'The Wonder Years' Captured Youth In Suburbia Like Never Before On TV

The show's magic lay in recognizing that kids are human beings with profound and complex emotions.
Josh Saviano, Olivia d'Abo, Fred Savage, Jason Hervey, Alley Mills and Dan Lauria in "The Wonder Years."
Josh Saviano, Olivia d'Abo, Fred Savage, Jason Hervey, Alley Mills and Dan Lauria in "The Wonder Years."
Illustration: Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo: Getty Images

On the days that seem devoid of meaning ― the droning of the city with its relentless hustle, sirens and street sweepers’ machinery dragging along ― I find myself yearning for my early days of youth. A time when possibility seemed endless, when finding a ride to the skating rink was the biggest dilemma of the week, and dinner was something that just appeared before you around 6 o’clock. A time when finding a love note stuffed in your locker or brushing hands with your crush was electrifying. Like clockwork, whenever I’m feeling the mean reds of adulthood, I hop on the time machine of television and go back to “The Wonder Years.”

In 1988, when “The Wonder Years” first aired, America was slowly coming out of its decade of decadence and greed, and the onset of the ’90s was like a beacon for progress. It was the year Toni Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and women in the U.S. were finally able to get a business loan without a male co-signer. Sexual harassment in the workplace was finally illegal. Things were looking up, at least a little. But TV producers decided to turn back to another time ― 1968 ― to steep audiences in a pool of nostalgia.

“The Wonder Years” represented a time of innocence, beauty, tranquility ― a time that never truly existed in America. But perhaps the trick of nostalgia in general, and its beauty, lies in a lie: when the “good days” were golden echoes of a past just beyond our reach, when the patient, dutiful wife never complained and the macho dad served up groans and insisted on fixing the plumbing himself. To me, a child growing up with a single mother, it all seemed so... perfect. While the idyllic fantasy of the suburbs might have been a lie (one that served to rake in cash for corporations and housing developments), there was something universal about the struggles of youth embedded in the show that still affect viewers today.

Before shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life” came on the scene, “The Wonder Years” depicted the intense, profound and authentic emotions of youth in a way that had never been done on a TV series.

“We were giving life to an age group that hadn’t been given life before [on TV] except in cartoons,” recalls Bob Brush, the Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and showrunner of “The Wonder Years” for nearly 100 episodes. “We had a phenomenal actor on top of that in Fred Savage, who could pull this off, who could actually embody this stuff, and not seem like a prop. He was a living, breathing character.” Brush doesn’t need to rewatch the show to remember it all: “Every scene, every line of dialogue, every cut and every piece of music is still embedded in my brain.”

Josh Saviano, who played the character of Paul Pfeiffer for all six seasons, doesn’t often discuss his days as a child performer. He moved on to a career in law, and now works at a creative management firm. He compartmentalized the part of his life when he was an actor ― but there came a point when he recognized that doing so was like cutting off a portion of himself.

Saviano and Savage in "She, My Friend and I," a 1990 episode of "The Wonder Years."
Saviano and Savage in "She, My Friend and I," a 1990 episode of "The Wonder Years."
ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

“I loved the whole experience and it was one of the most defining components of my life. It was a meta-concept of coming of age in two different ways: I was 12, 13 years old in 1988, so [I was] growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, but also a good part of me was growing up in the ’60s,” Saviano told HuffPost. “A lot of the things that we did on the show [like watching the moon landing] were our first times in real life.”

Before “The Wonder Years,” no one had really taken on the concept of American suburbia, especially through the lens of the interior lives of adolescents, in this way. “The ’60s, in particular, was such a hard, mean decade in a lot of ways, and yet adolescents have their own problems and are survivors in any generation,” said Brush, who published his first novel, “The Piazza,” in 2022.

The show “enfranchised an entire section of the population that had never been mentioned before, which was the suburbs,” he said. “The suburbs had never been examined or celebrated before this show, and it gave an interior life to kids. It said, ‘This is important. These aren’t just cute kids wandering around in hoop skirts ― these are functioning human beings who are dealing with tremendous problems.’”

