It was 1988. Those Happy Days had been over for a while when ABC decided to take another walk down memory lane to once again tap into the public’s love for nostalgia. Displaying confidence in their new product, ABC launched The Wonder Years on January 31, 1988, following Super Bowl XXII and made sure you knew it was coming by advertising it during the game. Perhaps not quite as well as the Redskins did against the Broncos in the big game, The Wonder Years did defeat its competition that night and continued to be a solid hit for ABC ranking in the Nielsen top 30 for its first four seasons.
The Wonder Years chronicled the life of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage); a normal 12-year-old boy growing up in the suburbs during the turbulent times of the late '60s and early '70s. The obvious keys to the success of the show were the writing and the casting. For many people, Kevin, his family, and friends were like us and the people we knew. Add to that the first person narration of adult Kevin (Daniel Stern), which had been used so successfully in the film Stand By Me two years earlier, created a dynamic that allowed more insight to the story than had been experienced on television since the days of Dobie Gillis.
With each episode of The Wonder Years, filled with music of the era, the half hour of real comedic moments and poignant drama were indeed a weekly opportunity to visit that adolescent time of wonder. Unfortunately, it was the rights to the aforementioned music that made it so difficult to get the show released to the public on DVD. Now, StarVista and Time Life Entertainment have released Season One in a two-disc set featuring the first six episodes of the series and a substantial amount of bonus material.
When experiencing the first episode, you can easily see why the show was so successful in pulling in an audience. Series creators and writers Neil Marlens and Carol Black do an amazing job of not only introducing us to the characters but making us care about them as well. The true value of the narration is highlighted as Kevin is being questioned by his principal and we hear the voice of adult Kevin letting us know what he wanted to say. A relatable situation indicative of things to come and reflective of a key success factor to the series as a whole.
Watching this new release is a pleasure. It invokes not only memories of the time period reflected in the series, but also of the time when the series first ran. The music of the era and that created for the series by W.G. Snuffy Walden are a perfect fit. Unfortunately, once you remove the rose-colored glasses and memory-muted headphones, you see and hear that some of the quality is not what we have come to expect in the releases of today. This may take some time to adjust to or may simply be unacceptable to some, but, if you focus on the storytelling, you will find satisfaction.
The bonus material is briefly entertaining based on a desire to see how the stars of the series look and is certainly informative, but is ultimately long winded, repetitive, and awkward. The cast reunion accomplishes the desire to see how they look, but clearly needs a moderator to control the flow as certain cast members dominate the conversation while others are left out.
The featurette “With a Little Help from My Friends: The Early Days of The Wonder Years” is the best of the bunch as it contains much of the information provided in the other pieces, but in a more concise and entertaining format.
The interviews have a Public Access-quality as it is just the stars talking to the camera. The Neil Marlens and Carol Black interview is in need of editing and is the most awkward as the two don’t interact well. Notice how he never laughs especially when she is laughing. Often the material in the interviews has been mentioned in the other bonus features and it would have been far more enjoyable had they edited in segments of the show that the interviewees are describing.
Recommendation: This is an iconic series that was far ahead of its time. The quality may not be perfect but the content is very close to it. The bonus material is almost as long as the six episodes but will seem much longer. This is good for those just looking for a trip down memory lane, but the true fan should opt for the complete series set.