WonderYears3coverGrade: A-
Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1990-91, 520 min. (23 episodes), Color
Rated TV-PG for mild swearing, rude humor, and coming-of-age situations
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

There are plenty of coming-of-age stories, but the classics for me are still Stand by Me and A Christmas Story in film, and The Wonder Years on TV. In each, you get the full impact of adolescence, but with a terrific sense of the time period, along with plots that bring everything into sharp focus. The Wonder Years is funny, it’s fresh, it’s thought provoking, it insightfully and colorfully captures the attitudes of the era, and it plays well 20 years later.

Like Leave It to Beaver, the series’ episodes were seen from the point of view of an adolescent, and you knew you were in for an interesting ride when this half-hour comedy-drama shunned a laugh track and introduced the kind of voiceover narrator that we got in A Christmas Story—an adult version of the main character, who was 12 years old when the series began. And you knew that The Wonder Years would meet the ‘60s head-on when the pilot called for the girl-next-door’s older brother to be killed in Vietnam, and for our hero to comfort her in a scene that would culminate in a first kiss for each of them—both as characters, and as actors.

In short, The Wonder Years gets it right. Kids Kevin’s age were too young to worry about a draft number, yet too old to ignore the events that were shaping history and the lives of Americans—things like the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing, Woodstock, the Apollo 13 crisis, and events that were an outgrowth of Civil Rights, women’s liberation, and increasingly strident anti-war protests. The result is a series that combines the innocence of childhood—of who likes whom, and passing notes—with a world that’s pushing them to grow up more quickly.

Fred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin Arnold, who at 13 became the youngest actor ever nominated for a Primetime Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series Emmy. His doe eyes reflected innocence, while his impish smile was a sign that he might say or do something impulsive or mischievous at any moment. The girl next door, Winnie Cooper, was also well cast, with Danica McKellar perfect as someone who would be both a best friend and love interest over the course of the show’s six seasons. And for comic relief and guy-to-guy matters there was bespectacled Paul (Josh Saviano), a brainy pal who was also Kevin’s best friend. The tone was wink-wink one minute and woe-is-me another as this group navigated the halls of junior high, then high school and all of the problems that seem so major to this age group: crushes, dates, tormentors, cliques, and run-ins with teachers and coaches.

On the home front, older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) was obviously fond of his brother but lived to torment him, while much older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) was so caught up in the ‘60s that she was a flower child from the very first episode. The parents were especially well cast, with Dan Lauria returning from work each day grumpy and feeling chewed up and spat out, and Alley Mills deferring to him while also trying to act as mediator when he got on the kids.

Mr. Arnold swears almost as much as the dad from A Christmas Story, but without the mumbling. For him, “hell” and “damn” are normal everyday words. Many dads were like that, especially when the country seemed to be coming apart at the seams. But while historical events provided a backdrop, like the terrific music from the period that we hear in every episode, this show was still about growing up, and growing up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s was more complicated. The Wonder Years managed to capture the perfect storm of events that were always in a family’s consciousness even as the father tried to put food on the table, siblings fought and sought to find their place in the world, and the mother tried to hold them all together.

WonderYears3screenIf your family is into binge-watching, The Wonder Years is a perfect candidate, and you don’t have to begin with Season 1. This season Kevin meets an older girl during summer vacation, butts heads with an unreasonable teacher, tries to help Winnie get over her stage fright when they’re all in a play together, takes a break from best-pal Paul, gets his first pimple, learns a lesson about cheating, sabotages himself on a test, joins a band, gets a dog, struggles in glee club, builds a treehouse with his dad, and has to deal with an awkward moment when he and Winnie are invited to a make-out party. And brainy Paul develops a crush on Mrs. Arnold. Meanwhile, the Apollo 13 astronauts are in trouble and Kevin worries that his family is also in trouble, with a sister trying to enroll in a “liberal” college and his father complaining about the old house so much that Kevin is afraid they might move away from his friends and school.

The Season 3 DVD includes interviews with the actors who play Karen, Wayne, Winnie, and Becky Slater, along with a roundtable featuring the main three actors and a featurette, “At Home with the Arnolds.”