New Version Of The ‘The Wonder Years’ Features Something Rarely Seen On TV – A Black Middle Class Family Navigating The ‘60s
In the 1980s, the comedy The Wonder Years looked back at life in the 1960s.
It would seem logical that a reimagining of the series would honor that 20-year gap, setting a show airing now in the early 2000s.
However, the new Wonder Years is also set in the ‘60s, a time that is now over a half century ago. Another shift in the narrative is that the series now focuses on a Black family rather than the white family that was at the center of the original.
This version, which comes 33 years after the original, is a coming‑of‑age tale as related through the point of view of 12‑year‑old Dean Williams. With the wisdom of his adult years, he looks back (via narration), telling the story of growing up in his middle‑class family in 1960 Alabama, and the friendship, laughter, and lessons he experienced along the way.
Explaining the updates for this new entity, Executive Producer Saladin K. Patterson, says, “The difference between [now and] the late ’90s or early 2000s does not seem to be as different as when the original came out and you were looking from ’88 back to ’68. It seemed like much more had happened between those two gaps of time, and so we really gravitated towards sticking to the universe of the original.”
And, he adds that showing a Black middle‑class family during this era is something that hasn’t been done, saying, “Usually, when you talk about the late ’60s, it’s talking about the struggle in the civil rights movement, and [that’s] a part of our story as well, but the perspective of the Black middle class during that time specifically was something stood out when we first started talking about even doing a reimagining of this show.”
Playing the featured roles are Dule Hill and Saycon Sengbloh as patriarch and matriarch Bill and Lillian Williams, with Elisha “EJ” Williams as Dean, and Laura Kariuki as daughter Kim.
Color appropriate casting was especially important, but not in the way that the audience might think, says Executive Producer Lee Daniels. “What Saladin was specific about with the casting was that they all look like him; they all look like my relatives. They weren’t representative of what white people thought Black people looked like. So, this is a first, and I’m really excited about it.”
Talking about exploring the history of the ‘60s through this unique lens, Hill says, “What sticks out to me is, as much as things have changed, they’ve stayed the same. Because as tragic as Dr. King passing, there is still so much tragedy that has gone on between now and then, and it’s still happening right now. So, to me [when] exploring this period, you see the trauma, you see the hurt, you see the strength of the people during that time, and then you reflect on where you are now, and you see that same strength, that same power, that same fortitude to press on forward that has always been there for people who look like me.”
Daniels says that the realism in these types of storylines affected him personally, “I’ve got to tell you, sometimes I clutch my pearls. I go, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you‑all are saying this. Because you’re saying what my parents said. You’re saying exactly what my parents would say.’”
He points to an on-screen example when Lillian discusses the kids in the neighborhood with Dean. “She says, ‘Well, why would you want to play on a white team? Why would you want to play with those white boys?’ Like, I go, ‘Mmmmm. Do we really want to have this conversation? Do we really want to let them know that we were having this conversation, for real?’ People need to understand that these conversations were going down back then.”
As for donning ‘60s duds for the series, EJ says with a laugh, “I would probably never get over is how tight those pants are. I can’t deal with it. I can’t.”
Sengbloh adds, “I have to say, I love the ‘60s style. I’ve always called myself a vintage pop soul. I love the popular styles of the ’60s. The clothing; they fit me so nicely. And also, I have to throw in the hairstyles. It’s a lot of fun.”
Making more of an observation about what the clothes meant during that time, Hill surmises, “Back during the ’60s, everything mattered. Walking out the door, you made a statement; the way you had your hair made a statement; the suit that I have on makes a statement, and I think, somewhere along the way, we may have lost that. So, I do like the idea of looking back on that, and hopefully, reinvigorating that mindset.”
One of the unique aspects of this Wonder Years is that Fred Savage who played Kevin Arnold, the teen at the center of the ‘80s version, has gone from cild actor on the original to Executive Producer on the new series. About this he says, “There’s a lot of elements of this show that feel very comfortable and familiar to me, and [will] to an audience as well. We’re maintaining a similar tone, a similar blend of comedy and truth, the same idea of a narrator looking back on his youth with the wisdom of age, but there are things that are incredibly unique about this show, and the fact that it’s a brand‑new family, brand‑new characters allows us to maintain some of the things we loved about the original, while also telling a wholly unique and new story.”
Sengbloh says that it’s ‘heartwarming’ to watch Savage and EJ work together. “It’s really, really wonderful; really, really sweet.”
While putting all the pieces together, Patterson just knew that, “this show was going to resonate with the audience [because people will see] either themselves or something that they relate to.”
‘The Wonder Years’ airs Wednesdays at 8:30pm et/7:30pm ct on ABC, and streams on Hulu the next day.