Suburbia, along with American culture of the ’60s and ’70s, was presented as a kind of character all of its own. America was “coming of age” too, along with the characters and the cast.

“It was intentionally not a real town ― it was supposed to be any town in the U.S., which we’d refer to as ‘Arnoldville, USA.’ There were some clues as to where it was, but it really could be anywhere,” Saviano said. “I don’t think it necessarily intentionally glorified the suburbs. It was just trying to take you into a story, and the story is that anything can happen in a real childhood, not in some fairy tale. It was looking back at a time when [American] culture was coming into its maturity and emerging out of its own adolescence.”

But more than that, what made the show so special is how it centered on the real emotion of youth, presented like time markers in our human story. It revealed and respected the minute complications of adolescence, its lessons only to be understood much later down the road. Despite the individuality of the characters in a nameless suburban town, each lesson deftly touched upon something universal about the human condition. In those six seasons, we learned that everything, eventually, despite our best efforts, will change.

Reality, as we know, doesn’t always make sense. It can’t be neatly packaged and presented in a linear fashion, with a soundtrack to cue the highs and lows, in half-hour segments. But to see that played out on screen somehow provided a kind of comfort, especially for kids growing up in single-parent households.

Maybe it was the knowing voice-over narrating the inner monologue of Kevin Arnold (played as a child by Savage, and in adult narration by Daniel Stern), representing a quasi-universal self, that did it. Maybe it was the absence of violence or cruelty. But “The Wonder Years” did more than pull heartstrings ― it taught us the importance of self-reflection. It capitalized on the power of epiphany and the “aha!” moments of growing up, whether they came by way of heartbreak, embarrassment, quitting the piano, getting a D on a math quiz, or slowly learning that your parents are human. It functioned on the premise of “That’s when I realized...” with perfect closing lines that tied everything together, yet kept things lingering, like a satisfying ellipses with no period at the end.

I spoke to Danica McKellar, who played the role of Winnie Cooper, to get her thoughts about why the show was so popular.

“There’s a universality to the issues that the show tackled,” McKellar said. “Even at the time, people said, ‘Why is this resonating with people so much?’ And I think it’s because the themes are [still] the same. There might be some comfort in knowing that what we’re going through, people have been going through for decades, or maybe since the beginning of time.”

Saviano, Savage and McKellar on the set of a Season 2 episode of "The Wonder Years."
Saviano, Savage and McKellar on the set of a Season 2 episode of "The Wonder Years."
ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

McKellar pointed out another enduring aspect of the show: how it incorporated the fact that things don’t always end up the way you expect, or want.

“One of the things that made us unique, beyond the narration and the inherent nostalgia that comes with that, is that it was bittersweet. People always say, ‘How come Kevin and Winnie didn’t end up together?’ And I say, ‘Well, that would be nice. But the show’s authenticity [was] that things didn’t always work out ― and that’s OK,’” McKellar said. “If you really look at it, it was very imperfect. Maybe that’s also part of why people resonate with it, because it wasn’t one of those cute sitcoms where everything worked out. And maybe that’s it ― we need to know that we’re OK when things don’t work out.”

“In the second episode, I remember this great narration about how life isn’t always a series of moving forwards ― you step forward and step back, like a swing,” she went on. “You don’t have to have it all figured out. You think you have to have it all figured out, and you don’t.”

Nostalgia functions by presenting time as an arrow, hurtling forward, giving us space to look back, while yearning for the pause-rewind button (if only we could skip over the commercials and playback and just see the good stuff). But real life is more like a spiral, looping together various beginnings, in-betweens and endings.

“I don’t think you understand or appreciate the context of something until you look back at it,” Saviano said. “You’re experiencing things in the moment, and very few children, teenagers in particular, can appreciate context. They don’t have the breadth of life experiences, so their perspective is limited to what they know or what they’ve seen, or, to a certain extent, what they can imagine. You can only truly contextualize or explain a particular point in your life in retrospect.”

