Home Video Hovel: The Wonder Years Season One, by David Bax
Yes, it’s true that TimeLife and StarVista have released the complete series of The Wonder Years in a deluxe set. But, for the more budget-conscious consumer, they are also putting them out one season at a time (season two comes out February 3rd). That’s not to say these releases were made on the cheap. To answer the question you are asking, yes – the music is there. Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf and more, including, of course, Joe Cocker over the opening credits of every episode.
The last time I watched these episodes, I was younger than the protagonist, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), who is seen entering seventh grade in the pilot at the very recently renamed Robert F. Kennedy Junior High. While it’s funny to think that I once saw Kevin as a cool, older kid and now he seems impossibly small, what’s truly striking about the series is how well it works from both angles. We see Kevin experiencing things for the first time as a kid while we hear the older Kevin (the voice of Daniel Stern) reflecting on those same things from a distance. Instead than being at odds, these perspectives gel to create a timelessness.
While that timelessness may not extend to the hair and clothes and interior design of the 1968 setting, The Wonder Years strikes gold by not making that disparity the focus, either for comedy or for nostalgia. It’s specific, yes, but weren’t all of our childhoods?
Wonder Years’ dedication to emotional verisimilitude is as serious as it is key to the series’ approach to comedy. The first season’s best episode, “My Father’s Office,” exemplifies how well this approach can work when all elements converge. Kevin’s dad, Jack, (Dan Lauria) brings his son to work with him because Kevin realized, while he and his friends discussed their own career aspirations, that he has no idea what his father does all day. The young boys’ plans for their futures are typically lofty for their ages. Kevin wants to be a professional baseball player but, as a practical lad, he has fallback options that include being an astronaut. At his dad’s office, Kevin encounters a more tempered view of adult employment. At first, he’s overjoyed to see that his dad is in charge of people. Still curious, though, he asks how he decided to go into the line of work he did. Jack’s brief monologue tells a story that will likely be familiar to many adults but is revelatory to Kevin. One pragmatic decision after another – always keeping in mind what was best for him and his wife and, eventually, his kids – led Jack to where he is now. He’s a comfortable, middle-class homeowner who has provided a life for his children that allows them the freedom to casually consider becoming astronauts. The hushed spell of Jack’s tale is almost immediately broken, though, when Kevin discovers that his dad has a boss too. Jack gets a dressing down about missed deliveries or some such thing in front of his son. Without the contemplative and insightful scene in between, this might have been deflating for Kevin, who was earlier daydreaming about being in a position where he gets to yell at people himself. But a new bond of understanding has been formed and the chewing-out only deepens Kevin’s empathy. The gag that caps the trip to the office is sublime in its simplicity. Jack comes home peeved, storming into the house while angrily loosening his tie and slamming the door behind him, just as we saw him do at the beginning of the episode. Only now, Kevin follows a beat behind him, repeating the gestures. It’s cute and probably even a little predictable but, given what we’ve seen transpire, it’s flooring.
“My Father’s Office” is just the cream of the crop, the best of the six great episodes that make up The Wonder Years’ first season. If you’re unsure about taking the plunge on the entire box set, this release will probably make you wish that you had.
Special features include a cast reunion, a featurette and interviews with the actors and creators.