Full disclosure: If you’ve never watched ABC’s classic comedy-drama The Wonder Years, the following commentary may sound like a self-proclaimed nostalgia junkies attempt to relive the wonder of his childhood in the suburbs. But until they release each season of The Wonder Years on DVD (music licensing issues are holding it back), I might as well spend some time reexamining the classic TV show’s impact on my generation. After all, The Wonder Years taught me (Almost) everything.
Let’s start at the beginning…
My fourth-grade history book should have been called The Norman Rockwell Edition. Like Rockwell’s paintings depicting American life during the ‘50s, my fourth-grade history book lacked an appreciation of the authentic American experience. Health textbooks weren’t very different. Yes, we all learned about the ‘birds and the bees,’ but what about the experience of mustering up the courage to ask a girl to the dance? Nobody really wanted to learn about female fertilization or STDs; we just wanted to know how to obtain a bottle of Love Potion Number Nine or an issue of Playboy Magazine. Of course I knew then, as I know now, there was much more to the genuine American experience than Tall Tales and 2D Animated Disney movies. Between snacking on Goober PB & J, washed down with endless amounts of Yoo-Hoo (safely packaged in a indestructible metal lunch box adorned by images of Luke Skywalker), we took pop quizzes and wrote journal entries about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address; Neil Armstrong’s famous ‘One Small Step’; and most certainly, we all memorized The Pledge of Allegiance. Looking back, it seems like grade school (and middle school, for that matter) was rated G. The authentic American experience, on the other hand, was at the very least PG-13. It was the Ed Sullivan Show after the Beatles played I Want to Hold Your Hand, and not before.
Whether it was the taboo notion of having a crush on an English teacher, or the realization that being a major leaguer was an unlikely career option; school textbooks just didn’t seem to contain the real American narrative. They lacked the genuine and often more interesting narrative that was at the heart of being a red-blooded American male or female. Whether it was the struggle African Americans faced on a daily basis, the story of Jackie Robinson, or some candid advice about breakups and makeups; we were all searching for what it truly meant to be an American.
Sure, mom and dad did their best to add some color to the American narrative. However, parents never really felt comfortable discussing the sexual revolution and why Joe Namath wore that offensive fur coat. I don’t recall any pop quizzes or parental lectures about the Kennedy assassination or how Cassius Clay scandalously changed his name to ‘Ali.’ Neil Young and stories of how LSD changed rock n’ roll history were ostentatiously left out of textbooks and discussions at the dinner table.
As we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day and a real American story, it may be worth examining the authentic American experience the way I learned it, the way most kids of my generation learned it, by watching television. More specifically, by watching the growing pains of Kevin Arnold on the greatest television show of all-time, ABC’s comedy-drama, The Wonder Years.
It all began in the winter of 1988 (or depending on your sense or reality, the summer of 1968), when Kevin Arnold, joined by his best friend, Paul Pfeiffer, and his lifelong crush, Winnie Cooper, began to tell America a very different story. As told by the inspiring voice-over of Daniel Stern as Kevin Arnold in his mid-30s, each episode of The Wonder Years pieced together the narrative of a boy learning to grow up in a nation that itself, in a sense, was growing up as well.
As Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends opened each episode, the feelings of nostalgia and wide-eyed puppy love ran down the base of our spines. But it wasn’t just the Rockwellian introduction and classic Beatles tune that captured our imagination for six seasons. No, The Wonder Years captivated our imagination by providing snapshots of the authentic American experience, on both a historical and personal level, through the eyes of a family that was evolving during a turbulent decade of ‘free love,’ the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights.
And then there was Winnie Cooper. Before Winnie, most of the boys of my generation didn’t appreciate the quirky girl with horn-rimmed glasses and a penchant for Simon & Garfunkel acoustic guitar melodies. Yes it’s true, Gwendolyn ‘Winnie’ Cooper was my first ‘TV Crush‘ at the age of 12. She managed to turn me into a lifelong hopeless romantic.
The Wonder Years was also an examination of war and peace, the Kennedy space program, and the life lessons of Mr. Arnold (Kevin’s dad), who fought in the Korean War and loved his country as much as he loved his family. When Brian Cooper (Winnie’s older brother) was tragically killed in Vietnam, we all learned that war could tear through the fabric of any neighborhood, whether it was on the mean streets of Harlem, or the quaint suburbs of Burbank, California. This experience, the tragic effect of war on the neighborhood, was never taught in school or included in any chapter of a textbook. Human conflict, even on the most innocent level, was at the heart of Kevin Arnold narrative.
Beyond learning about girls and politics, The Wonder Years was my generation’s first exposure to great music on a TV show. Whether it was Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” or watching the launch of Apollo 11 to I’m a Believer by pop-rock icons, The Monkees, The Wonder Years was music 101 on the purest level. If they were to release a soundtrack of The Wonder Years, it would sell a billion copies!
Then again on the simplest level, The Wonder Years was unadulterated childhood. Beyond politics, music education, and growing pains – it was innocent fun.
So do me a favor the next time someone starts talking about the ‘anonymity of the suburbs’ or the ‘mindlessness of the TV generation.’ Simply ask them, as nicely as possible, if they’ve ever watched The Wonder Years. Or better yet, ask them if they remember playing tag football on their driveway, trading baseball cards for Twix candy bars, or best of all, watching Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. The answer won’t surprise you.
Ode’ to The Wonder Years: Opening Sequence by Joe Cocker