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If the revival of the format, now executive-produced by Savage along with Lee Daniels, Saladin Patterson, and Marc Velez, kept that gap, we’d be following a story that took place at the turn of the century, roughly the same territory occupied by Hulu’s “Pen15.” Instead, though, the show keeps its gaze fixed on 1968, meaning that the adult protagonist telling us the story of his childhood is doing so at a distance of more than fifty years.
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The remove of distance dulls some sentimentality: This “Wonder Years” seems less interested in nostalgia than in exploring what growing up against history does to one kid. Credit the pilot of “The Wonder Years” 2.0 with this: With brainpower that’s rare for a contemporary network sitcom, it makes its characters’ relationships feel vivid and real against the backdrop of changing times.
In the first installment, we meet young Dean (played as a child by Elisha “EJ” Williams and in voice-over looking back by Don Cheadle) as his community deals with the still-fresh memories of segregation. Dean has a classmate whom he’s got an affectionate eye on (played by Milan Ray) as well as a best friend with whom he shares an easy rapport (Amari O’Neil); his sister (Laura Kariuki) is at home, while their older brother is in Vietnam. And now that school is integrated, Dean is eager to play a white team in recreational baseball, but finds that his father (Dulé Hill) is significantly less enthusiastic, building to a head at the youth baseball game.
This has the shape of a nicely drawn little vignette, if not one entirely beyond cliché. Hill’s character having a domineering side that comes out when he takes a drink is an element the show will have to watch carefully to avoid dipping into the rote and familiar. But the collision between father’s and son’s perspectives is halted when, on the baseball diamond, the characters learn of seismic news affecting the nation, and the Black community in particular. (I am edging away from spoilers here, but those who know the history of the era might have guessed this event would come up.) The characters retreat back into the warmth of community; their differences feel, in the moment, small.
Anchoring the pilot of a “Wonder Years” against a tragedy of late-1960s history is nothing new: The first series’s opener saw Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) mourning the loss of her brother in Vietnam. The difference here is one of perspective: The 1960s, in retrospect, were turbulent for all, but the chaos of the era, for a Black family, allows for especially potent storytelling. It was surprising just how much emotion the show wrings from, say, a brief shot of Dean’s mother (an excellent Saycon Sengbloh) weeping while folding laundry, unable even to look at the TV set.
But shots like these are fleeting by necessity: In trying to address quite so much in a 22-minute pilot, “The Wonder Years” can feel rushed, as it takes on subject matter that deserves a bit more breathing room. There’s a sort of attempted balance in, say, Dean’s older sister pointedly taking a copy of the seminal revolutionary work “Soul on Ice” off the family bookshelf, followed by adult Dean telling us in voice-over, “I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, especially why when people get upset about something bad, they resort to destroying their own things.” While likely not controversial to a sizable portion of the viewership, this message comes practically before the bad news has really been allowed to land, and ends up tied into the show’s climactic revelation of Dean’s reaction to a personal betrayal; he smashes a window, as, for a moment, he understands “the anger I’d been seeing on the news.”
In this way, the pilot operates in a sort of historical shorthand: Its depiction of one of the pivotal tragedies of the 20th century gets reduced, a bit, down to the response of unnamed protesters, of whom the show seems to disapprove. Similarly, at the top of the show, Cheadle’s voiceover insists that the show’s setting will be familiar to us today because the nation was bitterly divided, Black parents taught their children how to defuse police situations, and because there had just been a viral pandemic. This last bit makes it a piece of too-cute writing that attempts to say everything about the era all at once, making our plunge back in time feel, for a moment, a touch more alienating.
The raw material is here for a strong show: The entire cast, including and especially the younger members are warm and likable, with Williams delivering a refreshingly unmannered turn and Cheadle doing his best to anchor us in the story. And the pilot’s final insight — that these were years of wonder because the family was a single still point in a rapidly changing world — is nicely communicated (even if the episode-ending music cue, in what may become a hazard for this show, is a bit familiar). It’s worth hoping that future episodes, not likely to have massive historical events to depict each time, manage to show change in ways that are easier for the show to get its arms around. This is an evidently big-hearted show whose pilot has great fundamentals but tries to juggle a bit more than it realistically can in less than half an hour. That’s suggestive of ambition, which makes a viewer hope this show finds its voice and its pace in the coming weeks. That desire to do and say more is so rare on TV nowadays that “The Wonder Years” feels, for reasons beyond its setting, like an ultimately welcome dispatch from the distant past.
“The Wonder Years” debuts Wednesday, Sept. 22, at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
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