Why Gen Xers love "The Wonder Years" -- and everyone else should too

The cast of "The Wonder Years" talked to Salon about why it's as relevant now as ever

Published September 27, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

In the spring of 1988, when I was in the fifth grade, and Ronald Reagan was still president, and people wore acid-washed jeans without irony, there was much I did not yet know of life. But what I did know was where I would be on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m., 7 central — because that is when "The Wonder Years" was on.

The 1960s-set show had me hooked ever since my parents and I had watched the pilot episode, in which the 12-year-old protagonist Kevin (Fred Savage) experiences the dizzying highs and lows of life in one week: His neighborhood idol is killed in Vietnam, but soon afterward Kevin has his first kiss. At the end of the episode, as Percy Sledge’s 1966 ballad “When a Man Loves a Woman” plays tenderly over a shot of Kevin and his love, Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), in the woods at dusk, my parents (who had lived through the '60s) and I (who had not) all simultaneously got verklempt. Hmm, I thought to myself. This doesn’t happen when we watch “Full House.”

I didn’t know then that "The Wonder Years" would go on to win numerous Emmys and a Peabody Award, or that it would one day be widely considered one of the best television shows of all time. I just knew — right from the show’s opening chords of Joe Cocker’s haunting, gravelly rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends" — that "The Wonder Years" was not only different from all the other TV shows that had previously occupied my preteen mind; it was different from all other TV shows, period. Says actor Dan Lauria, who played Kevin’s gruff but kindhearted father, Jack Arnold, "The Wonder Years" “showed what TV could do.”

As it turns out, a fifth grader in 2013 might just be able to have an experience quite similar to the one I had when I discovered "The Wonder Years" 25 years ago. Just like I did, today’s kids can tune in to ABC on Tuesday nights to watch a show set two decades in the past, steeped in all the pop cultural ephemera of its era. But instead of bell bottoms, they’ll see neon leggings. Instead of hippies, they’ll see yuppies. And instead of "The Mamas and The Papas," they’ll hear REO Speedwagon. It’s no coincidence that ABC describes its new ‘80s-set comedy "The Goldbergs" thusly: “Before there were parenting blogs, trophies for showing up, and peanut allergies, there was a simpler time called the ‘80s … For geeky 11-year old Adam, these were his wonder years.”

Everyone from Details to the Los Angeles Times, to Haaretz is considering "The Goldbergs" in terms of "The Wonder Years." And indeed, the shows share more than just their time-warped nostalgia. Both also feature narrators who are telling us the story as their future selves, looking back on their boyhood (Daniel Stern on "The Wonder Years," Patton Oswalt on "The Goldbergs"), and both shows make use of the home-recording devices of their time. But does all that really make "The Goldbergs" the new "Wonder Years"? Will today’s Gen Xers (such as myself) find in "The Goldbergs" not just nostalgia but also meaningful historical perspective (as our baby boomer parents found in "The Wonder Years")? After watching the premiere of "The Goldbergs" earlier this week, I will happily concede that it is lively and charming (and if there’s anyone who can’t resist a show featuring clips from "E.T.," "Back to the Future" and "ALF," it’s me). But all these comparisons remind me a bit of that famous moment (also from 1988) when vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, up against Sen. Dan Quayle — who had misguidedly compared himself to JFK — said to Quayle during their debate, “I served with Jack Kennedy … Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” To which I would say: “I’ve watched 'The Wonder Years.' I’ve loved 'The Wonder Years.' 'Goldbergs,' you’re no 'Wonder Years.'”

Upon this, "The Wonder Years’s" quarter-century mark (the 25th anniversary “made me feel old for the very first time,” says Josh Saviano, who played Kevin’s nerdy best friend Paul Pfeiffer), you can’t talk about why the show was so revolutionary without discussing its format. Up to and including the late ‘80s, most comedies, whether they be cheesy sitcoms (again -- no offense, "Full House") or extraordinary shows like "Newhart," featured a laugh track, and the use of multiple cameras. This meant, for all intents and purposes, that they looked and felt pretty much the same way most TV comedies had looked and felt for decades prior. "The Wonder Years" changed everything because it was a comedy with no laugh track, allowing the humor to wash over the audience more naturally — and it was filmed with a single camera, the style used in films, which gave it a deeper, more cinematic look. This is now the go-to format for comedies on television, for everything from "The Office" to "Modern Family" to "30 Rock" and yes, "The Goldbergs." "The Wonder Years," says Saviano, now an attorney in Manhattan, showed the television industry “that it’s OK to create a show like that — to take out the laugh track, to try different camera styles — to take a risk.” "The Wonder Years" was also revolutionary in its use of a narrator, and Daniel Stern’s voiced asides brought humor, pathos, depth and perspective to what was happening on-screen. “I read the script,” says actress Alley Mills, who played Kevin’s mother, Norma Arnold, “and I remember thinking, ‘I have never read anything like this.’ I didn’t understand how the narration was going to work. But I thought it was brilliant.”

