‘The Wonder Years’ Reboot Is Must-Watch TV, Beautifully Balancing Heartbreak and Hope
During the '90s, I watched a 12-year-old Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) navigate life in a suburban town during the late '60s and '70s—a pivotal time in American history. Although it struck me as odd that there was zero diversity on The Wonder Years, I took a liking to Kevin as he struggled to deal with his family, school and his (seemingly) unrequited crush. But now, more than two decades later, I find myself even more drawn to 12-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha Williams), better known as the main character in ABC's timely reboot.
In case you missed it, the network just premiered the pilot of the remake, directed by Savage and featuring an all-Black main cast. Like the original, it's a coming-of-age tale that takes place in '60s suburbia, only this time, we see this historical period through the eyes of a Black boy named Dean. Right from the jump, the parallels between this show and the original are pretty clear. An older version of Dean (voiced by the incredible Don Cheadle) walks us through his childhood experiences in 1968, a time of political and social chaos, largely due to the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. He lives with a loving family, including his musician dad and professor, Bill (Dulé Hill), his no-nonsense mom, Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh), and his older sister, Kim (Laura Kariuki), while his big brother, Bruce (who doesn't appear), is away in Vietnam. Like Kevin, Dean starts off being wholly unaware of his country's troubled state. He's too preoccupied with trying to find his place in the world and getting through his first day of school. But when he manages to organize an integrated baseball game against his friend's team, his family learns of Dr. King's passing, and we see Dean's innocence start to slip away.
The sense of pride he feels after pursuing his calling to be the "The Great Uniter" is short-lived, and when he sees the reactions of his family, he doesn't fully understand the impact of what just happened. It's not until he visits his best friend, Cory (Amari O'Neil), that he gets a sense of what the Black community is feeling—oh, and later that night, he spots his BFF kissing Keisa Clemmons (Milan Ray), the girl he loves.
Although there are many aspects that that remain true to the original, this reboot offers a refreshing and very realistic take on what it was like to grow up as a Black kid during this time. In addition to dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence, Dean also has to live with the fact that he and his white peers are not seen as equals. Or rather, that he's more likely to be seen as a threat because of the color of his skin.
For instance, in the pilot's very first line, a grown-up Dean casually informs us in the voiceover that "growing up, Mom and Dad gave me the police talk. About how to handle yourself around cops." It's a sad reality that still rings true more than 50 years later, where innocent Black boys are murdered by officers for wearing hoodies and carrying a toy gun.
But this isn't the only relevant issue that the reboot touches on. As Dean looks back and recounts his childhood, he also notes that there was a presidential election that led to a racial divide (sound familiar?) and a flu pandemic that would kill a million people around the world. Given the current racial tensions and the fact that we're still dealing with the aftermath of Covid-19, it's safe to say that my emotions were all over the place when I watched the opening scene. Dean's warm smile and the feel-good soundtrack were a stark contrast to the narrator's hard-hitting comments, which made me go from heartbroken to hopeful and back again in a matter of seconds. But one thing I will say is that the show doesn't dwell on the negative. At the core of this timeless reboot is a young Black boy who has no choice but to grow up quicker than his white counterparts.
Even now, Black children are not only dealing with racism and the challenges of adolescence, but there are also Covid-related concerns, which certainly don't make things any easier. Still, this show reminds us that, even in the midst of difficulty, we have Black joy. And it can be found in the smallest moments, whether it's hearing one of your father's songs on the radio for the first time or getting a rare compliment from the girl of your dreams.
I absolutely love how this show balances serious topics with feel-good humor (Bill's intense back-and-forth with the coach during Dean's game was comedy gold). And, as expected, the performances were nothing short of brilliant. But what I also sincerely appreciate is the fact that the main cast includes dark-skinned actors. Though Hollywood has been making moves to diversify new shows (as we've seen in the reboot of Gossip Girl), it's no secret that colorism is still alive and well. So to see this beautiful bunch of actors take center stage is incredibly refreshing and a great way to make dark-skinned people like me feel seen.
I know that I've only seen the pilot, but I already feel like The Wonder Years is well on its way to becoming a major triumph. And as much as I loved the original series, this one hits a lot closer to home. Kevin certainly had his trials, but he wouldn't understand being looked down upon by white students or being confronted by police for no apparent reason. Dean would. And that's exactly what makes this remake so amazing. It clearly illustrates why childhood innocence looks so different for Black children—and the lengths to which a family will go to protect that innocence.
Purewow Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The Wonder Years offers a refreshing take on suburban life in the '60s, while also reminding viewers that the Black experience is not all about struggle. And it should go without saying that it's a must-watch for any fan of the classic.
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