The Wonder Years, ABC’s beloved sitcom about coming of age in suburbia, premiered in 1988 and was set in 1968. But the show so follows Mad Men creator Matt Weiner’s maxim that people don’t always know when they are living through history that it often feels set in 1958. The adorable Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and his family lived through the craziest years of America’s 20th century with little more sturm und drang than the Cleavers. A grown-up Kevin, voiced by Daniel Stern, recalls in sentimental narration an era that “really was the wonder years in the suburbs, a golden age for kids,” who played in cul-de-sacs until their mothers called them home for an all-meat dinner. The Wonder Years, like its contemporaries Cheers, Golden Girls, Full House, Growing Pains, and Designing Women, sends viewers of a certain age into paroxysms of nostalgia, but unlike those series, it was always explicitly about nostalgia: a reminiscence of the honeyed, home-movie days of midcentury American adolescence that wanted its audience to miss the past from the very start. And unlike those series, The Wonder Years is hovering influentially over this fall’s new comedies, a batch of family sitcoms riffing on taciturn dads like Jack Arnold and the fantasy that life used to be simpler.
Watching The Wonder Years today is to be locked into a nostalgia funhouse. Fantasies about and pangs for the ’50s and ’60s collide with quaintnesses from the ’80s and carom into the present, where Winnie Cooper recently kissed Avril Lavigne in a music video. With so much multigenerational wistfulness flying around, it’s nearly impossible to watch The Wonder Years and not feel nostalgic about something. But rewatching the series recently didn’t make me long for the late ’60s. It also didn’t make me miss ’80s sitcoms, which shamelessly impart corny lessons (“What we felt in those years, the joy, the possibilities, will always be a part of us … ”) and are so broad that, five seasons in, The Wonder Years was still reintroducing Winnie every time she showed up on screen. What The Wonder Years made me nostalgic for is how much better we used to be at being nostalgic—ouch, sorry, that was me slamming into a nostalgia mirror.
Our social memory about what decades signify is so broad that once you get past the clichés—’20s: roaring, flappers, booze; ’30s: depression, dust bowl, New Deal—everything is a complicating detail. A 13-year-old living in 1968 could absolutely have failed to notice anything epochal going on except his hormones. But The Wonder Years, arriving in the late ’80s, would have known that an idyllic suburban childhood was not anyone’s first association with 1968. It set out to align the late ’60s and early ’70s with this ’50s ideal anyway. World historical events intrude—Winnie’s brother is killed in Vietnam in the very first episode, Kevin’s sister and father have serious generational conflict, Kevin’s brother Wayne tries to join the Army—but The Wonder Years insists that the suburbs were a shelter, a place where the intensities of the ’60s barely registered, where the death of a beloved math teacher mattered more than the assassination of world leaders, where free love didn’t make Kevin and Winnie any less nervous about kissing.
The Wonder Years is a surprisingly big influence on this year’s new crop of fall TV shows, a large number of which concern themselves with stern, macho dads not so dissimilar from Kevin’s own father, Jack (Dan Lauria). On ABC’s Back in the Game, for example, James Caan plays a take-no-guff, not very involved father and grandfather, an unstated rejoinder to effete, hyperinvolved helicopter dads everywhere. He hasn’t been a great guardian to his own daughter, but his more casual approach to parenting may be just what his grandson needs. If there has been some collateral damage in being an uninvolved father, there’s a benefit, too: At least his kid is self-reliant. The Wonder Years was much more incisive about just how emotionally damaging such a dad could be. In the series’ third episode, Jack, miserable at his job, shows so little interest in Kevin he brings him to tears. It makes clear why boys like Kevin might have grown up wanting be more involved in their own kids’ lives, even if decades later other TV shows would mock that level of engagement.
