What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and Iíll sing you a song, and Iíll try not to sing out of key.
-Joe Cocker, A Little Help From My Friends
Coming of age dramedies are everywhere these days, and theyíve been coming out of the woodwork for decades. From modern masterpieces like Malcolm in the Middle to the short-lived Freaks and Geeks to 90's juggernauts like Boy Meets World, to other 80's classics like the unconventional Doogie Howser, M.D., and even to the ones most of us would simply rather forget (cough, Full House, cough), the genre definitely has its share of representation.
Could there be a television series as synonymous with "coming of age dramedy" as The Wonder Years? Sure, there have been a lot of them, but think hard on it; have any of them been as memorable or as absolutely essential as Neal Marlens and Carol Blackís 1960's nostalgia vehicle? Personally, I donít think so. But what makes it so good is that itís more than the sum of its parts. Considering the fact that the sum of its parts is already incredibly high, thatís saying something. Between the incredible sense of time and place, the excellent writing, and superb performances from its cast (mostly young people), The Wonder Years remains to this day an incredible achievement.
But Iím here to talk about The Wonder Years: The Complete Series, a real whopper of a collectorís item. Iíve dabbled in complete series sets before, but none of the ones Iíve dealt with were of shows that lasted nearly as long as this one. So maybe you can take that into account as I try to shed some light on the depth and breadth of excellent content and, well, stuff thatís in this monster.
First, letís talk about the show itself. Over the course of its six-season run, The Wonder Years painted a picture of the average 1960's American suburban family. But more specifically, itís about one piece of that particular average 1960's American suburban family, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). Heís kind of the "everyboy," an unassuming but extremely observant young man. And letís be frank here: itís the late 1960's. Thereís a hell of a lot for the kid to take in.
Kevin lives in a classic suburban sprawl with a classic nuclear family, each member of which plays their own role in governing Kevinís formative years and ultimately shaping him into the man we see in the series finale.
His father Jack (Dan Lauria) is a survivor of the Great Depression and veteran of the Korean War who works in middle management for an electronics company. Jackís a man of few words; very early on, you get the sense that the world has run him completely ragged, and as a result, his quiet desperation makes him come across as aloof and uncaring. Nine times out of ten, his arrival home at the end of the day is an impersonal "Work is work" to his wife on his way to some much-needed alone time.
Norma (Alley Mills) is the quintessential homemaker. In the beginning of the series, we generally only see her doing housewife-y things. Sheís almost always in the kitchen and she always seems to be the only truly level-headed individual in the family, making her the ideal candidate for the moral support that is so direly needed by the rest of the Arnold clan. But as the series progresses and the times change, we begin to see much more of the woman that almost was. Not having graduated college in favor of getting married and moving away with Jack, thereís a lot of unfinished business with her. And with modern feminism starting to take shape and influence the minds of women everywhere, she begins wanting more out of life and ultimately starts to reach out and strive for what she really wants.
Early in the series, the Arnold family feels very much like a PG-13 version of the Cleavers. They seem to hold fast to the values that defined the 1950's and earlier. So naturally, thereís got to be a left-wing agitator somewhere in the mix. Enter Karen (Olivia díAbo), the older sister of the bunch who has seemingly completely embraced the free-wheeling consequence-free liberalism of the counterculture. So you can expect a lot of head-butting between Karen and the classic "Greatest Generation" conservative Jack. Over the course of the series, we get a glimpse into the conflict brewing inside her; an early episode brutally exposes her naivete concerning open relationships and how she might not be quite the radical she fancies herself to be. Her story picks up a lot of steam with the introduction of Michael (David Schwimmer), Karenís primary love interest, and she ultimately learns to reconcile her overt liberal philosophies with the conservative values of the rest of the family. This kind of stuff has been seen before (most strikingly in All in the Family), but itís done very well here.
And then we have Wayne (Jason Hervey). The most enduring image of the stereotypical meatheaded bully of an older brother is during the opening credits montage in which heís beating the hell out of Kevin, only to see the camera and immediately throw up a faÁade of hugging and playing. His existence seems to have one purpose: to be the bane of Kevinís life. Anything he can do to make his younger brother uncomfortable, he does, regardless of the consequences. Wayneís character arc is predictable but ultimately fulfilling; his tough, uncompromising exterior belies a crippling vulnerability. Heís an incredibly insecure young man, which has a tendency to ruin his chances at serious relationships. His final season storyline in particular is particularly poignant.
Of course, youíd be hard pressed to find adolescents who spend all of their time with their parents and siblings, and Kevin is no different. His best friend is Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), a gawky but extremely bright young man. Paul is incredibly awkward, yet often confident and self-assured. Like all friendships, Kevin and Paulís is put through the wringer at one point and is subjected to a large amount of tension. This often stems from the disparity between Paulís undeniable geekiness and Kevinís desire to be well-liked by everyone. And later in the series, Paulís above-average intelligence threatens to carve a more physical rift in the foundations of their friendship. But his personality and quirks come with several episodes practically pre-made; add in the fact that heís Jewish, and youíve got a treasure of a character.
