Nostalgia — Remembering Adolescence: An Analysis of the Most Acclaimed “The Wonder Years” Episode and Why the Series had Success
Adolescence is a transitional period that occurs in everyone’s life. In a psychological sense, the adolescent years are generally marked by curiosity about ideas and others, revelations about life, discoveries about oneself, awkwardness, and heartbreak. As this complex stage of life progresses, typically between the ages of eleven and eighteen, young people seek to form their own morality and find who they feel comfortable being. Neal Marlens and Carol Black collectively coined a term that perfectly describes this era as “The Wonder Years”, which became the title of their Emmy Award winning television series which ran from 1988 to 1993. The television series was categorized as a coming of age comedy drama, focusing on the successes and failures of adolescent Kevin Arnold as he journeyed through stereotypical middle-class suburbia.
Neal Marlens and Carol Black’s vision for the show began with the idea to create a family sitcom for the baby-boomer generation who grew up in the late 1960s, when major changes occurred in America. Along with this period piece, they also wanted to convey a story about an average boy growing up during this time. Marlens and Black crafted the pilot episode and revealed it to a number of television networks, but no one wanted to take the risk of having such a typical show. They eventually signed with ABC, where the first episode would air after the Super Bowl in 1988. With a network secured, the producers began interviewing people for the role of each character. They began forming the cast with the immediate casting of Fred Savage as the primary character in the show, Kevin Arnold. Savage was recommended by a number of producers, and his acting seemed natural to Marlens and Black, so they felt he would be a hearty fit for the role. Other cast members were chosen based on their effortless acting and how well they related to the character in the physical world. With the cast in place, filming began, and the finished product would be aired for millions to see.
Following the Super Bowl game, the pilot episode of “The Wonder Years” aired for the first time. It became an immediate success with millions of viewers, subsequently causing it to become renewed for five more episodes, where it would eventually end up airing for a total of six seasons. “The Wonder Years” was one of the first television shows to use single-camera filming and a narrator who portrayed the main character in the future. The narrator often made comments about actions that his younger self took or the importance of an event and the impact it made in his current life. As each episode plays, the future Kevin Arnold comments on what the current Kevin Arnold is thinking to himself or why he took those actions. The narrator would also scold the current Kevin if he made a poor decision. This was the first television series to acquire this feature.
The series follows the traditional life of Kevin Arnold in suburban “Anytown, USA” in the late 1960s and early 1970s from age eleven to seventeen, where he learns many life lessons through typical circumstances that happen at some point in almost every American’s life. He has a distant, hardworking dad, named Jack, an adoring housewife mom named Norma, a free spirited sister named Karen and an incompetent bully of a brother named Wayne. Kevin lives near his nerdy best friend Paul Pfieffer and his love interest Winnie Cooper. Each episode provides sentimental lessons, comedic situations, and somber heart break, which leads the viewer to craft ideas, laugh, and cry (Gross, Background).
The recurring theme of the entire series is growth. Over six seasons, the viewer sees Kevin Arnold grow up and learn hundreds of life lessons, from dating to working to learning how to be a respectable person. “The Wonder Years” is both dramatic, where the characters face strife and heartache, such as the death of Winnie Cooper’s brother or the end of Kevin and Winnie’s relationship, and comedy, which is usually subtle yet hysterical.
Since the shows airing almost thirty years ago, it has become a staple in the definition of nostalgia. As people watch this show, they reminisce about their adolescent years and they connect with the same struggles that Kevin Arnold faces in every episode. In a sense, the viewer becomes Kevin, as he navigates through his life of normalcy. People become nostalgic because the series is realistic and relatable. He is an average boy with average athletic skills, average academic ability, and an average life. Kevin lives in a regular house, with his nuclear family, where nothing spectacular ever happens. Kevin’s life embodies the life of the viewer, as they watch him, because they can most likely remember a time or circumstance similar to his. The show offers a certain universality. Though it was written as a period piece, the television show can be related to any generation growing up in any time period, and even if the situation occurring is not exact to what happened in the viewer’s life, they can still draw similarities and influence.
Throughout the series, many episodes have provided an example of why people have continued to name “The Wonder Years” a nostalgic throwback; one that embodies relatability, humor, and the boring realism that has captivated an audience for almost thirty years. One episode in particular, ranked the forty-third best episode from a television series by TV Guide, exhibits every aspect of the plot-line, and it applies to the life of every viewer in some capacity.