By applying and overlaying the zeitgeist of the ’70s onto the micro-reality of a 13-year-old boy, Kevin’s seemingly wiser, all-knowing older self is able to reconstruct his story in a coherent narrative of highlights, allowing for a sense of comfort in the viewer. Things seem to make sense in the world of Winnie, Kevin and Paul. At the end of each 30-minute segment, there’s always a lesson to be had, something to take into adulthood.

“I loved the whole experience and it was one of the most defining components of my life.”

- Josh Saviano, who played Paul Pfeiffer on "The Wonder Years"

Brush recalls how many of those narrated lessons didn’t show up until after the episode was actually shot ― an astounding testament to the nature of spontaneous creativity.

“The beauty of the show was ... you’d get it into the editing room and realize it was going to be a different episode than you’d written, because the narrator could manipulate what was going on,” Brush said. “We shot [it] and then we looked for the ‘show within the show.’”

Similar to the zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s, the soundtrack, too, functioned like a separate character. “The music kind of bubbled up on its own. My office was open to anybody who had an idea for a song. People could wander in and say, ‘How about this?’” Brush said. “In those days, I had a boombox and a playback thing for my television, and I would put tapes in and put ’em up against the action. The music would tell me what was happening. We could really fuse the music with the action ... The two were kind of symbiotic. The songs really brought out the interior message and interior emotions of the show.”

It’s the music that would bring me to tears after each closing scene. I couldn’t understand, at first, why the show had such an emotional effect on me. Perhaps it was the purity of it all, the realization that everything changes, that things can only be truly known and understood with time.

While I identified with the show’s romanticism, the idea of a nuclear family was far out of reach. “The Wonder Years” brought escapism, but it also brought something else that I’d take with me later as a writer: the irresistible pull of turning back, examining what was lost and finding beauty there.

We’re all guilty of this: We look back on old relationships and forget why they fell apart, replaying memories to an inner soundtrack, ignoring the red flags. We look back on different times in our life, to the people we once were and once knew, and we change the story to suit our present-day narrative. We filter reality according to the people we are now, picking out the highlights and lowlights and propping them up like photos on a mantel. As humans, we want things to be better than they are. We want to give meaning to the mundane, or at least find the humor in it.

Mills, Lauria, d'Abo, Hervey and Savage.
Mills, Lauria, d'Abo, Hervey and Savage.
ABC Photo Archives via Getty Images

We want to both forget and remember.

“The general tenor of the show can be summarized by ‘You can’t relive your childhood,’” Saviano said. “It’s something that all humans can relate to: this yearning to go back in time and relive the golden days. You want to look back and remember what it felt like, because once innocence is lost, it can’t be regained.”

In youth, there’s infinite possibility, limitless potential stretching ahead of you. But Saviano emphasizes how the real beauty of nostalgia is applying the lessons of the past toward the future.

“My current business was arguably born from the conclusion that one shouldn’t get trapped by the comfortable, magical, but confining box of nostalgia, but rather learn and build from the self-defining lessons learned from that period of your life,” he said.

Brush admits “The Wonder Years” was not originally meant to be a show about nostalgia.

“Those 12- and 13-year-olds, and I believe it’s the same now, are fighting to define themselves. They’re fighting to understand everything that’s going on. They’re completely overwhelmed,” Brush said. “At that age, your body is changing, everything is changing, and you’re lost in this maze of often incomprehensible situations. I think the enduring mechanism of ‘The Wonder Years’ was how the older narrator put it into a place where it could make sense.”

He did add, with a touch of self-deprecating humor, that he wishes he’d written less narration overall, so the moments could “breathe” a bit more.

McKellar agrees that the show took seriously the internal lives of adolescents in a new way.

“One of the most unique things the show did was to honor the feelings of kids. There’s heartache, there’s all sorts of things that happen in life, and the show was really brave in the way it tackled those subjects,” McKellar said. “[It didn’t] end with tying things up with a bow, but with a narrator who would explain the complexities of the emotions of a child dealing with imperfection. It was just so poignant. I think it made people feel understood, especially as children.”

