What would you do if I sang out of tune?
This Beatles song (as rendered by Joe Cocker) was the perfect opening for every episode of The Wonder Years, a weekly sitcom chronicle of squeaky-voiced Kevin Arnolds bumpy coming-of-age. An ode to the baby boom generation, going steady and groovin,this historic series was set to the tunes of Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Lovin Spoonful and other rock and roll greats. Growing pains were somewhat sharp for Kevin, but he always managed to get by with a little help from his friends.
The Wonder Years was narrated by Kevin’s wiser adult voice, who often made wistful statements such as, “growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers; the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul.”This turned out to be quite the understatement, considering Kevin’s voice had a witty observation for nearly every locker slammed, mystery meat served and dance attended, as the show followed the naďve doe-eyed Kevin through his first day of school at Robert F. Kennedy Junior High to his graduation from McKinley High School.
From the first kiss to gym class, from siblings being shipped off to war to divorce, the show set in Anytown, USA in the late 1960’s covered just about every teenage hardship imaginable. Despite several 1960’s-specific episodes, the show transcended boundaries of both time and place to strike a chord of nostalgia in the hearts of all who watched.
The broad range of subjects was mirrored by the variety of characters: the Arnold family was anchored by Kevin, the youngest sibling who was never without his New York Jets letterman jacket. The eternal peacemaker, Kevin had to deal with his weary and emotionless father Jack, whose most eloquent words were work’s work, traffic’s traffic; his nurturing mother Norma, a well-kempt platinum blond with frosted lipstick and a uniform of Jackie O-style shift dresses; his bully older brother Wayne, who was never afraid to display his brotherly love through obnoxious comments or noogies; and his hippie older sister Karen, whose main concern in life was deciding which love beads she should wear. Karen brought home an endless string of boyfriends, starting with the parentally-disapproved-of Louis. That relationship ended when Karen discovered she wasn’t the only girl he seduced in the back of his bus, but more boys were on the way.
Kevin’s immediate circle also included his geeky, four-eyed best friend Paul Pfeiffer and the chaste girl-next-door (and sometimes girlfriend) Winnie Cooper. Regular appearances by Ben Stein as the dead-as-a-doornail science teacher Mr. Cantwell and Robert Picardo as the drill sergeant-esque Coach Ed Cutlip (who also served as the sex education teacher) added to the show’s depth and humor.
Mood rings, beanbag chairs and curtain beads coupled with school dances, football games and the school cafeteria provided the backdrop for Kevin’s escapades. From feigning a sort throat to stay home from school after being publicly humiliated by his loose-lipped girlfriend Becky Slater (played by Winnie’s real-life sister) to crushes on attractive female teacher Miss White, Kevin had no shortage of teenage gripes. In the first season alone, a curious Kevin and Paul stole a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask from a local bookstore, Winnie’s brother Brian became a casualty of the Vietnam War, and Kevin’s first crush, Lisa Berlini, ditched him for the school dance to go with the hunky Brad instead. School stud Kirk McCray soon usurped Kevin’s position with Winnie when the two started going steady.Paul also found a main squeeze, Carla, but making out proved to be a challenge as he started sneezing uncontrollably every time she came within ten feet of him.
By the fall of 1990, Karen had moved out of the house with boyfriend Michael (played by David Schwimmer of Friends), whom she eventually married. That wasn’t all the romance a-blossoming, however: the relationship between Kevin and Winnie, a constant tease to viewers for the duration of the show’s run, often bordered on romantic. They shared their first kiss in Harper’s Woods, and though the two ended up in each other’s arms in the final episode, the voiceover let us know that this young romance would only end in close friendship.
Encompassing all that it meant to be a teenager in America, The Wonder Years was a tribute to the generation that coined the term. Less schticky that Happy Days, more upbeat than Freaks and Geeks, this was a show that not only celebrated the good old days, it actually took us right back into them.
USA / ABC – Black-Marlens Co – New World TV / 113×25 minute episodes 1×50 minute episode / Broadcast 1988-1993
Creator: Neal Marlens, Carol Black / Executive Producers: Neal Marlens, Carol Black, Bob Brush, Michael Dinner, Sy Rosen
Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold
Dan Lauria as Jack Arnold
Alley Mills as Norma Arnold
Olivia d’Abo as Karen Arnold
Jason Hervey as Wayne Arnold
Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper
Josh Saviano as Paul Pfeiffer
Daniel Stern as Adult Kevin Arnold (narrator)
Sean Baca as Craig Hobson (1989-90)
Andrew Mark Berman as Chuck Coleman
Josh Berman as Harold Gruntner (1991)
Raye Birk as Mr. A. Diperna (1988-91)
Michael Paul Chan as Mr. Chong (1992-93)
Julie Condra as Madeleine Adams (1990-91)
Torrey Ann Cook as Debbie Pfeiffer (1989-91)
Wendy J. Cooke as Felicia (1992-93)
Brandon Crane as Doug Porter (1989-91)
Steven Gilborn as Mr. Arthur A. Collins (1989-91)
H. Richard Greene as Mr. Cooper (1989-91)
Linda Hoy as Mrs. Ritvo (1988-89)
David Huddleston as Grampa Arnold (1990-92)
Don Jeffcoat as Eric Antonio (1988-89)
Jay Lambert as Tommy Kisling (1990-91)
Michael Landes as Kirk McCraig
Juliette Lewis as Delores (1989-90)
Paula Marshall as Bonnie Douglas (1992-93)
Crystal McKellar as Becky Slater (1989-92)
Wendel Meldrum as Miss White, later Mrs. Heimer (1988-91)
Scott Menville as Wart (1991-92)
Lynn Milgrim as Mrs. Cooper (1989-91)
Bentley Mitchum as Brian Cooper (1989-91)
John C. Moskoff as Alvin Pfeiffer (1989-92)
Krista Murphy as Carla Healy (1988-91)
Scott Nemes as Ricky Halsenbach (1991-93)
Tony Nittoli as Tony Barbella (1989-91)
Julie Payne as Mrs. Falcinella (1990-92)
Robert Picardo as Coach Ed Cutlip (1988-91)
Jodie Rae as Young Karen Arnold (1989-90)
Giovanni Ribisi as Jeff Billings (1992-93)
Stephanie Satie as Ida Pfeiffer (1989-92)
David Schwimmer as Michael (1991-92)
Ben Slack as Mr. Ed Ermin (1989-91)
Lindsay Sloane as Alice Pedermeir (1991-93)
Ben Stein as Mr. Cantwell (1989-91)
Michael Tricario as Randy Mitchell (1989-93)
Kathy Wagner as Lisa Berlini (1988-92)