Netflix just put The Wonder Years up a few weeks ago and aside from the theme song change (using a different version of With a Little Help from My Friends) the show is pretty much the same. They did remove songs by The Doors and Jimi Hendrix but the sentiments are still there, wrapped up in a 20 minute expose on suburban America. As a child I watched The Wonder Years on ABC, feeling jealous of Kevin Arnold’s middle school exploits (I was about eight or nine); now I see it as a well made series describing the trials and tribulations of white Americans. Honestly, I’ve seen one or two black people on the show and I’m in the third season.
The Wonder Years, at least for me (a white American), is relatable but also a little insulting at times. While adult Kevin (Daniel Stern) does explore the pertinent issues of the 1960s (racism, the Vietnam War) it’s always through the lens of the privileged class. Kevin’s father works at a military contractor called NORCOM, pushing papers for the military industrial complex and the Arnold family reaps the benefits. My favorite contradiction of The Wonder Years is Kevin’s sister Karen, a 17 year old hippie decrying American imperialism while her father, a cog in the fascist machine, pays her bills. It’s an excellent representation of American duality, our ability to say one thing and do the other. South Park says it’s America’s capability to have their cake and eat it too – Karen does just this.
It’s possible I’m viewing The Wonder Years through a 21st century lens, attaching the multiculturalism prevalent in contemporary America to a series about America in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’m not entirely sure this is true. The Wonder Years appeared in 1988 (20 years after the pilot episode takes place) – a different time and place from Kevin Arnold’s pre-pubic hair childhood. At that point we were 20 years away from America’s first black president and still living in quite racist times (a look at the Rodney King acquittals provides sound proof of the racism still parading around America) but it was quite different from the turmoil and prejudices of the ‘60s. By that point America had already gone through Diff’rent Strokes, Sanford and Son, and was on their way to Living Single in just a few short years; obviously America wasn’t segregating their sitcoms anymore – except for on The Wonder Years. Maybe Full House too.
The first episode of The Wonder Years involves the death of a neighborhood boy, killed in the Vietnam War. I feel putting this up front sets the tone for the entire series: a show where everybody’s middle school experience begins with the death of somebody they’re close with. It doesn’t show in every episode but it permeates everything – Winnie Cooper’s attitude towards everything, Kevin’s stance on the war, and so forth. The Vietnam War was obviously a big part of everybody’s life in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Its evidence was seen by every household in suburbia with a television (which I’m certain was almost every single one) and the devastation was witnessed daily. The American government was drafting its young citizens, sending them off to die, and for a young teenager in middle school, only a few years away from graduation, the concept of going off to an unfamiliar Asian nation was probably terrifying. I’m sure it wasn’t something kids like Kevin thought about every moment but undoubtedly it was something lurking around in their craw somewhere. Even though I grew up in the declining years of America’s glory I’m glad I didn’t leave with the fear of being drafted once I turned 18, going off to some foreign land and dying because rich people decided a war was just. Kevin Arnold, luckily, would hit 18 when the draft ended.
The show’s opening credits, showing Kevin and his ilk via old home movies, is an excellent metaphor for suburban Americans living through the Vietnam War. While the footage of the war broadcasted into the Arnold household every day is much more brutal than what the American news shows nowadays it demonstrates how Vietnam was one of the first hyper-real wars America fought, where the footage everybody saw was filtered through a certain lens pushing a certain subjectivity onto the material. Granted, unlike later wars like the first Gulf War in ’90 where the American media and government crafted reality into a product the Vietnam War coverage wasn’t exactly what LBJ or Nixon were looking for; this doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t present it from a certain perspective, fashioning America’s attitude. Ultimately, media coverage unfavorable towards America’s aggression didn’t stop the war, or at least didn’t stop it during the height of dissent, suggesting the street fetishism of the ‘60s hippie generation was nothing more than hot air against a monolithic power structure – a David versus Goliath parable which skewed towards Goliath, squashing the underdog’s sensibilities. Since then protests haven’t worked that well in America. Even amidst the Occupy Wall Street fervor of the last few months it seems futile: major banks are still operating and the 1% (which is more like the 0.5%) are still controlling things. These opening credits immediately proclaim The Wonder Years won’t be objective and will come with the haze of memory obstructing the truth, fashioning it into a hyper-real memoir of the American suburbs for a white, middle-class child.
I can’t wait until Kevin starts dating Winnie and the children start looking more like awkward teenagers. That’s when the show gets funny. Until then it’s a litany of episodes about the clumsiness of the tween years, when masturbating was new, zits were a national emergency, and the world outside biking distance was clouded by the subjectivity of others. Now if they’d only get the Joe Cocker song back into the opening credits…