What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song and I'll try not to sing out of key.
The voice of Joe Cocker1 and some grainy home movie footage of a typical suburban American family introduced a show that was to be a critical and popular success around the world. That show was The Wonder Years. For six years the Arnolds were to become almost as familiar to viewers as their own families, as they followed the trials and tribulations of the central character, young Kevin Arnold.
The Origins of The Wonder Years
Husband and wife team Neal Marlens and Carol Black, fresh from working on the hit American sitcom, Growing Pains (which Marlens created) pitched a new idea to American TV executives. It was a show that looked at life from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. All three main networks at the time, CBS, NBC and ABC looked at the pilot script but only ABC thought it was worth turning into a series. They commissioned Marlens and Black to produce six episodes as a mid-season replacement to air in early 1988.
Although the initial responses from test audiences were good, Marlens knew that there were many shows that looked good on paper which never made it past their first six episodes because of bad scheduling or bad luck. The scheduling of the first episode proved vital and all but assured its long-term success. The pilot was shown straight after the 1988 Super Bowl, ensuring a bumper audience after the biggest TV ratings winner of the year. Viewers were immediately captivated by the humour, pathos and sharp observation of the programme, but it was the voiceover of the adult Kevin Arnold that made it stand out. After the first six episodes, The Wonder Years was already a top ten show despite little pre-publicity and the lack of household names in the cast. Despite the short season, it picked up an Emmy award for the best comedy series of 1988. Then, just after the second series was commissioned, Marlens and Black left the show for reasons that were never made clear. Bob Brush became the new executive producer and he decided to bring in a new writing team, but he was careful to follow the template that Marlens had created. The Wonder Years remained a top ten show for the whole of its six series.
American History during The Wonder Years
Unlike most situation comedies, which exist in a sealed world of their own, The Wonder Years made recent American history the backdrop to the show. The very first episode featured the Vietnam War, as Winnie's brother Brian Cooper was killed in the conflict. It also set the tone for a comedy that reflected M*A*S*H* in the way that it was unafraid to deal with the darker side of life. By episode four, the conflict between peace campaigners and supporters of the Vietnam War was brought into sharp relief by the dinner table argument between Jack Arnold, Kevin's father, and his daughter's new boyfriend. Dan Lauria, the actor playing Jack, was a veteran of the Vietnam War and he gave a passionate defence of the fighting by referring to his own experiences in the conflict. It created a moment of anger and raw emotion that's rare in most dramas, let alone comedies. Other events that the show dealt with included the Apollo 11 moon landing, the Apollo 13 drama, Richard Nixon's re-election in 1972, his subsequent resignation and finally the Vietnam War ceasefire. These events were only centre-stage for a few episodes, but they created a realistic backdrop that gave the show an almost unique sense of time and place.
Music in The Wonder Years
More than perhaps any other show, The Wonder Years used music to create a sense of time and place. The soundtrack consisted of over 300 pieces of music over 115 episodes. In the pilot episode 'Crystal Blue Persuasion' by Tommy James and The Shondells was featured as Kevin got ready for school. There was a problem with this choice of music though as it was the beginning of the school year in September 1968 and the record wasn't released until Spring 1969. It was a mistake that was never repeated during the rest of the run.
The music that was used was very cleverly chosen, especially when it provided a background to Kevin and Winnie's stormy relationship.
In the pilot episode, Kevin's first kiss with Winnie took place to the strains of 'When a Man Loves a Woman' by Percy Sledge. However, probably the most memorable use of music in the show was in Episode 66 when Winnie and Kevin met again after a long separation. Winnie had changed significantly from the shy, quiet little girl of the first two seasons to one eager to live a wilder life. Despite Kevin's warnings she is involved in an accident. Kevin dashes to see her, but Winnie's parents won't let him in. He climbs a tree to see into her bedroom window. The song 'We've Got Tonight' by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band starts to play in the background in a scene that is regularly voted as one of the programme's most memorable. Without the music it would have been a good scene, but with the music it is heartbreakingly tender and beautiful. The original broadcast in 1990 led to viewers buying copies of albums that featured the song and led to something of a renaissance in the career of Bob Seger.
The only drawback to this policy could not have been foreseen at the time the shows were made. The long, painstaking task of obtaining permission from the copyright holders led to a huge delay in the release of The Wonder Years on DVD. Despite this, the fans were almost unanimous in saying that the show must be released with the original music, a clear indication of its importance in the whole tapestry of the programme.
