama/comedy mix. However the look of the series as it is presented here is bound to be a disappointment. Many scenes have a murky look. There is a great deal of softness. The image is just plain weak in many instances. Granted this is a DVD but the vast majority of TV shows from that era and long before look so much better than this. The Wonder Years was a very high profile show that was made with the utmost of care. It is hard to accept that these were the best materials available. If that was the best that was offered some work surely needed to be done.
It is unfortunate that so recent a show has been presented this badly. It is still entirely watchable. In an ironic bit of nostalgia, the episodes look just like you were watching them on TV when the show first aired. It is lovely to have this show in its entirety and with the songs intact. However the viewing experience is a let down, not mater how you slice it.
Audio – English as originally presented with no subtitles offered.
The dialogue is all presented well. The original songs from the era sound nice in the mix.
The acoustic guitar music used for Winnie’s theme reminds me a whole lot of Embryonic Journey by Jorma Kaukonen from Jefferson Airplane. Some of the background music is in fact acoustic renderings of passages of the songs in the show. It’s a great soundtrack that is loads of fun. Joe Cocker’s version of the Bealtes’ With a Little Help from my Friends becomes a friendly intro to the show that you look forward to each time. It is set against that home movie styled montage.
Extras – There is a veritable boatload of extras. Some are specific to a season while other fall into the overall look back category. The series regulars come off relaxed and happy to share stories about the show. They share what they did with their lives after the show and reflect on their collective experience as child stars in show business. There are a lot but all of these extras are enjoyable. To hear from Neal Marlens and Carol Black the show’s original creators is a nice treat. They knew what they were doing and had a very clear vision of what they wanted the show to be.
The whole series comes in a miniature school locker. The seasons fit into two large notebook styled heavy cardboard booklets. Though the sleeves that house the actual discs are slick it takes a bit of patience and skill to remove them. Rotate rather then pull. There is a detailed episode guide slipped into each note book with plenty of pictures. There is also a school composition book with more info on the show. You even get magnets to decorate the metal locker with. It is a very classy presentation.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
DVD – Fair / Good
TV Series – Classic