The third episode of season one, named “My Father’s Office”, epitomizes the idea that the entire show would like attempts to convey, which is growth of Kevin Arnold as a person. This episode provides a healthy mixture of drama and subtle humor that adds to the story-line, which is centered around Kevin Arnold accompanying his father to Jack Arnold’s place of work in consequence of Kevin regretting to inform his friends of his father’s occupation, because he really did not know what his father did.
The episode begins with a comedic riff, as it zooms in on the television as part of the family enjoys dinner. The television begins explaining the personality of a gorilla after a hard day’s work gathering food: “While the mother remains with the young, the male ventures into a hostile environment to find sustenance. He returns after an unsuccessful foray — aggressive and unpredictable. Notice the reaction of the startled mother as her offspring begin to sense the presence of the male. The irritable male gives out unmistakable signals that tell the young to keep their distance” (Carlson).
This anecdote provides subtle humor, as it can be immediately connected with Kevin’s father, Jack. Jack Arnold is represented by the gorilla, for he ventures into the “hostile environment” that is work. Jack, like the gorilla, experiences a stressful day on the job and returns distressed. When she hears the car door slam, Norma possesses the role of the mother gorilla and quickly warns the children to step lightly, so Kevin and Wayne feel it is best to avoid their father and go play baseball. The episode continues with the explanation of what Jack does in order to destress himself, for if he had a bad day at work, he would watch television, but “when he had a really bad day — I’m talking about a very, not good day — he had this telescope, and he’d go in the back yard and look through it for hours” (Carlson). As the viewer watches the opening scene they can identify with it, for they can envision a moment when they were young, where they witnessed the stress and irritation of a guardian following a shift at their job. They remember having to be cautious of what they said in order to maintain peace and to sometimes even avoid them all together.
Skipping to the following day, Kevin sits around the breakfast nook and practices his French homework, when suddenly, Jack storms into the room yelling, “Dammit, Kevin! How many times I tell ya not to leave your bicycle in the driveway!” (Carlson). Jack had run over Kevin’s bicycle. Kevin begins to explain himself, but achieves no ground, for his father is unwilling to hear it. Angry at his father’s tone, Kevin unwittingly states, “OK, OK, get a grip on yourself”, which causes Jack to yell and send Kevin to his room. This causes Kevin to run to his room and cry alone because he does not understand why his father feels the need to push his anger on him simply because he had an unsatisfactory day on the job. Kevin looks back at all of the happy memories that he experienced with his father, who used to be so loving and care free but now seems distant and harsh. This short clip is identifiable to many viewers, for when they were children they may not have understood how work can affect someone, or they may have had the same circumstances, where they received punishment in response to their parent’s bad day at work or regrettably talking back.
So far, the viewer sees Jack as a very distant character who has trouble continuing a healthy relationship with his family, because of his employment. The viewer will soon find out that it is more of a misunderstanding than a quality. Kevin will soon realize why his father seems stressed and form a greater bond with him.
The following day, Kevin, his brother, and their friends are talking about what they would like to be when they grow up. Like most children, they set their career goals very high. For example, Kevin would like to become a professional baseball player but if that does not happen, then he will settle being an astronaut. This scene shows the wonderful creativity that children acquire, for they believe that they can be anything they want to be with no limitations. The scene progresses when Wayne’s friend says he might go into business with his father if becoming a professional athlete does not occur. This statement sparks a questions in Kevin’s mind. He knows his father works for NORCOM, but what does he actually do? Later that evening, Kevin asks his father, but is unsuccessful in obtaining an answer. Jack, wanting “two-minutes of peace and quiet”, send Kevin to his room… again. Norma speaks with her husband and convinces Jack to talk about his job with Kevin. Jack invites Kevin to go to work with him at NORCOM that night.
As these two scenes unfold, the viewer thinks of a time where they wondered what their parent did at work. They may know where their parent’s work, but what do they actually do? The viewer may be reminded of career day at their school, where a parent speaks of their employment or when they may have gone to their parent’s place of employment. Children are curious, so it is very rewarding for them to be able to view what their parent does at work because the parent obtains a quality of professionalism, and they see them as a different person.
That morning, as they venture to the office, the hostility and distance between them seems to fade. As they arrive at NORCOM, Kevin is bombarded by a group of fifty somethings, who “didn’t see a lot of twelve-year-olds around” there (Carlson). Kevin escapes the affection and walks to his father’s office, where he is surprised by how nice it is. Kevin is able to sit in Jack’s chair, and he witnesses his father begin his day of work answering the phone and dealing with incompetent employees. As Kevin sits there he begins to imagine himself in a leadership position.
