It was a television show that achieved multigenerational success. Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, or Millennials - no matter. Whether old enough to remember the look and feel the show was trying to capture, or young enough to feel as if one grew up with the main characters, the six-year run of "The Wonder Years" certainly left its mark.
"The Wonder Years" followed the life and times of the Arnold family and, specifically, the agony and ecstasy of youth through the character of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and his inner monologue, voiced by veteran actor Daniel Stern. Jack (Dan Lauria) and Norma (Alley Mills) held down the family fort as the strange dichotomy of suburban stagnation and the tumult of the Vietnam Era played out in the background. Kevin's obnoxious older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) and hippie sister Karen (Olivia d'Abo) rounded out the family portion of the cast in fairly stereotypical portrayals. At times it seemed as if Wayne's only memorable lines from the show consisted of his ubiquitous "butthead!" Karen flitted in and out of the storylines, only appearing in roughly half of the episodes. Rounding out the main cast were Kevin's best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and sometimes-best friend, sometimes-main squeeze Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar).
Perhaps even more significant were the number of 'names' of television and film that passed through "The Wonder Years" set during its run - there was David Schwimmer of "Friends" fame whose character, Michael, married Karen in Season Five. Ben Savage (Fred's younger brother and future "Boy Meets World" star) took a turn as Cupid early in the series. Ben Stein was a routine guest as the hilariously monotone (and occasionally apocalyptic) Mr. Cantwell. A couple of future "Saved by the Bell" stars stopped by for a visit (Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Dustin Diamond), and anyone watching the show today would notice Seth Green playing a punk by a cafeteria vending machine, Alicia Silverstone as an all-too-brief love interest, and even an appearance by Punky Brewster herself.
There are plenty of "best of" websites out there when it comes to "The Wonder Years" - and for good reason. One of the reasons the show built such a loyal following that persists more than 20 years later is that it managed to capture (no matter how schlocky) some of the milestone moments of the audience's young lives, through Kevin's voice.
There was the perfect pilot episode, in which Kevin and Winnie shared their first kiss in Harper's Woods. Vignettes from the lives of the other characters were common, from Jack's stressful life at Norcom to Wayne's heartbreaking attempt to join the Army. The creators also provided two intensely gut wrenching Karen episodes - one in which she receives Jack's military jacket from Korea for her birthday and another in which she marries Ross, er, Michael (David Schwimmer) after he pitches a tent on the lawn and stands plaintively in the rain for hours. In the end, however, the series was all about Kevin Arnold and, by extension, every kid who ever grew up as a member of the great, unwashed masses of suburbia. Kevin experienced summers of love, compassionate (or dictatorial) public educators, piano lessons, driving lessons, and life lessons as America listened in each week.
After Years of Waiting - Finally Available
Dozens of the nation's favorite shows have become available on DVD and, later, Blu-Ray - but not "The Wonder Years." Rumors were floated about potential releases on at least a few occasions, but they were quickly squelched by the official word that it was the music licensing that was holding everything up. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Fans started grassroots campaigns. Two 'best of' VHS tapes and DVDs existed but were like giving a person dying of thirst in the desert a small plastic cup of water upon which to subsist. Even the re-runs on obscure basic cable channels grew sparse. Several poorly executed bootlegs were out there, and doubtless there were those who grasped in desperation.
Finally, in the fall of 2011, the shows became available on Netflix and Amazon streaming video - more than 100 episodes, right at one's fingertips.
The moment may have passed without much fanfare (instant streaming still doesn't capture as much attention as a mainstream DVD release), but one thing is for certain: Harper's Woods has been reborn, Mr. Harris' hardware store is open for business, and the magic of "The Wonder Years" is back for good.
"The Wonder Years," Internet Movie Database.
"The Wonder Years," The Museum of Broadcast Communications.
"The Wonder Years: The Complete Series," Netflix.
Keith Gow, "The Wonder Years: An Episode Guide," epguides.com.
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