I just started watching the new “Wonder Years,” and the progression of my thoughts about it have been very interesting, at least to me. My first reaction was that it was a good and important idea to tell the coming of age story from the perspective of an African American family, but I wished they had called it something else. I mean, I loved the original “Wonder Years,” and am still heartbroken that Kevin and Winnie didn’t end up together. That relationship became personal to me. Did it say anything that I didn’t want to “give it up?” What was I holding on to?
After I got a bit past that dilemma, I started wondering about the dynamics of the new show. My first reaction was about how focused the first couple of episodes were on “being Black.” I’ve thought that about a lot of “Black shows.” I remember when the coming attractions for “The Neighborhood” came out, and all the comedy seemed to be centered on “Ha ha, you’re White and I’m Black.” Shouldn’t we really be past that, even though we aren’t? I don’t know if the show itself got past it because I didn’t watch it. Maybe, I reacted, this new “Wonder Years” could just be about people, ”normal” everyday human dynamics, like the original. Okay, fine, but whose definition of “normal” would we be using, and how would I know about those particular dynamics within a Black family? After all, Kevin and his family didn’t have to talk about “being White,” so maybe my perspective about “normal” versus self-conscious conversation was really just a White perspective.
So how “authentic” is the show, and what about the show is making me (no pun intended) wonder? Was the original “authentic,” or didn’t that matter as much because it didn’t have to “represent” anything beyond itself? It didn’t focus on race, but why would it, they lived in a largely segregated community in a time when the subject could be ignored… by White families. The Executive Producer of the new show is Fred Savage, who starred as Kevin Arnold in the original, carrying on a tradition by changing it. Okay, but the writer, Saladin K. Patterson, is Black, so he would know better. Well, he would know better than I do certainly, but obviously he can’t speak for the experiences of all African American families any more than Savage can speak for the experiences of all White ones, including mine. But doesn’t the very juxtaposition of the two shows prioritize cross-cultural difference and intra-cultural commonality?
Aside from race, I really can’t relate to the experiences of the Arnold family any more than those of the Williams family. I didn’t grow up in suburbia. My family didn’t have a house. My father was a struggling working class father, like Jack Arnold, certainly not a hip musician like Bill Williams. How different my “wonder years” would be from both of them. But shouldn’t that have been obvious from the get go? Can we see this as anything other than a “White Wonder Years” and a “Black Wonder Years?” I suppose that’s progress over a “regular Wonder Years” and a “Black Wonder Years,” but still…. Are we able to see this as just a “different” “Wonder Years,” but not necessarily “different different?” Can a show focused on a Black family be just about that family, or isn’t it already and it’s just so hard to see that through the blinders of this society?
I was very pleased, from a political standpoint, that the new version began with a reference to “the talk” that the young Black protagonist was given by his parents. I never had to be given that talk. I thought that defined the distinction between the two shows about as well as anything could. But was that the writer’s intention? And is that more a “natural” beginning point or making a positioning statement? Must the difference between shows about a White family and a Black family include messaging as well as experiences, even though it can and should, at least for the benefit of White viewers? But where does that get us, and when do we try something different about difference? I wonder.