Brush says this imperfection was built into the character development, too.

“I think there was a lesson in Kevin Arnold, who was a privileged, selfish kid, who really had everything going for him and kept stumbling into his own hypocrisies and his own stupidities,” Brush said. “The enduring fabric that led him through life was the sense that honesty and commitment were the only kind of guidelines through this maze he was going through.”

“The problem wasn’t outside him,” Brush added. “The problem wasn’t the war or the stupid teachers or anything else, but that he was not thinking outwardly. He wasn’t thinking in a loving manner. He was selfish, as we all are, especially as adolescents, and frightened. Whenever he reached out and asked for help or put himself in the other person’s shoes, that was usually the epiphany that he had. ‘I had been wrong, I had been stupid, I had missed this.’”

But the show was also about finding connection.

“There was always this sense of reaching out blind, I think in the darkness and trying to find a connection,” Brush said. “I think it was about connections, whether it be with [Kevin’s] mother and father or his brother, or his teachers.”

“One of the most unique things the show did was to honor the feelings of kids. There’s heartache, there’s all sorts of things that happen in life, and the show was really brave in the way it tackled those subjects.”

- Danica McKellar, who played Winnie Cooper on "The Wonder Years"

The actors were also experiencing their own real-life childhoods while filming. McKellar recalls her most memorable moment as the first kiss during the pilot. “Obviously, that’s a big one. That was my real first kiss ... and I believe it was Fred’s first kiss, as well. I had a huge crush on him at the time. Only during the first episode and during the first season, but it kind of quickly devolved into younger brother stuff,” she said. “He’d tell me what ‘pull my finger’ means, and we were hanging out in the school room and he was a jokester. But that first episode, I was head over heels, and it was very exciting. The entire crew was watching and then they applauded after the first take.”

In recent times, especially on social media, we’ve seen a resurgence of ’90s nostalgia. We millennials were the first generation to live on both sides of the technological fence, remembering a childhood both before and after the internet, when our freedom extended only as far as the kitchen phone cord would stretch. Our parents gave us Kool-Aid and Hug drinks, aunties chain-smoked in living rooms, and the swinging-door chime of AOL brought a rush of adrenaline, followed by panic whenever Mom had to make a phone call. Our generation didn’t grow up in the idyllic 1970s, or the idyllic ’90s for that matter, because there’s never been a genuinely idyllic time in America.

It’s easy to look back on love, friendship, family and even American culture with a sense of rose-colored wonder, if not downright fantasy. But there are real lessons to be found there, too. Perhaps that’s why executive producers Savage, Saladin Patterson, Lee Daniels and Marc Velez created a reboot in 2021 with a Black middle-class family in 1960s Montgomery, Alabama. Savage was fired from the reboot after several women reported allegations of misconduct on the production. (Savage later released a statement that said in part: “While there are some incidents being reported that absolutely did not and could not have happened, any one person who feels hurt or offended by my actions is one person too many. I will work to address and change any behavior that has negatively affected anyone.”)

“I think the concept of nostalgia, at least how it’s been portrayed in popular culture over the last 10 years, only goes like three-quarters of the way to teach the lessons. We all kind of go back to our comfort zone, our own comfort food of looking at our past,” Saviano said. “But our childhoods, our happy memories, and even our sad memories can teach us a lot more if we listen to it. While you can’t relive those moments ― you can try, but you can’t go back and experience it for the first time ― you can take those life lessons, that truth of life, and absorb it and then reapply it.”

The beauty (and the trick) of nostalgia is that we only realize in retrospect that the smallest things in life are the most memorable: that very first kiss, that first drive after getting your license, the family dinners or the clattering sounds of a school cafeteria, the friends who moved or the love who got away, the summer flings or combing through the woods on a summer’s day.

These memories can only be savored in retrospect, along with the simple realization that perhaps life is just a series of realizations and “aha!” moments.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot