Watching the original Wonder Years series was a family moment. My father found the father in the series to he hysterical. Probably because both hated their job. The actor who plays the dad is perfect. His frustration and discontent is palpable. The mother is also super authentic as a mum who’s trying to keep everybody happy and has learned to suppress her own needs and desires (what we call an ‘adult’). Their daughter is perfectly believable as a girl caught up in flower power, the hippie movement and questioning authority. There is the obnoxious brother, but I never liked that character. I guess that says the actor did a great job of being obnoxious.
Then there is of course the central character, Kevin. The actor, Fred Savage, was just brilliant (he still is, see the series Friends from college). Kevin is not great at anything, but he is always pumped to find his passion in life and to excel at something. He often fails and needs to come to terms with his own limitations. Who could not relate to that? He’s actually quite courageous, driven and spirited. He just doesn’t really have a talent that makes him stand out. He’s also in love with Winnie. As a kid I was in love with Winnie too! She even looked like my real life crush.
The series also dropped you in the middle of the sixties. You could feel the societal rifts, the revolutionary music, the sexual shifts and the pain of the Vietnam war. Right from the first episode. Winnie’s brother gets killed in Vietnam and you really feel that loss. A young man’s life was snuffed out for nothing at all.
The remake doesn’t quite pack that punch. Maybe because there is not enough pain to go around. The father is successful and likes his job. The mum seems to be fairly happy and is often enjoying himself. Dean, the Kevin of the series, does not have an obnoxious brother and he struggles, but not with the same intensity that Kevin did.
‘Always hurt the audience’, is one of the most important rules when it comes to telling a story. Ironically we like a story more if it hurts us. The new Wonder Years, though often endearing and sometimes definitely sad (like when Martin Luther King gets shot or when Dean catches his best friend kissing his crush) it doesn’t really stick a knife in your bowels, so to speak.
I have only seen three episodes and perhaps it will get better. It has the same themes, has sort of the same intent (like showing how in the sixties the world slowly woke up to the fact that women have sexual needs of their own, a process that is still very much ongoing), sort of the same family and relationship dynamics and portrays the same historical events, but it doesn’t get to you the way the original series did.
While am watching it I keep being aware that am watching a series. The original series took me to a different place and really hit me hard at times.
The remake is enjoyable, sweet, makes several really good points (like all the well-meaning, but kinda silly white adults pandering to their black friends, neighbours, students and colleagues), the actors are good, but in the end it doesn’t make you long for the good old days and mourn for all those lost opportunities, both personally and collectively, the way the original series did.
The original series gave you a window to the past, your own and the world’s, the remake feels more like a pedagogical experience. A fun one, but little left to wonder.