The Wonder Years (2021)
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A new spin on an old classic, The Wonder Years is a reboot of the beloved 1980s coming-of-age comedy. It’s 1968, and geeky 12-year-old Dean Williams is entering the crazy world of adolescence as the rest of the world goes crazy too. Living in Montgomery, Ala. with his father, a music professor, his mother, his cool older sister and a brother serving in Vietnam, Dean is forced to navigate school, friends, family, and the racial politics of the South at the end of Jim Crow.
Executive producer Lee Daniels is a name audiences will likely recognize from his work on films such as Precious, The Butler, and The United States vs Billie Holiday, as well creating the acclaimed drama Empire. Dulé Hill, who plays Dean’s father, will be familiar to viewers as Charlie Young on The West Wing and Gus on Psych. Dean’s mother is played by Tony nominee Saycon Sengbloh. It is narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Don Cheadle.
In a world of remakes and reboots, The Wonder Years stands out as a fresh reimagining of an old show. Honestly, aside from the name and the very general premise of a young boy coming-of-age narrated by his older self, the show is wholly original and should be judged as such.
What makes this iteration of The Wonder Years so compelling is that, though it takes place more than 50 years ago, it is grappling with topics as timely as ever. This is something the show winks at by having narrator Don Cheadle point out the similarities–racial tensions, political turmoil, a pandemic–between the late 1960s and today.
The pilot episode centers on whether Dean’s all-Black baseball team should play an all-white baseball team. While that is not something that would be controversial in 2021, the conversations it produces around racism and inequality are still conversations we are having today.
As the nation grapples with how to reckon with our past sins, The Wonder Years tears old wounds open. Dean’s team does eventually play the white team, but it happens to be on the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King is assassinated. The show asks us to examine whether we’ve truly healed as much as we think we have by telling the story of American history through the eyes of a young Black boy. The Wonder Years provides an important counter to the push to figuratively and literally whitewash history. It reminds us that the past we’re taught is not necessarily the past as experienced by every American.
Given the weightiness of the material, it’s easy to forget that The Wonder Years is a comedy. Yet the writers strike just the right balance between the heaviness of history and coming-of-age comedy. Especially delightful is the performance of Saycon Sengbloh, whose comic timing as Dean’s mother Lillian will have you laughing. The character of Lillian is in many ways the most interesting in the entire show. Her bouffant hair may scream 1960s, but Lillian is no Carol Brady. She has a career and a mind of her own, making her a refreshingly modern take on the mid-century housewife.
Not to be outdone, newcomer Elisha “EJ” Williams holds his own as Dean. Though still just a child, he anchors the show with a warmth, a charm, and a vulnerability that makes him instantly likable. His refusal to wear his glasses–they make him look nerdy–is relatable, as is his seeming resignation that his fate is to be an outcast when he finally puts them on at the end of the pilot. Williams is great at portraying the insecurity of adolescence and that feeling of being uncomfortable in your own skin that is the mark of early adolescence.
The Wonder Years is a delightful adaptation of an American classic. Fans of the original show will love the familiar premise, while new viewers will enjoy the chemistry of the cast and the hilarity of the writing. By combining brilliant comedy writing with weighty stories that are drawn from history yet as relevant as ever, the show has the potential to become one of the most timely and important shows of our era and is sure to get people talking.
Fans of this current iteration of The Wonder Years would be remiss not to watch the original version too. Like its predecessor, the remake is family friendly. There is some mild language, but it truly is suitable for the entire family.
Fred Savage, who starred in the original version of The Wonder Years, directed the pilot of the remake.