Neal Marlens and Carol Black — the married couple who created "The Wonder Years" — had been playing around with using a narrator on a screenplay they were writing: “It was something that involved adults,” Black told the Milwaukee Journal in 1988, “and we just found the narration really fun, because you’re building contrast between what people are saying and thinking — what people feel at the time, and what they feel about something later.” Eventually they realized: “Let’s do something about a kid, because that even increases the contrast between the narrator’s perspective and your protagonist’s perspective.’ And from there we just jumped to setting it in 1968.”

Marlens and Black made that leap because they themselves had come of age in the '60s, and they knew firsthand how strange and unforgettable an experience it had been to grow up in a time when the world was changing so rapidly (1968 alone saw the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy). Though it told the story of a typical suburban American family, "The Wonder Years" really told the story of a nation, covering topics from feminism to race relations with a light touch that never felt preachy or veered into ABC Afterschool Special territory. “Even though the show was about the most bland, white, middle-class, American family,” says Mills, now an actress on "The Bold and the Beautiful," “the stories were always about something that was universal.”

Like, for example, a son’s need to understand his father — an issue explored powerfully in “My Father’s Office” (one of TV Guide’s “100 Greatest Episodes Of All Time”), in which Kevin accompanies his dad to work and gains sympathy for him through the experience. At the end of the day, upon coming home, Jack Arnold trudges in through the door like he always does, loosening his tie — and his son follows him inside in the exact same way, now that he literally knows where his dad is coming from every day. (“That bit where Fred followed me doing the same exact motion — that was actually Fred’s idea,” says Lauria of Savage, who is now a director of shows like "Modern Family" and "Two Broke Girls." “We knew he was going to be a director real early on.”) Through the character of Jack Arnold, "The Wonder Years" taught us about yet another generation: “Contentment was the goal for the mothers and fathers of the baby boomers,” says Lauria, now a star of the sitcom "Sullivan and Son." “They went to work every day, they didn’t complain. They’d lived through the Depression and World War II, and just to have a nice life was a big reward.”

Art Tavana of the website Hello Giggles writes that he learned American history “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…'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.”

But us Gen Xers watching the show in our family rooms weren’t the only ones getting quite the history lesson from "The Wonder Years": “Every time there was a reference to the past,” recalls Lauria, “the kids on the show would ask me and Alley, ‘Was it really like that? Was it really like that?’ I remember when we talked about JFK being killed, and Fred was like, ‘Boy, everybody’s got a story [about where they were]. And I said, ‘Well, every generation has something like this — where you’ll never forget where you were when it happened. For my parents, it was Pearl Harbor. For people like Alley and me, it was when John F. Kennedy died. And I hope you never have one of those, Fred.’ And then the first call I got after 9/11 was from Fred. He said, ‘Now I know what you mean. Everybody my age is never going to forget where they were.’”

Savage is now married with three kids (when he brought his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Jennifer, to meet Mills years ago, he said to his former TV mom, “This is the girl”), and of course, the world that Savage’s children are growing up in is immeasurably different from the one in which Savage and his fellow Gen Xers came of age. As Neil Patrick Harris explained to the younger audience watching the Emmys: TV is “the thing you watch on your phones.” It begs the question, even if "The Goldbergs" is, in the parlance of the era it celebrates, totally awesome — can today’s young people ever have the kind of relationship with a television show that we Gen Xers did? Can binge-watching every episode of "Breaking Bad" on your iPhone ever compare with the feeling of tuning in to a show on your family’s TV set every Tuesday night for years? Or will the cycle of nostalgia just keep rolling — and if so, does that mean that somewhere out there right now is a 12-year-old who will, in the year 2038, create a nostalgic ode to "The Goldbergs" that will be beamed into everyone’s i-Brains?

The thing is, every once in a while a film or TV show comes along that does stand the test of time: “Kids still watch 'It’s a Wonderful Life' at Christmas, even though it’s in black-and-white,” points out Lauria. And they are also watching episodes of "The Wonder Years" — even if they are watching them “on Netflix, on their iPads,” says Mills. “Eleven- and 12-year-olds come up to me and say, ‘It’s my favorite show.” These are kids, after all, who live in a world indelibly touched by "The Wonder Years" — a world in which the Internet is rife with debates over whether Milhouse, Bart’s nerdy best friend on "The Simpsons," was in fact modeled on the character Paul Pfeiffer (“to even be considered as being a part of that makes you sit back and smile,” says Saviano); a world where Jimmy Fallon names his baby daughter Winnie.

Every five years or so, says Saviano, comes “another crop of people telling me that they are sharing the show with their kids. And I think that, right there, is the uniquely identifying feature of the show: It’s timeless.” That timelessness is what allows "The Wonder Years" to not only provide a powerful dose of double-nostalgia (for the baby boomers who watch it to be reminded of their ‘60s adolescence, and for the Gen Xers who watch it to remember loving the show during their ‘80s childhoods) — it’s also the reason that people of any era can connect with it.

Look past the lava lamps and mood rings and you will find in "The Wonder Years" — and its tales of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, innocence lost and hope gained — nothing less than the essence of the human condition. And that is something that never changes. “Twenty-five years from now,” says Lauria, “I think somebody watching an episode of 'The Wonder Years' will still be able to say, ‘You know what? That’s really what it’s like.”

By Susannah Gora

Susannah Gora is the author of "You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, And Their Impact on a Generation"

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