The Wonder Years Is a Remake Actually Worth Your Attention

In an era of cynical nostalgia-fueled reboots, a racial reframing creates a new experience.


The Wonder Years. ABC. Wednesday, September 22, 8:30 p.m.

In a fall broadcast TV season consisting mostly of remakes and ripoffs, The Wonder Years sounded like the absolute nadir—a racially reversed remake of a 40-year-old show about growing up in the 1960s, just as the Baby Boomers with whom it is concerned are starting to die off in staggering numbers. But regardless of how the new Wonder Years turns out as a financial/Nielsen bet, it's no cynical ploy. It's very funny, rather charming and … well, good.

Produced and written by Saladin K. Patterson, who worked on both Frasier and Psych, and with original Wonder Years star Fred Savage attached to the project as a director, WY2 takes the WY1 conception—a 12-year-old kid taking his first tentative steps into the adult world in in the which-way-is-up year of 1968—and scrambles it a bit. We're still in the madhouse epicenter of the 1960s: draft cards and bras aflamepolitical assassinations all around us, Broadway casts stripping naked on stage, and Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley tussling for TV airtime.

But instead of a show about how this was experienced by white families in the 'burbs (it was never clear whether WY1 was set in California or upstate New York, but it was certainly someplace where people swam and played tennis rather than mumblety-peg and craps), WY2 is in a pleasant black urban neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. And young Dean Williams (Elisha Williams, Puppy Dog Parts) gets lectures from his parents that Fred Savage's character Kevin Arnold never dreamed of: What to do when the cops stop you. And never to embarrass yourself and the race ("show your ass") in front of white people.

On the other hand, it seems there's a lot about being 12 years old that cuts across racial lines. The shouted response of Dean's parents to questions about money, sex, or the smell of the funny cigarettes his dad's jazz-cat friends—"Stay out of grown folks' business!!!"—could just as easily come from Kevin Arnold's mom and dad. Other facts of junior high life—the puzzling ways of girls, the chorus of admiring "oooohs" after a cutting yo' mama joke, and the bloody, humiliating havoc wrought by bullies—also seem universal. (Though the bully's explanation for one beating— "you even brought a lunch box to school like you white"—defies categorization.) "One thing about being 12 that hasn't changed over the decades," observes narrator Don Cheadle as an adult Dean, looking back, "is that it's around 12 when you figure out what your place is in the world."

Not that other characters have got everything figured out about their lives. Dean's best friends, somewhat hipper Cory and Jewish nerd Brad (kid character-actors Amari O'Neil and Julian Lerner), are, of course, as about as clueless as he is. Dean's professional-woman mom (Saycon Sengbloh, Scandal) and musician dad (Dulé Hill, Suits) are engaged in a gentle push-and-pull over integrationist politics and black separatism. His sister Kim (Laura Kariuki, Black Lightning) is fond of Black Panther T-shirts and sighs with frustration when her father insists she's got to go to college rather than the barricades: "I'm sure the revolution's gonna need a good dentist or accountant." (Dad might be a bit less sanguine if he saw Kim's cache of photos in which she poses with a very un-dental shotgun.) Another brother is unseen; he's off in the jungle, hunting Charlie.

Not that any of these folks get much help from American history as recited by the narrator. White flight from the inner city to the suburbs began in the 1950s in response to court-ordered school integration, not the widespread race riots of 1967. America's "racial divide" was not caused by the election of Richard Nixon but, well, slavery. And when Kim puts aside her SAT study guide for a copy of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice, I couldn't help but wonder how she's going to take to Cleaver's contention that raping black women is good practice for the truly revolutionary act of raping white women.

Yet the jelly-belly history of WY2 shouldn't sink the show, any more than it did WY1, in which every person in America except Richard Nixon was furiously anti-war. The show is not a college textbook but the story of a family awash in a time of tumultuous change, and it gets the broad themes right if not the details. And its main point—the aloneness of being young and adolescent—is poignantly, painfully clear. "I feel different everywhere I go," Dean broods. So did most of us, kid. Honest, it gets better.