Last but certainly not least is Gwendolyn "Winnie" Cooper (Danica McKellar). From the very first episode on, Kevin is utterly smitten with the girl next door, who he previously never really gave too much thought to. Up until then, she was just kind of the shy, unassuming neighbor with the cat-eye glasses and overalls. But when she shows up at the bus stop on the first day of middle school, she suddenly looksÖ different. Sheís always been sweet and well-liked amongst her peers, but thereís something about her now. And when her brother is killed in Vietnam, itís Kevin whoís there to console here in an incredibly memorable sequence that kicks off the primary plot thread that underlies the entire series from beginning to end.
Over the course of six seasons, The Wonder Years takes its time in building these characters by constructing well-conceived storylines that have them all playing off of each other in one crucial way or another, and all of it is delivered by the utterly perfect narration of Daniel Stern. And by the end of the series, the relationships we saw in the beginning look nothing like they used to. For better and for worse. And thatís part of the power of this series: itís honest. It doesnít go out of its way to deliver contrived fairytale endings for the satisfaction of the viewers. Things donít always work out. In fact, they often donít even come close. Itís in how we deal with setbacks and failures that we are defined as people, and thatís where The Wonder Years succeeds the most in its characterization. And the series finale, which subverts and exceeds expectations, pulls no punches and dares to be different from the fairy tale ending that is all too common in these kinds of shows. Instead, weíre presented with a conclusion that feels natural and maybe a little bittersweet.
Nostalgia, nostalgia, nostalgia. Once you dig into the staggering depth and breadth of The Wonder Years: The Complete Series's special features, you might have your mind blown. There's a lot of meaty content that goes miles beyond mere enrichment.
And it hits you from the start: Hall Pass: Roundtable with Danica McKellar, Fred Savage, and Josh Saviano (fully grown up) get together to heap praise on the writers and share their own perspectives on what made the show so successful. It's wonderful seeing these people together, and it's even better to see them share their most memorable moments working on the show. They even pinpoint the episodes; my favorite part of this feature is a moment where Josh Saviano relives a shocking, very R-rated moment (it's bleeped) between the cast and director Nancy Cooperstein. It's fitting, since it's regarding "Carnal Knowledge," perhaps one of the most important episodes in the series.
As can be expected, most of the special features are befitting of a complete series box set; everyone who could be reached for input was obviously reached, and the cast reunion that happened in early 2014 is evidence of just how far they wanted to go. Interviews range from the obvious (Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano) to the not-so-obvious; critics, composers, and even cast mothers show up to put in their two cents. And it's all wonderfully worthwhile. And for the awkward teen in all of us is a series of outtakes from the pilot episode; featuring several takes of that fateful first kiss between Kevin and Winnie.
There's a very healthy and diverse selection of featurettes, each one exploring a particular facet of the show. A Family Affair: At Home with the Arnolds delves into each of the Arnolds and their role in the family. Insight from the producers, directors, writers, and cast shed some light into the amazing chemistry between the cast; and more importantly, their individual flaws and imperfections. When a Man Loves a Woman: Kevin & Winnie Forever explores the long-running but complicated relationship between the two main leads, from the adorable beginnings to its bittersweet end. At Last: The Final Episode is a retrospective on the hour-long series finale "Independence Day" and what it meant to everyone involved. Some people hate the series finale, and perhaps this featurette will change their minds (I doubt it will, though). Personally, I think the finale is excellent, so I like it for what it is. My favorite of the special features is My Generation: The Kids Grow Up, a fascinating retrospective on the tremendously gifted young (at the time) actors who have since grown up to become big name stars. Of course, you got to see the likes of Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, David Schwimmer, Mark Paul Gosselaar, Carla Gugino, and Alicia Silverstone, so a little "then and now" is to be expected! Bookends: Kevin & Paul provides the requisite examination of the lengthy friendship between everykid Kevin and the lanky, highly allergic, highly adorable Paul. And everyone offers their take on the duo, and it's as sweet as it sounds like it'd be. Both Sides Now offers a look into the likely reason behind the incredible amount of time it took for this series to be brought to a home release. There is perhaps more licensed music in The Wonder Years than in any other show. In history. The music was relevant and gave the series a real sense of time and place. Finally, I Love You for Sentimental Reasons: Fan-Favorite Episodes is exactly what it sounds like. Fans, cast, and crew offer up their favorites, which are promptly followed by iconic scenes from said episodes.
Last but not least, let's talk packaging. It's kind of an unspoken rule that a complete series set should physically distinguish itself from all the others. Only owning a few of them, I can say that's mostly true. Deadwood's and Seinfeld's are attractive box sets, but The Wire's is dull as dishwater. Well, The Wonder Years: The Complete Series outdoes all of them. It comes in a locker, and include in the locker are two binders containing all 26 DVDs (which contain all 115 episodes and all special features), a yearbook containing lots of photos and behind-the-scenes stories, and some magnets you can use to personalize your locker.
The Wonder Years: The Complete Series is a monster of a set. There's so much content in this package, and nearly all of it is excellent. The price of entry is a bit steep, as is common of this kind of release. But if you're a big fan of the show, this locker and everything in it will capture your heart all over again.