How the new Wonder Years captured the spirit of the original — and why it's not a remake
The Wonder Years (2021 TV show)
Ask someone about The Wonder Years, and you're likely to stir up some strong memories. Writer Saladin K. Patterson, for instance, still remembers the night he and his college friends gathered around the TV to watch the series finale in 1993.
"I stayed in an all-Black dorm at MIT, and I'm not sure we were the demographic you would have envisioned for that show," Patterson says with a laugh. "But it meant something to all of us because of the emotions involved. That speaks to how that show cut across so many different demos."
It also speaks to The Wonder Years' powerful approach to its coming-of-age story, which followed the 1960s adolescence of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) with a poignant mixture of nostalgia, wistfulness, and wry hindsight (courtesy of narration by Daniel Stern, as the adult Kevin).
"The thing that was so special about the show, and more broadly, about that time in your life, is that it was a very finite period of time that you can't revisit — this time of innocence and waking up to the world," muses Savage. "It only exists in this haze of memory and nostalgia to each one of us." That's why he always resisted the idea of rebooting the series, he adds: "I felt like to revisit those characters was antithetical not just to the show, but to that time in all of our lives."
Enter Empire co-creator Lee Daniels, who acquired the rights to the original series with the intention of telling a brand-new story, centered on a middle-class Black family in the same era. He approached TV veteran Patterson to develop the series (his credits include Frasier, Psych, and The Big Bang Theory), with the writer drawing on his family's experiences living in Montgomery, Ala. during the 1960s.
"We've seen a lot of stories about the struggle of Black people during that time," says Patterson, "and those stories are important and necessary and needed. But what we haven't seen as much is the point of view of the Black middle class during that time, to see how the concept of the American Dream applied to them."
The new Wonder Years, debuting Wednesday on ABC, follows 12-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha "EJ" Williams) growing up in 1968 Montgomery. Patterson, who serves as showrunner, calls the series a "reimagining" of the original, or "a parallel story that also exists in the Wonder Years universe."
"People should not expect it to feel like a remake or reboot," he explains.
Still, the new series has a familiar flavor, as Patterson and his creative team strove to capture the original show's spirit while forging a new path for themselves. Like Kevin, Dean lives with his family (played by Dulé Hill, Saycon Sengbloh, and Laura Kariuki) in the suburbs, and struggles with the turbulent era he's coming of age in, as well as everyday adolescent challenges like school, bullies, and romance. And of course, his experiences are also narrated by his older self, with the voice of Don Cheadle.
"Dean's so relatable to me," says Williams, who won the role of Dean after an extensive national casting search. (His previous credits include the Nickelodeon series Henry Danger and Danger Force.) "I've mainly been doing it by just keeping it natural. And watching the old show definitely helped a lot with my comedic timing."
"We wanted someone who didn't feel familiar, and didn't feel like they've been through the machinery of TV and movies," Patterson says of casting Williams. "EJ is no stranger to professional acting, but he still has that charm and individuality and innocence of a 12-year-old; he's still a kid. His family has done a great job in making sure he experiences childhood. He's an incredibly bright young man, too. He gets the material, and he gets the cultural significance of it and the weight of it. And he's a great actor."
He also got an assist from someone who knows what it's like to carry a TV show at 12 years old. Savage came on board at Patterson's request to executive produce the series and direct the pilot, contributing both his plentiful experience directing television (Savage has helmed dozens of episodes for such shows as Modern Family and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and his firsthand knowledge of how The Wonder Years pulled off its tonal balancing act.
"Fred is our EJ whisperer," Patterson says. "He knows the language to use for a 12-year-old to tap into to be able to carry the show on his shoulders."
Recalls Williams, "One thing he always tells me is, when you're doing the scene, make sure it's through your eyes. Because eyes can tell a lot of story; you can sell fear in your eyes, you can sell energy in your eyes. That definitely helps."
What's more, "Fred helps me hold the line on the tone that we want this version to have," Patterson explains. "We're trying to do something that's not on broadcast TV right now in terms of tone: a comedy that has a lot of dramatic elements, and deals with very grounded, bittersweet, and sometimes sad moments. With Fred being the connective tissue between us and the original that did that so well, I can go to the network and say, 'I know you're uncomfortable with this, but this rings true to what they had success with in the original, and this rings true to us in terms of the creative vision we have for what we want to give you now.'"
He adds, "A lot of people ask how Black people can look back at the late '60s with nostalgia. The reality is, we have nostalgia because of the resilience of the Black family, because of the fortitude that we've had to develop as Black people. And what we really want to tap into is those universal feelings about growing up. There's something about human nature where we look back to those formative years of adolescence, regardless of what happened, and still find moments of joy and happiness. Our show is going to show those moments, but not pretend like the moments of sadness, frustration, disappointment, and discouragement didn't exist."
Adds Savage, "We want to keep that same sense of nostalgia and warmth, of optimism and joy, but also that sense of how you feel when your heart gets broken for the first time, or when you see your parents as actual human beings for the first time. We want to really toe that line between comedy and drama that I think the original did so well."
But again: Don't call it a remake. "I felt like we were in familiar territory," Savage says, "but it didn't feel like déjà vu. It felt like we were building something brand new."
The Wonder Years premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.