Entire family: No. Age 10 and older.
1988-89, 520 min., Color
Time Life/StarVista Entertainment
Not rated (would be PG because of mild language, content)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B-
As I wrote in my review of the complete series, this coming-of-age TV comedy-drama gets it right. Lots of things can shape a person, and just as WWII defined a generation, so did the ‘60s—which historians date from John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 resignation. 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. And Season 4 is the absolute best of the six seasons.
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 1987 series 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. And you knew that the series 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.
Fred Savage was perfectly cast as Kevin, 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 could 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 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 extremely 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.
Then there’s the music. I don’t know how they got the permissions, but Season 4 includes songs by Joan Baez, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Lee Dorsey, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees, Randy Newman, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Sam & Dave, Bob Seger, Edwin Star, The Ventures, The Who, and Hank Wilson.
Season 4 has the highest number of fan-rated classic episodes. This season the family goes to Jack’s company picnic—no one more reluctantly than Kevin, who’s afraid of seeing a girl who used to have a crush on him. This season his first girlfriend Winnie moves and changes schools, then finds a new boyfriend and breaks up with Kevin. No matter, because Kevin has also found someone else and is juggling two relationships. Never a show to shy away from reality, The Wonder Years: Season 4 also features an episode in which Kevin and his friends try to crash a 10th-grade girls pajama party thinking beer will be their magic pass. This season Kevin runs for student council against his nemesis, Becky Slater, and also discovers his coach moonlighting as a mall Santa. Kevin and Wayne argue over who’s going to take over Karen’s room when she goes off to college, Kevin and his father have another disastrous time of it when they go off to buy a suit for Kevin, and the up-and-down Winnie and Kevin saga culminates in an “I love you” moment and sets up the group’s graduation from junior high.
Though The Wonder Years may shock young girls who probably don’t want to believe that this is the way young boys think about girls, it remains one of TV’s most honest family coming-of-age comedies. And Season 4 catches the show at its apex. All 23 episodes are included on four single-sided DVDs and housed in a standard-size keep case with plastic “pages” holding the discs.
Language: Lots of junior-high insults (butthead, scrote, dork) and hells and damns
Sex: Lots of kissing; masturbation is referenced, as are nudie magazines and talk of orgies
Adult situations: There’s both smoking and drinking in the series, and some pretty intense family fights
Takeaway: When a show is this honest, it’s no wonder that it still informs and entertains, as it gets to the heart of male adolescence, families, and interpersonal relationships