As well as the classic songs, the impact of the original soundtrack can not be underestimated. Written mainly by William Garrett Walden2, the music often sets the scene for a significant plot development. The end credits featured an Emmy award-winning instrumental version of 'With a Little Help From my Friends', arranged by Walden himself. He moved on to score shows such as Roseanne, Desperate Housewives, The West Wing and Thirtysomething, and continued to win awards on a regular basis.
The Voice Over
The use of a voiceover as a regular plot device is extremely unusual, but it was one of the main reasons for the show's success. In the pilot episode the distinctive commentary was provided by Ayre Gross, but thereafter the older Kevin was voiced by Daniel Stern. He would comment on the events occurring before our eyes, sometimes ironically, sometimes sorrowfully and sometimes in tones of pure wonder. The comments would always add something to our appreciation of the event: it may have been Kevin seeing Jack as less culpable for something that went wrong, or bemoaning his own stupidity. In nearly every case the hindsight was perfectly pitched and it amplified the humour, joy or sorrow of the situation that was unfolding. Over a decade later, viewers would talk about the arch voiceover of Desperate Housewives contributing to that show's success. The use of Kevin's older self was no less important in the success of The Wonder Years. Indeed, The Simpsons used the voiceover technique in an affectionate parody of the show during their second season. The voiceover was provided by Daniel Stern himself!
The Arnold Family
The main characters in The Wonder Years were the members of Kevin's family. Many of the episodes concerned the rites of passage that young people go through in any family. Others concentrated on the difficulties of any parents in understanding the values of their children and knowing when to let go.
Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage)
Kevin was twelve years old when The Wonder Years started. The creators picked that age as the start of great upheavals in a young person's life as they face physical, emotional and social changes that help to prepare them for adulthood. The main quality that set Kevin apart from other young sitcom characters was his believability. He wasn't a fund of cutting one-liners, or a child to be wheeled on when a situation required. Instead he could have been any young boy embarking upon the sometimes rocky journey through adolescence and beyond. Often he was foolish, and in some cases it was hard to sympathise with him, but that was what made him real to so many fans. By the time the show finished, Kevin Arnold had become the epitome of American youth, not just for the 'baby boomer' generation that grew up with him, but also for the generations that followed. They saw something timeless in his strengths and weaknesses.
Fred Savage was chosen for the role of Kevin Arnold soon after completing a film called Vice Versa, a body-swap movie with Judge Reinhold. Although it was overshadowed by Big with Tom Hanks, Savage's performance in the film was impressive and it no doubt brought him to the attention of Marlens and Black. His performance was so impressive that he became the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Emmy as Best Leading Actor in a Comedy at the tender age of 12. Since The Wonder Years finished, Fred Savage has slowly but surely carved out a career for himself in television. Like many actors who play long-running characters, he found it hard to escape from the shadow of his most famous creation. However, the comic timing and connection with an audience that he demonstrated in his youth has enabled him to maintain his success in a way few child stars are able to do.
Jack Arnold (Dan Lauria)
As Kevin's father, Jack was the target of most of Kevin's frustrations during the course of the show. We see Jack through Kevin's eyes, so at the beginning of the The Wonder Years he is remote, unsympathetic and scary. Of course he is much more than this, as Kevin's older self realises, but Kevin's twelve-year-old self has ceased to think of his father as a hero; he is now a rival, much in the same way as the leader of a pride of lions becomes in the eyes of a lion who is starting to think in terms of leading his own pride. This analogy was used to good effect to show up the behaviour of the Arnold males. As the character of Jack came into sharper focus, viewers saw a man doing his best for his family, who was frustrated at not making the most of his talents. Far from the ogre pictured by Kevin, he was sensitive and caring, but in common with many men of that generation he felt unable to express it properly.
Dan Lauria continues to be in great demand as an actor, having taken over 100 roles in both films and television. He also writes, directs and appears on stage regularly.
Norma Arnold (Alley Mills)
Kevin's mother was the rock on which the family was built. Initially, her many efforts went largely unappreciated by the battling males in her family, but when they had problems they all sought her counsel. The early years of the 1970s gave her more opportunities outside of the house and she took them with both hands despite the opposition of the chauvinistic Kevin, in particular. By the end of the last season Norma was, in nearly every way, an equal partner in the running of the family. Her journey from the house to the workplace reflected the experience of women in those early years of the fight for equality.
After appearing in many stage productions throughout the 1990s Alley Mills has returned to television and film in recent years. She appeared in Danica McKellar's short film Talking in your Sleep in 2005.