The narrator states, “I had no idea what my father was talking about, but suddenly I fell in love with the rhythm and flow of it all. The way he punched those phone buttons, flipped through papers, gave orders. He had power, authority, just like at home, only here it was even more mysterious and impressive. I imagined myself in that role… Administering things… Giving orders, chewing people out. Yeah, this was OK. Like father, like son, I guess” (Carlson). As manager, Kevin begins to boss around his older siblings, who have become his inferiors. This scene depicts the wild imagination that children can have and how they aspire to be like their parent when they are young. Kevin will soon find out that he and his father are very similar in terms of aspirations and goals. Jack receives a phone call from his boss and becomes upset, so he decides to take a coffee break.
In the break room, Kevin and Jack sit with each other and begin reminiscing of what Jack wanted to be when he was growing up, after Kevin asks the question, “When did you decide you wanted to become a manager of distribution and product support services?” (Carlson). As a child, Kevin does not realize that people have to settle sometimes, for not every goal is easily obtainable. Jack snickers with the question and explains that he actually wanted to be a professional baseball player, just like Kevin wants, or the captain of a ship. This scene becomes very important because it not only shows the similarities between father and son, but it also shows a growing bond between them and the realization that Jack was a “great man”. Kevin saw his father in a happier state as he talked about his dreams.
This coffee break makes Kevin think, “But as we walked back to my father’s office, I suddenly realized something that made a lot of things make sense. My dad was too good for this place. Sure it was good — we were all lucky he had it and all that… But my Dad had something finer in him than S-14's and distribution reports. I’ll never forget how I felt at that moment. I felt that my father was a great man” (Carlson). There is a time in every child’s life when they see their parent on a pedestal, because they yearn to be just like them. Kevin, though he wants to be a professional baseball player, sees his father’s job as a great opportunity too.
Content with their talk, Jack and Kevin walk back to the office, where Jack is met with an embarrassing confrontation. An employee of Jack messed an order up, and Jack’s boss begins to chew him out about it. The good day has just turned sour for both Jack and Kevin. Kevin thinks no less of his father, for he becomes angry with him as he begins to see his father as the rest of the world sees him. That evening, after work, Norma and Kevin’s siblings watch as Jack angrily swings the door open and shut and storms off to his bedroom. This is a typical occurrence in the Arnold household. In the footprints of his father, Kevin too slams the door open and storms into his room. This comedic moment symbolizes the notion that Kevin understands why his father is angry and in a bad mood after work. Kevin felt bad for his father because he finally saw what he had to deal with throughout the day. There comes a period in a life, where a child gets to see their parent just as the world may see them. They see that they are not perfect and that they face difficulties as well.
The episode closes with Jack and Kevin standing in their yard looking through a telescope. The narrator states, “That night my father stood there, looking up at the sky the way he always did. But suddenly I realized I wasn’t afraid of him in quite the same way anymore. The funny thing is, I felt like I lost something”. Jack then states, “Come here, Kevin. That’s Polaris, the North Star. That’s how the sailors used to find their way home” (Carlson). This final scene shows the reestablishment of their relationship because Kevin feels more comfortable around his father because he is human. By Jack explaining the how sailors find their way home, the viewer sees that dreams continue into adulthood and certain aspirations never cease.
As someone watches, “The Wonder Years”, they become a part of the show because they can put themselves in the same position or think of a time when a circumstance occurred. This highly acclaimed episode causes the viewer to think of childhood and remember how great it was to have a bond with their parents like Kevin and Jack. From dreams to understanding, this episode captures the heartfelt story-line that each episode uses.
Following this episode were over one-hundred others that caused nostalgia and made the viewer think back to when they were a child or it offered them a life lesson. After six seasons, the show concluded as Fred Savage and the other child actors grew into young adults. ABC did not feel comfortable changing the tone of the television show to a more sensual one as Kevin grew older and began losing his innocence. This marked the end of “The Wonder Years”, the shows legacy and influence have remained prominent. Many series have attempted to create a coming of age comedy drama, but perhaps none of them have had the effect that this one did. From a visit to their father’s office to so many more themes, “The Wonder Years” becomes a part of the viewer, because even though the show is centered around an everyday, average boy, the plots become familiar and relevant no matter who the viewer may be. How great it was to learn, grow, and mature during the wonder years.
Carlson, Matthew. “The Wonder Years — Transcript — Episode 3.” The Wonder Years — Transcript — Episode 3. Ed. Peter Reynders. N.p., 29 Mar. 1988. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
Gross, Edward. The Wonder Years. Las Vegas, NV: Pioneer, 1990. Print.
Marlens, Neal, and Carol Black, prods. “My Father’s Office.” The Wonder Years. ABC. 29 Mar. 1988. Television.