It’s been a blast going back to school with you all. This week, we’re finishing up Back-to-school September with a very special episode about a very special TV series and its pilot episode. On March 15th, 1988, the world met Kevin Arnold, a 12-year-old suburban boy growing up in the 1960s. Guided by the voice of Daniel Stern, The Wonder Years took audiences back in time to an era of change and uncertainty and reminded them what it was like to be a kid again.
Throughout its 5 seasons, The Wonder Years connected with audiences in the late 1980s and early 90s, but many of its themes are timeless. It also made its star, Fred Savage, a household name, and forever made a mark on American pop culture.
This week, we’re discussing the history of The Wonder Years, with a focus on the pilot episode of the show. Because the show starts with the main character going back to school, we thought it would be the perfect topic to close out our series of school-related episodes!
Before we go into the events of the episode, let’s talk a little about the historical context of the show.
THE FIRST TELEVISED WAR
- The late 1960s was a turbulent time. The war in Vietnam forever changed and destroyed the lives of countless people, including those that lived in stucco houses, nestled safely in American suburbia. Between 1964 and 1973, over 2 million American men were drafted to fight in the war.
- When America entered the Vietnam war in 1965, it had been less than 20 years since the end of the second world war, and a little over 10 years since the Korean War. The American people were familiar with the pain, anxieties, and struggle of war. Back then, it was common for people to get updates on the conflict through newspapers and newsreels at the local theater. But by the 1960s, a new medium existed to reach wider audiences: TV.
- For the first time, the bleak and disturbing realities of war and the names of dead American sons were broadcast daily to audiences across the country. This new exposure further enlightened many to the horror of war, experiencing it for the first time in their living rooms.
- This and the other major events of the 1960s, like the civil rights movement, the counterculture movement, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, John F Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, defined a generation. It was an era of immense turmoil and great change.
- Because The Wonder Years begins in this decade, the backdrop of the war is important to the storyline, showing the effect it had on American families directly. The show began less than 20 years after the end of the war, meaning that there were writers, crew members, and even actors that had either fought in the war or knew someone that did.
- Shortly after creating the sitcom Growing Pains in the mid-1980s, Neal Marlens felt like he was done with TV for a while. After working on a film with his wife Carol Black, the two of them decided to make another movie told from the perspective of a little boy. The more they discussed the idea, they realized it would be better suited as a TV show. They wrote the first episode in about two weeks.
- Marlens and Black understood that what they were creating was unorthodox compared to the usual TV sitcom, as it would feature a single camera and narration. So, they decided to write the script before pitching the idea, so that the producers would have a better understanding of what they were going for.
- Using their own childhood experiences for inspiration, the couple set the show in the late 1960s. Carol Black said in an interview that she started her childhood watching shows like “Leave it to Beaver,” but as she grew up, the entire country changed.
- Since the beginning of the writing process, the creators were certain they wanted an adult narration driving the story forward, so they could avoid writing unnatural dialogue for the child actors. The narrator also made the show work for adult audiences, so it became a show for all ages.
- The show was not autobiographical, but it touched on shared experiences of many Americans, and because of that, it felt very authentic.
- The house in the pilot episode was a real house on a street in Burbank, California. It was perfect for the show because all of the trees looked young, just like the trees in the recently built suburban neighborhoods of the 1960s.
- Daniel Stern received the script so he could audition for the role of the narrator, and showed it to his brother, Dave. Dave then wrote a spec script for the show, and became the first writer hired by Carol and Neal! Just as the show was starting, there was a writer’s strike, so this script was helpful.
- All the auditions for the narrator were blind, meaning that the creators did not know anyone’s name or face. They chose actor Daniel Stern solely on his voice and ability to connect with the character.
- The showrunners would talk to the kids and sometimes put stories or lines in the script based on their ideas.
- When Carol Black and Neal Marlens were interviewing casting directors, almost all of them told them that no matter what they do, they should audition this child actor named Fred Savage. They saw some footage of his work and mailed him a pilot script. Later on, Savage would say that it was his parents that decided that it was worth it to fly to California for an audition. Fred got the part and became one of the biggest child stars of the 90s.
- The creators searched for a month to find someone to play Winnie Cooper, the lead female character opposite Fred Savage. Danica McKellar and her sister Crystal were both finalists for the role. For them, acting was just a hobby and not a career, and their mother would normally not allow them to audition for a pilot episode of a show for that reason. However, the role at this stage in development was actually a one-off, so their mother allowed them to audition. Both girls were equally talented, and the role eventually went to Danica, because she had dark hair that matched Fred Savage’s hair. The writers created another character for her sister to play, as well.
- When they were writing the parents, Carol and Neal considered the generational divide that was happening between parents and their kids in the 1960s. It’s something that occurs with every generation, but there had been so much radical change throughout the decade, this issue really affected the family dynamic.
