Three-plus decades after it first premiered, The Wonder Years is back. The original was, of course, about a white middle-class family in the suburbs, and the new one is about a Black middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama. Elisha “EJ” Williams plays 12-year-old Dean, dealing with bullies and girls and school. Dule Hill and Saycon Sengbloh play his parents, and Don Cheadle narrates as grown-up Dean.
The creators are intent on making a show set in 1968 timely in 2021. As the pilot unfolds, Cheadle sets the scene about his parents giving him a talk about how to behave around police, and mentions a presidential election that sparked a racial divide, and a flu “pandemic” raging across the country.
“But it was 1968,” he says, “and that’s the state our country was in.”
Dean is a nerdy kid. He pays attention in class, is nervous around girls in his racially mixed school and is minimal match for the bullies. The pilot sees him attempt to arrange a baseball game, Black kids against the white kids from across town, and nearly everyone thinks it’s a bad idea.
The Wonder Years offers a convincing period piece — the settings and characters look like something out of the late '60s, and a lively musical score offers a compelling soundtrack. The pilot had some laughs, but we found more drama than comedy, including some genuine emotion as the community deals with some tragic news.
Elisha Williams handles Dean with aplomb, and Cheadle is as much fun to listen to as he usually is to watch.
Lee Daniels, Saladin K. Patterson, Fred Savage and Marc Velez executive produce. Savage played Kevin Arnold in the original Wonder Years.
If the long hiatus of Stranger Things has you missing watching boys on bikes, heading to new adventures, The Wonder Years offers that — and a bit more. It’s worth checking out.
The Wonder Years premieres Wednesday, Sept. 22, on ABC.
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.
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