Wonder Years is exactly what a good restart should be

Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams) at her friend’s bar mitzvah The Wonder Years.
Photo: Eliza Morse / ABC

It is easy to reject a restart. Hollywood has made re-use of previous ideas and supporting recognizable IP into such an obvious habit – it’s basically the industry’s primary business model at this point – that every time someone tries to take something old and make it new again, it’s natural to mock and waving from anything. the project is.

But once in a while, a reboot is handled with such care, intelligence and clear intention that it cannot be waved away. The Wonder Years, an update of the 1980s ABC sitcom that flashed back to the 60s through the eyes of a teenager Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), is one of those reboots.

Created by Saladin K. Patterson, the 2020s version of The Wonder Years, which debuted last fall on ABC and returned from winter break earlier this month, is still taking place in the 1960s. But instead of conquering suburban America at that time through the eyes of a white boy, this Wonder Years focuses on a black 12-year-old named Dean Williams, played by newcomer Elisha “EJ” Williams, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the latter half of a famous tumultuous decade. This version works from the same template established by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, who created the original: It focuses on Dean’s everyday experiences as told by an older version of Dean, narrated by Don Cheadle, just as the previous one was told by an older Kevin (Daniel Stern) looking back on his youth. Some of the episodes even reuse story lines similar to those first used.

It may sound like a lazy move, but the new one Wonder Years installments that are most closely synchronized with the past are among the most rewarding in the series so far. Reframing the episodes with a young black man and black family allows them to explore issues that would not have entered the realm of Kevin or Arnold while still retaining the same warm and nostalgic tone. The parallel also highlights exactly where the childhood of a black child and a white child can diverge, as well as how much our understanding of history depends on who describes their experience. All it does The Wonder Years the rare reboot that honors its source material while doing something entirely its own that is constructive without being too didactic or serious.

This week’s episode, “Brad Mitzvah,” is a great example of what I describe. Focused on the prelude to the bar mitzvah for one of Dean’s best friends, Brad (Julian Lerner, an actor to play a young Pete Davidson ASAP), this half hour with The Wonder Years was clearly inspired by “Birthday Boy”, an epitome episode of the first Wonder Years, where Kevin’s best friend Paul (Josh Saviano) plans his bar mitzvah on the same day as Kevin’s 13th birthday. A jealous Kevin, angry that he does not have the same sense of community and celebration around his own “arrival to manhood”, decides not to attend. But – spoiler alert from 1989 – he eventually changes his mind and learns some important lessons about selflessness and the true meaning of maturity.

At the time, “Birthday Boy” was the rare episode of television that portrayed Jewish culture in a way that was authentic and reverent to its traditions. “Brad Mitzvah,” written by Yael Galena and directed, like many of the new episodes, by Savage, deals with some similar themes – what it means to truly “become a man” who is the highest among them – but it acknowledges something, as “Birthday Boy” did not: that Jews are often expelled or mocked.Within the first few minutes of the episode, Dean recognizes that Brad is being treated differently by his peers, a dynamic he recognizes as one of the few black children on “When I was 12, I did not understand the complexity and hatred behind the joke,” Cheadle says via voice-over. I just knew they were targeting Brad because he was Jewish. “

When Dean’s parents, Bill and Lillian, played by Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh, find out that Dean has been invited to this special occasion, which is likely to be attended by predominantly white people, they insist that Dean’s big sister, Kim ( Laura Kariuki), who is also invited, accompany him. Bill and Lillian dance very carefully so as not to alarm Dean, while making it clear that some of the guests may not welcome him and his sister in the same way that Brad and his family do. It is a dance that unfortunately feels ordinary for this family. Nor is it a dance that Jack and Norma Arnold (Dan Lauria and Alley Mills) should have ever considered doing. Although the new Wonder Years still looking back at the 1960s, it does so in a way that allows for sentimentality and also moments like these that consider the layers of other things in American society and how it feels to be a minority.