- For Jack Arnold, Kevin’s father, they cast Dan Lauria. The creators were looking for someone who had an “everyman” feeling, a working-class person that audiences would connect to. Jack is meant to embody the classic 1960s father, a man that had sacrificed everything for his family, and just wants quiet at the end of the day.
- Alley Mills was cast as Norma Arnold, the peace-keeping matriarch of the Arnold family. The relationship dynamics between men and women had changed so much since the 1960s, many actresses that auditioned for the role played the character “too modern.” Mills understood that her role wasn’t to win the arguments with her male counterpart but to keep the harmony of the household. Mills also had great chemistry with Olivia d’Abo, who was cast as her teenage daughter.
- The Pilot episode was directed by Steve Miner with some scenes filmed at John Burroughs High School in California.
- W.G. “Snuffy” Walden composed the music for the show, notably the theme for Winnie Cooper. The music for the show is usually acoustic, giving it a more personal feeling.
- He said he was lucky to write a simple and easy-to-understand theme because so many people related to it and loved it.
- The theme is likely part of what made Winnie such an iconic character.
- Narrated by Daniel Stern as the grown-up Kevin Arnold
- According to Daniel Stern, he was hired to narrate the show but got fired after recording the pilot episode. Apparently, the show was concerned that Stern’s film career would make him unavailable to record. In his place, the show hired actor Arye Gross and his narration was heard in the pilot that aired on January 31st. Shortly after the pilot aired, the show asked Stern to return as the narrator.
- Fred Savage as young Kevin Arnold
- Fred is an actor and director that you may remember as the little boy in The Princess Bride.
- Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper
- Danica has since done several Hallmark movies but is also a mathematician who has written several children’s books about math.
- Josh Saviano as Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer
- Josh no longer acts and is now a lawyer.
- Dan Lauria as his father Jack Arnold
- Dan is an actor that has been in many things such as the tv show Sullivan and Son.
- Alley Mills as his mother Norma Arnold
- Alley is an actress and has most recently had a recurring role on The Bold and the Beautiful since 2006.
- Olivia d’Abo as his sister Karen Arnold
- Olivia is an actress that was in Conan the Destroyer as Princess Jehnna.
- Jason Harvey as his brother Wayne Arnold
- Jason is an actor and tv producer. He was also in Back to the Future.
The pilot episode of The Wonder Years aired on January 31st, 1988, after the Super Bowl. It opened with the song, “A Little Help from my Friends,” sung by Joe Cocker. The show creators felt the song’s combination of vulnerability and levity was perfect for the show. Because they were unable to license anything by the Beatles, they went with the Joe Cocker version. They also felt that Cocker’s version was more emotionally raw.
- We see the actors through the silent home movies of the era, introducing the family dynamic and playing on the nostalgia of the 1960s. After the opening credits, we hear, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds. Music is often a tool for transporting audiences to specific decades, and that technique is used often in The Wonder Years. For the first time, we hear the narration by Daniel Stern, who introduces the main conflict of the episode: Kevin Arnold’s first day of middle school. He refers to the late 1960s as a golden age for kids.
- Eventually, we meet Kevin Arnold, as he plays football on the street with some friends. We’re introduced to Winnie Cooper, the neighbor girl that used to be close with Kevin, and of course, we meet Kevin’s older brother Wayne. In this scene, we also meet Paul, Kevin’s best friend that’s allergic to everything. Paul was based on a real friend of co-creator Neal Marlens!
- Wayne and Kevin get into a fight, and as Wayne is beating up his younger brother, Winnie Cooper’s older brother, Brian, yells for him to stop. The narration introduces Brian’s character as the epitome of cool, a 19-year-old that never stopped working on his El Camino. Even after he was drafted to fight in Vietnam, the car still sat out on blocks, as a reminder of “who really ran things.” Brian was played by Robert Mitchum’s grandson, Bentley Mitchum.
- In the next scene, we see Kevin and Paul eating dinner while we get a glimpse of the news coverage of the war on their TV. We meet Kevin’s mom, who pleads with Kevin not to make his father upset when he comes home from work. Kevin’s dad, Jack, walks in shortly after, exhausted from a long day. Soon we see all of the family at the table, including Kevin’s sister, Karen, and brother, Wayne. Norma, Kevin’s mother, hands his father a vodka tonic as the entire family starts to eat.
- Karen breaks the tense silence at the table by announcing that she, a teenager in 1968, is getting birth control pills, and the scene ends with the entire family arguing.