Karen Arnold (Olivia D'Abo)
The counter-culture of late 1960s America was reflected in the struggles of Kevin's older sister Karen. Kevin observed the anti-Vietnam protests through the prism of her idealism and, to a certain extent, copied the anti-Establishment stance that she adopted. In the confines of Junior High these anarchist tendencies got Kevin into a large amount of trouble, especially when he organised a walkout to protest against the Vietnam War. Even Karen's romantic life causes problems in the Arnold family when she decides to date Michael (played by future Friends star David Schwimmer), a hippy that her father disapproves of. Even though Jack and Michael agree to put aside their differences, the wedding (an outdoor Hindu ceremony) drives a wedge between the previously devoted father and daughter.
Olivia D'Abo, who was born in London3, has done voiceovers for cartoons such as Justice League, an animated series that featured guest appearances by fellow Wonder Years cast members including Fred Savage, Jason Hervey, Danica McKellar and Robert Picardo.
Wayne Arnold (Jason Hervey)
The bane of Kevin's life, big brother Wayne never misses a chance to make his life a misery. The constant fighting between the two boys as they make their way through adolescence is familiar to all warring brothers. So much so, in fact, that Jason Hervey was punched by a man in a bar who said that he reminded him of his own bullying brother! It turned Wayne into something of a two-dimensional character, especially in the first three seasons. However, when Wayne moved out the relationship between the two deepened and became more complicated. In the final season, Kevin drives around looking for Wayne after he breaks up with his girlfriend.
When Jason appeared with Fred Savage as a voiceover artist on Justice League they played squabbling brothers! However, the two swapped roles during the read through so in the final cartoon Fred played the older brother with Jason as the younger brother. Jason now co-owns a television production company.
Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar)
When the producer Bob Brush was asked about Winnie Cooper in an interview during season four, he had this to say:
There is only one Winnie, and she is 'The Wonder Years'. Winnie is everything good, sweet, true, wonderful, pure and everything about love at 14.
When viewers first see Winnie she is wearing glasses and has her hair in pigtails. She has been Kevin's friend since before school and the two families are close to each other. In the first episode she gets a pair of contact lenses and lets her hair down causing Kevin, and most of the audience, to gasp in awe at her transformation into a radiant and beautiful girl. When her brother is killed in Vietnam, Kevin tries to comfort her. This leads naturally and beautifully to their first kiss, but the two decide to stay just friends at least for the time being. As Kevin agonises as to whether or not they should go out together it is clear that Winnie is in total control of the situation. In fact, throughout The Wonder Years Winnie is shown to be the forerunner of the independent women of the later years of the 20th Century. Viewers know that she will leave Kevin behind intellectually, but they are never certain whether she will leave him behind emotionally.
When Kevin and Winnie broke up in the third series, viewers were left wondering if that would be the last they would see of Winnie. It was not initially envisaged that they would split up. Unfortunately, Danica McKellar had a growth spurt between seasons and the height difference between her and Fred Savage was deemed to be too great. It was decided that her move to a new school would prove the catalyst for the relationship to end in the show. The reunion took place when the disparity in heights had been taken care of by Savage's own growth spurt.
The beautiful Danica McKellar is a person of many facets. As well as being a very good actress she is also a very gifted mathematician who co-authored a new mathematical proof while still an undergraduate. When she returned to acting after her degree at the UCLA she appeared in a number of episodes of The West Wing and even wrote, directed and starred in a short film called Speechless. Her co-star was Dan Lauria. She continues to act in various television shows and films, content in the knowledge that even if the acting work finishes she will be successful in whatever field she chooses.
Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano)
In the first episode, Paul is introduced as Kevin's geeky best friend. He has glasses and uses an asthma inhaler, but he is clever and loyal. Along with Winnie he makes up the triumvirate4 that the show is based on in the first two seasons. After this, however, the viewers start to discover hidden depths to Paul as he matures and leaves Kevin behind intellectually, emotionally and socially. His appearances in the final two seasons become increasingly sporadic as the two best friends grow apart. It is another example of the realistic nature of the show. Where other comedies would have found a plot device to keep Paul in the cast The Wonder Years accepts that these things happen in life. Although Kevin never finds another best friend to replace Paul he becomes good friends to Jeff (played by Giovanni Ribisi) in the final season.
In one of the more unusual Internet rumours, Josh Saviano found himself being unmasked as the real identity of Marilyn Manson. Although this was not true, Saviano did not object to this rumour and explained:
What would you rather have, people thinking you're a dorky kid from The Wonder Years or a satanic rock star? It's way cooler.
