The Wonder Years (2021)

3 out of 5

Developed by:  Saladin K. Patterson

covers season 1

Ah, The Wonder Years, one of several shows I know was part of regular while-we’re-eating-dinner viewing that I would’ve watched weekly but somehow of which I have no distinct memories, only vague ones. Those vague ones being that I felt like I was too young by a factor of two: that I didn’t get the era the show was referencing, and that I was younger than the lead character – Kevin Arnold – at the time, so all the stuff about school and girls wasn’t really clicking with me.

In 2021, with Saladin K. Patterson’s reimagining of the show, we switch to a Black family in the same time frame – the late 1960s – and their middle-class experiences in Alabama. While this could easily be written off as a “woke” flip-flop, this new Wonder Years comes across as sincere, and hits me in a similar way as the original – it’s about a time and experiences which I didn’t live through and can’t speak to. The difference, of course, being that I’m older now, and able to appreciate the show on its own terms, as well as being able to relate in a way I think the show intends – tracing both the similarities and differences in The Williams’ family’s experiences between a realistic (if softened for primetime TV) representation of the era and both a “typical” family sitcom from the time, as well as our 2021 ever-evolving understandings. It’s written in a way that feels embracing without being pandering; it achieves episodic morals, but not at the expense of a certain level of realism (or maintaining a throughline of humor). By abiding by some typical sitcom practices, that also can mean it’s quite ephemeral – lead kid Dean’s (Elisha “EJ” Williams) day-to-day problems don’t collectively amount to anything; father Bill’s (Dulé Hill) struggle between music and work is just a set piece; mother Lillian’s (Saycon Sengbloh) juggling of staying in her “place” at work while also taking care of business is relegated to a single episode – but each of these episodes also feels like it takes time with what it wants to say, primarily focusing on an A-story so it can tell it to its fullest. And all of these principle actors (Laura Kariuki rounding things out as Dean’s older sister) are really natural in their roles, with Elisha quite nailing the budding awareness of being a Black young teen, and Saycon perfect as the managing-it-all matriarch.

Sticking with the setup of the original, we have Dean narrating this story to us as an adult, voiced by Don Cheadle. Cheadle has a soothing delivery, but I’m not sure if this structure was necessary. These are often the worst jokes of any episode – really soft-balled stuff, that’s better delivered by the actors onscreen – and requires Cheadle to say aloud our weekly lesson, which can undermine the impact a bit. I get that you have to maintain this if you’re remaking the show, but it also kept taking me out of any given episode. In a way, though, it also highlights what may be most important about the show: that it doesn’t need the nostalgia of the original to sell its charms, and is far beyond just being a race-swapped version of it.