The Wonder Years is right on trend in other ways as well. As has been pointed out by others and put very succinctly by the Tumblr “Kevin Arnold Is a Dick,” Kevin Arnold can be a dick. He’s well-meaning but often self-obsessed and jerky, with a tendency to blow up and say mean things to his best friends and never quite apologize. He is dreadful to a string of teenage girls whose only crime is not being Winnie Cooper. Kevin is evidence that the unlikeable protagonist is the TV equivalent of the prostate: something that has always existed but that we thought about a lot less before it had a name. Like Hannah Horvath, Mindy Lahiri, Louie, and Larry David, Kevin’s a flawed central character, but his likeability never became an issue. Who could dislike a kid with eyes as puppy-doggish as Fred Savage’s anyway?
Kevin’s shmoopy stares were most often directed at his neighbor Winnie Cooper, his on-again, off-again first love. Kevin and Winnie’s relationship is the most memorable aspect of The Wonder Years and the part most likely to make viewers, and the narrator, go “awww.” It’s the backbone of the whole show, winding through each season, from its nearly presexual beginnings to something marginally less chaste. Kevin and Winnie have liked each other forever, to the point that their like is elemental, as much a part of who they are as their eye color. As they grow up on screen—as with the Harry Potter series, watching kids age on camera is a surefire heart-tug—they have to think through that like, which can be painful and sloppy. Like real boys, Kevin is not emotionally precocious, he doesn’t always know why he feels how he feels, and he doesn’t often have the words to express those feelings. One of the best things about The Wonder Years is how inarticulate his conversations can be, how what comes out of his mouth is so at odds with what is going on in his head.
Compared to TV teen couples today, Kevin and Winnie are nearly chaste: In eighth grade, they been going out for months when they are invited to a make-out party and have to deal with the fact that they have never made out. In the series finale, where it is lightly intimated that they might have had sex, they still aren’t kissing with tongue. If this seems naïve and outdated, well, it is, a little bit. For a head trip, consider that Kevin Arnold and Sally Draper are exactly the same age: While Kevin is sheltered in a safe suburban bubble with his nuclear family, not kissing Winnie even when they are parked at Make Out Point, Sally has been exposed to a creepy adult world full of home intruders, adulterous fathers with their pants off, avuncular family friends receiving blow jobs. Sally’s already practiced at contending with drunk, gropey boarding-school boys. It’s hard to imagine Kevin as one of those boys.
Kevin and Winnie looked like actual 14-year-olds and not like the twentysomethings who have played high-schoolers in everything from Gossip Girl to Dazed and Confused to Beverly Hills: 90210, which overlapped with The Wonder Years. Kevin may have been having typical teen horndog thoughts, but it’s plain to see that his body hadn’t caught up yet.
The show’s narrator views his relationship with Winnie with so much personal nostalgia that he makes the audience long for it even as it is happening. In the series finale, which aired in 1993, Kevin and Winnie talk about knowing that their relationship isn’t going to last forever, even though, right now, that’s all they want. And it doesn’t last forever: In the final voice-over narration Kevin explains that the two stayed close friends, but Kevin, anyway, married someone else. It’s the right bittersweet note: Most people don’t marry their sixth-grade girlfriends. But the show has trained us so well that we can’t help but feel a little bit sad; after all, she was Winnie Cooper.
Above all, The Wonder Years feels like it really is from another era because it does not long for things that could be found in a listicle. A number of this fall’s new sitcoms are, like The Wonder Years, period pieces. The Goldbergs and Surviving Jack are family comedies set in the ’80s and ’90s, respectively, and they overflow with fads, fashion faux pas, and pop culture gags. The jokes are like trivia questions about what was popular in, say, 1990. (Hypercolor T-shirts are a big punch line on Jack.) The Wonder Years, on the other hand, mentions Tang and the Beatles and Nixon, but there are almost no pop culture jokes, very few outlandish period outfits or hairstyles, and no brand names. (That is the one thing to miss about sitcoms 25 years ago: the lack of product placement.) The Wonder Years can be corny, but unlike these new period sitcoms and even Mad Men with its gorgeous set design, it is notably unconcerned with stuff, things, objects. It’s not misty-eyed about mood rings, Esso gasoline signs, or Ed Sullivan but first loves, feeling safe, a pristine childhood. Today, we’re nostalgic for The Wonder Years. The Wonder Years was nostalgic for the wonder years.