Like the previous one Wonder Years, the show focuses on the kind of puzzles that confront any typical preteen. In “Brad Mitzvah”, it’s the fact that Dean’s girlfriend, Charlene (Milan Marsh), tells him that he can no longer be friends with Keisa (Milan Ray), the Winnie Cooper equivalent in the reboot, because neither Dean nor Charlene should have the opposite. -sex friends. Dean is so upset by this and in conflict with Charlene’s dictatorial style that he gets distracted by helping Brad practice his bar-mitzvah speech. Eventually, like Kevin Arnold, he realizes his mistake and supports his friend, an echo of the moral of “Birthday Boy.”

But Dean also learns something else through his interactions with Charlene and Keisa and from Brad’s bar-mitzvah remarks, where he talks about how he is often embarrassed about his Judaism but no longer wants to feel that way. “So from now on, I will not just stand by while people make fun of me, or try to make me feel bad,” he says. “Instead, I will stand up for myself, for my people and for what I believe is right.” Dean concludes that he should not be manipulated by others and strikes up Charlene, which does not quite result in the result he desires. (Keisa stays mad at him.) But, as older Kevin says in the last scene of the episode, “I got self-esteem. And if that doesn’t make you a man, I do not know what does.”

This is a twist on “Birthday Boy,” where Kevin initially has so much self-respect that he expects Paul to change his bar mitzvah date so Kevin can have his birthday to himself. As illustrated by a scene in which Dean’s parents urge him to be respectful at the bar mitzvah, much of Dean’s existence and, in fact, his safety require him to submit. It is important for every child to learn to follow their own moral compass. But it’s so much more important for a child like Dean to feel empowered to do so in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late ’60s, an environment where many still see him as less than.

If you have never seen the original Wonder Years, you can still watch this episode and find it entertaining and sweet. But considering it in conversation with its 1989 counterpart makes it a richer experience that does not diminish the first – I saw “Birthday Boy” recently, and it’s still a beautiful piece of television – but it clearly enhances the impact of The follow-up.

More 2021/2022 The Wonder Years episodes work this way. In the pilot, the bad news Dean has to confront is not that someone he knows – Winnie Cooper’s brother, Brian, in the original – died in Vietnam. It is that Martin Luther King Jr. has been murdered. Instead of coming to comfort Keisa with a kiss like Kevin once did for Winnie, Dean sees that his best friend Cory (Amari O’Neil) has already gotten there first. With a smaller pink-colored eye, this Wonder Years, like its predecessor, uses the events of the 60s to show how the heartache of childhood and the heartache of history can mingle in our memory.

The new Wonder Years also moves its boundaries a little bit further. Instead of making Kevin discover that his mother has read a book he and Paul have been trying to get their hands on – Everything you’ve always wanted to know about sex (but were afraid to ask) – Dean realizes that the porn magazines in Williams’ basement actually belong to his mother, prompting a conversation between them about healthy sexuality, women, and respect. In “The Workplace,” which aired for the first time in October, Dean visits his mother in the office, a change from the original Wonder Years episode where Kevin visits his father at work; instead of seeing a parent being beaten down by a job he hates, which Kevin witnesses, Dean realizes how hard his mother works and how skilled she is at what she does. IN The Wonder Years‘first Christmas episode in 1988, Kevin tries to pay Winnie a visit to give her a present, only to find that the Coopers have passed away because they can not bear to spend their first vacation at home without Brian. In the new Wonder Years‘first Christmas episode, the Williams family welcomes their oldest child, Bruce (Spence Moore II), home for the holidays, after completing a tour of Vietnam. This almost feels like a gift to those of us who remember the 1988 version, for this time we get to see a family that has not been crushed by that war, at least not yet.

This is what a smart reboot does: It builds on what came before and honors the legacy of the original while doing something new and different. It seeks to illuminate and not just recreate. It proves that sometimes something valuable can be shaped out of the familiar, as long as the process is in the right hands. And The Wonder Years is certainly in some good.

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