A reboot provides audiences with a smart reimagining of a TV favourite
CTVWhether it reminds you of your first crush, your first heartbreak or a time where you felt like you didn’t fit in, The Wonder Years struck a chord in almost everyone. Who can forget Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) growing up in Vietnam War-era America, pining after dream girl Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar).
Inspired by that award-winning 1988-1993 series, ABC has brought the coming-of-age comedy back to life, three decades after the original premiered. Savage himself, who’s gone on to have a prolific career as a sitcom director, is on board as a director and executive producer; but this time, the story is that of a Black middle-class family in 1960s Alabama, told through the eyes of 12-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha “EJ” Williams) and narrated by Don Cheadle as his adult counterpart.
In reimagining the beloved series, creator Saladin K. Patterson and exec producer Lee Daniels (of Empire and Precious fame) decided that, rather than set the show in the ’90s, which would have more closely followed the time jump of the original, they wanted to tell a story that isn’t often told. “We wanted to really take the opportunity to show a part of Black middle-class life that had not been seen before,” says Patterson. “Usually, when you talk about the late ’60s, it’s the struggle in the Civil Rights movement, but the perspective of the Black middle class during that time was something that stood out to Lee and me when we first started talking about doing a reimagining of this show.”
For Daniels and Patterson, the one-of-a-kind opportunity to show another version of the Black experience to a wide audience would require a unique set of performers. “We really needed people that felt real,” says Patterson. “We knew this show was going to resonate with the audience when the audience saw either themselves or saw something that they related to. The high bar that the original set for us led to the beautiful, wonderful cast.”
For young Mr. Williams, the show has reinvigorated his own interest in American history, including more tragic and life-altering moments like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Being able to just learn about [the time period] and then reenact it, I’m not going to lie, I cried,” he says. “It was definitely hard to process.”
For West Wing, Psych and Suits actor Dulé Hill, who plays family patriarch Bill Williams, the glimpse into this era is a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “There is so much tragedy that has gone on between now and then, and it’s still happening right now,” the actor reflects. “What’s interesting to me about exploring this time period is that 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.”
Speaking of looks, the 1960s have always stood out to Hill from a fashion standpoint, and not just because of the unique aesthetic. “I’ve always been a fan of this style from back during the ’60s, because, back then, everything mattered. Walking out the door, you made a statement. The way you had your hair made a statement, the suit makes a statement. I think, somewhere along the way, we may have lost that, so I like the idea of looking back on that, and hopefully reinvigorating that mindset.”
What the show strives to maintain is the heart that the original so deftly conveyed. “I think people are going to fall in love with these kids and enjoy seeing their growth, and how they managed dealing with their emotions,” says Saycon Sengbloh, who plays the mother of the family, Lillian Williams. “The writing is so good—we just drive right into it. A lot of us don’t even have to feel like we’re reimagining anything. We feel it. The writing is there, the story is there, the family is there. It’s all there.”
Maintaining a sense of the original is easier by virtue of having Savage, who rose to worldwide fame in this role, behind the scenes. For those who still have fond memories of the series, Savage promises a lot of similarities in the reboot. “There are a lot of elements of this show that feel very comfortable and familiar, to me and to an audience as well,” says Savage, who helmed the pilot. “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 the fact that it’s a brand-new family and 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.”
The Wonder Years airs Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. on CTV and 8:30 p.m. on ABC