The wonder years have returned to TV. But they don't look the way they did the first time around.
"The Wonder Years," the classic 1980s sitcom starring Fred Savage as precocious young Kevin Arnold growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s suburbs, is getting a remake on ABC this fall (premiering Wednesday, 8:30 EDT/PDT). But this time it follows a Black family in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1968. Produced by Lee Daniels (creator of "Empire") and Saladin K. Patterson ("Psych"), the new series captures the nostalgia and wistful tone of the original while highlighting a thriving, middle-class Black family of that era.
"A lot of Black families were lower middle class and middle class," Daniels says. "And they have not been depicted in this era properly."
"We've certainly seen that time period represented, and the civil rights movement represented in great ways that tapped into what the struggle was," adds Patterson, the series' creator. "But usually from a different lens than what a middle-class experience would have been."
At no point did they consider setting the series 20 years ago to mimic the setup of the original. (The 1968 setting put the original "Wonder" 20 years before its 1988 premiere date.)
"When you look back to the year 2000, it just doesn’t feel like that big a difference societally and generationally than what we’re experiencing today," Patterson says. "Not as much as it felt like when you went from ’88 to ’68. That felt like more of a retrospective lens where you can look to the past and learn something."
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The new series still revolves around a man reflecting back on his childhood experience, this time from the perspective of 12-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha Williams), voiced in narration as an adult by Don Cheadle. Dean seeks to be the great uniter of his integrated school and town, lobbying in the first episode for his all-Black baseball team to play the all-white team one of his school friends is on. Savage is also involved in the remake, as a producer and director, including the first episode.
"I was just terrified about the kid because how do you replace that kid?" Daniels says of casting the lead role. "And how do you replace that voice (of narrator Daniel Stern)? I tell you that's the reason why I didn't want to take this on as director or as a writer because I didn't think you could do it!"
But both Daniels and Patterson are very confident in the cast, which also features Dulé Hill ("Psych," "The West Wing") as patriarch Bill and Saycon Sengbloh as wife and mom Lillian. Patterson says it was important that the couple and the family be very loving in order to make this a story about the family's "wonder years."
"Because we’re setting it in this time where (there were) obstacles and challenges and disadvantages that a Black middle-class family would have faced, we wanted to show it was the 'wonder years' for them because of the strength of the family unit. Because of the love at the center of this family. ... We wanted it to be aspirational and positive but at the same time very much rooted in reality and grounded."
One major difference between the new series and the original is that the Williams family is not able to hide away in the suburbs and be mostly unaffected by major national and world events like the original Arnold family could. The pilot includes the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and how it affects each character.
"Our family, because they're Black and in the South, cannot create that bubble," Patterson says. "But what we’re using as our guide is the show will always be through the point of view of our 12-year-old main character. ... Part of our coming-of-age is the world bleeding into this construct that a 12-year-old would feel (what) right and wrong is, good and bad is."
"The events won’t lead the stories but they’ll have an effect on the stories in that way."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Wonder Years' reboot: Why ABC brought it back with a Black family