- The next scene opens with the song, “Both Sides, Now,” by Joni Mitchell, as we see a montage of Kevin’s summer memories, the last summer of his childhood. The next few scenes focus on Kevin and Paul as they prepare for the first day of school; looking over a copy of, “Our bodies, ourselves,” (while listening to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & The Shondells) and Kevin attempting to wear the latest styles to the bus stop. Just after, Kevin and Paul encounter Winnie Cooper without her signature braids and glasses, with hot-ironed hair and stylish clothes, and going by the name Gwendolyn.
- As Kevin and Paul head into the school, the narrator tells us that the school had recently been renamed Robert F Kennedy High School, as many schools had been rebranded to honor the recently assassinated politician.
- Kevin’s first day of school isn’t going very well. In homeroom, a teacher recognizes him as Wayne’s brother, which essentially puts a target on his back. In the hall, a bully tosses a knife and some drugs in Kevin’s locker, threatening him in the process. And of course, his first class was phys ed.
- Robert Picardo, a brilliant physical comedian, played Kevin’s gym teacher, Coach Cutlip. He had “the biggest inferiority complex since Napoleon.”
- Kevin gets called on to explain the jockstrap, as we hear the sound of a plane crashing in Kevin’s mind.
- It’s lunchtime, and Kevin and Paul are sitting together when Winnie Cooper comes to join them. Kevin’s nerves start to calm when his brother Wayne spots him and begins to make fun of him and Winnie. Kevin, angry and annoyed, grabs the apple off his tray and heads out of the cafeteria, when the vice principal stops him. He tells Kevin that if he leaves with the apple, he will get detention. When the vice principal stops him again, Kevin considers what Brian Cooper, Winnie’s older brother, would do in this situation. So, Kevin throws the apple into the cafeteria, landing him in deep trouble.
- In the next scene, we see Kevin in the vice principal’s office with his mother. It’s clear that he’s in trouble, but he has a hard time explaining why he did what he did. It isn’t until the end of the scene that we find out that Kevin’s father, Jack, is also in the room. Jack cracks his knuckles and says, “I’d like to take him home, now.”
- As Kevin rides home with his parents, he considers the fact that a physical punishment is in his near future, and he resolves to imagine that he’s his brother as his dad inevitably hits him for what he did.
- When the family arrives home, Karen and Wayne come out the front door to greet Kevin and their parents, looking distraught. There’s a long pause before Karen says the words, “Brian Cooper was killed.” The family stands in a moment of shocked silence, and Kevin’s father, who moments earlier was considering Kevin’s punishment, firmly places his hand on Kevin’s shoulder.
- Kevin decides to go for a walk at dusk, and as he heads to the woods, he comes across Winnie, sitting alone on a big rock. Kevin sat down and told her he was sorry. He pulls off his jacket and places it around her shoulders as the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge begins to play. Kevin and Winnie then share a kiss and a hug as the camera zooms out. The episode ends with the narration: “Whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs, or the mindlessness of the TV generation, because we know that inside each one of those identical boxes with its Dodge parked out front, and its white bread on the table, and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder.”
- It was the first kiss for the characters and the actors. They were both incredibly nervous, and they had to do six different takes. Someone on the set clapped when the kids kissed, which made them feel even more self-conscious. Danica McKellar says that they used the 6th take because it was the only take when Kevin gently stroked Winnie’s hair.
- Fred also noted that he was so nervous that he was picking at the fake rock they sat on for the kiss.
HOW IT WAS RECEIVED
- The very first episode aired after Super Bowl XXII on January 31st, 1988.
- The show was so well-received that even more people tuned in the next week to watch the second episode! In 1988 The Wonder Years won an Emmy for best comedy series, and it had only released six episodes. The first episode was so well written that the network wanted to order 13 episodes, but the creators knew they could only handle six.
THE NEW REBOOT ANNOUNCEMENT
- In August, ABC released a trailer and officially announced that The Wonder Years was getting a reboot! The reboot is heavily influenced by the original series and takes place in the 1960s. However, the main difference is that the show centers around a black middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama, and their 12-year-old son Dean. It has Don Cheadle as the narrator and also stars Dulé Hill. It will be released shortly on September 22nd.
Over thirty years later, The Wonder Years continues to connect with audiences. When the show aired in 1988, parents watched it with their children, and today those children are sharing it with their kids. Every actor in the show has expressed nothing but affection for their time on the sitcom, especially Fred Savage, who feels lucky to have been part of something that is so special to so many people.
The Wonder Years ran for five seasons, but the pilot episode is one of the show’s most iconic moments. The show found a way to appeal to every generation, not just the people that remember the 1960s. All of us can watch The Wonder Years and remember that confusing, magical, strange, and painful time in our lives; when we realized that the world just doesn’t make sense sometimes. We all know what it’s like to grow up, and when we watch The Wonder Years, we’re reminded that we didn’t have to grow up alone.
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