Josh Saviano majored in Political Science at Yale University and decided not to return to acting. He is now an associate at a law firm in New York City.
As with any other long-running show, certain guest stars or recurring characters are remembered with more clarity and affection than others. Some have gone on to bigger and better roles, while some have faded into the background. What they have in common is their part in one of the most fondly-remembered TV shows of recent years.
Coach Cutlip (Robert Picardo)
One of the first teachers that viewers saw at RFK Junior High was the inept Physical Education teacher. He was the bane of the students' lives and the butt of many of the jokes in the series. His sex education lecture was a comic highlight of the first season. Along with Fred Savage, he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the series. Robert Picardo went on to play the EMH5 in Star Trek: Voyager.
Mr Cantwell (Ben Stein)
Mr Cantwell was Kevin's monotonic geography teacher who could turn volcanoes into a subject that sent his class to sleep. His trademark delivery was used to good comic effect in series three and four. Then the character disappeared when Kevin left RFK Junior High. Prior to The Wonder Years Ben Stein was most familiar to audiences as an Economics teacher in Ferris Beuller's Day Off. He went on to appear in The Mask as Dr Arthur Neuman, a role he reprised in the cartoon series and the sequel Son of Mask. He has been a highly sought-after voiceover artist for cartoons such as Casper, Earthworm Jim and Freakazoid! He went to school with Goldie Hawn and Sylvester Stallone, and was a childhood friend of Carl Bernstein who exposed the Watergate scandal. This brought down President Richard Nixon, for whom (somewhat ironically) Ben Stein was a speechwriter.
Becky Slater (Crystal McKellar)
Kevin's nemesis, and occasional girlfriend, Becky Slater was a dangerous enemy to make. On one memorable occasion she teamed up with Winnie to make life extremely difficult for Kevin. Crystal auditioned for the role of Winnie, losing out to sister Danica, but impressed the producers so much that she was given the role of Becky. Like Josh Saviano, she has turned her back on full-time acting to become a lawyer.
Madeline (Julie Condra)
When Kevin was trying to patch things up with Winnie, temptation arrived in the form of Madeline, a gorgeous new student with a particularly hypnotic command of the French language! When they were paired together on a cooking project the chocolate mousse was the last thing on Kevin's mind. She is one of the most fondly-remembered guest stars, so it is perhaps surprising that she only appeared in four episodes. She is still acting, and has one son.
Michael (David Schwimmer)
Now world-famous as Ross Gellar in Friends, David Schwimmer got his first big break in The Wonder Years. As Michael, the boyfriend of Karen, he caused Jack a lot of heartache before he was accepted into the family. In a very famous scene he stood out in the Arnold's garden in the pouring rain, refusing to leave until Karen agreed to take him back after a fight. Again, like Madeline, the character of Michael only appeared in four episodes, but made a great impact.
The End of The Wonder Years
Unlike many shows, The Wonder Years had the luxury of deciding when to bow out. From the fourth series onwards the viewing figures were starting to look less favourable, though still respectable. In 1993 the two main characters, Kevin and Winnie, were due to go to college as were the actors that played them. It seemed to be the perfect time to bow out. The reasons for the gradual decline in viewers was the unavoidable fact that the cute children of Series One were slightly less endearing teenagers by Series Six. Also there was a general consensus amongst fans and casual viewers alike that the stories had lost their spark. Bob Brush was aware of this, and the attendant danger of 'jumping the shark'6. He was determined that the last season would be regarded as a worthy swansong for the show. Indeed, the final episode would become the fans' favourite as it wrapped up the Kevin and Winnie relationship and, via a touching final voiceover, ensured a bittersweet ending to their Wonder Years.
The Wonder Years Fanbase
It is common for science fiction shows to have large devoted fanbases. For comedies such as The Wonder Years it is much more unusual, but a search on the internet gives an idea of the sheer number of fans that the show still attracts. Huge petitions have been organised to encourage executives to speed up the release of the series on DVD. It has been one of the most requested unreleased shows in the history of Amazon.com. Unusually, most fans do not want to see a revival or revisiting of the series, because they fear it would destroy the magic of the show as a piece of television history. Maybe the last words should go to the older Kevin whose final voiceover summed up The Wonder Years like this:
Things never turn out exactly the way you planned. Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you're in diapers, the next you're gone, but the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a house like a lot of houses, a yard like a lot of yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years I still look back in wonder.