What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?
I don't know about you, but certain songs are for me forever associated with certain movies and television shows.
What do you think of when you hear Roy Orbison's "In Dreams"? How about when you hear Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You"? "Mas Que Nada" from Sergio Mendes? "Way Down in the Hole" by Tom Waits?
When I hear "With a Little Help From My Friends," regardless of whether it's Ringo Starr singing or Joe Cocker, but especially when it's Joe Cocker, I think of The Wonder Years.
The Wonder Years premiered on January 31, 1988 and ran through 1993. The episodes themselves were set 20 years earlier in 1968 through 1973. The show followed the suburban life of Kevin Arnold from the age of 12 to 17. That time of change in a young person's life combined with the changes going on in this country and the world at the time in which the show is set made for some wonderful television.
The show appealed to people on so many different levels. Middle and junior high school students saw characters that they could relate to, who had the same questions and were going through the same awkward adolescent trials and tribulations. High school students took pleasure in being able to watch those awkward moments with the knowledge that they had only recently made it through those very same trials and tribulations themselves. Adults were drawn to the nostalgia of a more innocent time. I myself was a senior in high school when the show premiered and was instantly drawn to the show for all of the above reasons.
Other shows that premiered in 1988 included Yo! MTV Raps, America's Most Wanted, Hey Vern, It's Ernest, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley. While some of those are certainly noteworthy most of what premiered that year is a footnote at best in regards to television history. Few still hold a special place in the hearts of the viewing public. All of these years later it's easy to see what shows have stood the test of time and why.
I recently rewatched the first season of The Wonder Years. I had not seen the episodes since their original airing over twenty years ago. I was surprised at how much I remembered: the use of a narrator looking back on his life, the dialogue, the humor, the poignant and subtle nuances.
The series opened with the follow lines:
1968. I was 12 years old. A lot happened that year. Denny McLain won 31 games, the Mod Squad hit the air, and I graduated from Hillcrest Elementary and entered Junior High School. But we’ll get to that.
These personal remembrances from the narrator were contrasted with a montage of images: the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Summer Olympics, peaceful protesters putting carnations in the gun barrels of soldiers, Martin Luther King, Robert F Kennedy, bombs being dropped in jungles, and riots in urban American streets.
The first season of The Wonder Years and the most recent season of Mad Men take place in the same year.
It was interesting to compare the similar social and historical references of the two shows. Television sets airing news reports in the background of both shows serve as a reminder of what was going on in the world at that time. The time represented a generational and cultural change in America. The decade was coming to an end. The Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were stark contrasts to the summer of love which was on the horizon. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has stated that 1968 was, "as far as I can tell, in the top two or three worst years in U.S. history."
As in Mad Men, the references in The Wonder Years firmly root the show in a specific time.
An interesting aside is the sound-alike songs that have replaced some of the originals in the streaming episodes online. The producers of the show were likely only able to secure the rights to the songs for the original broadcasts but not the subsequent releases. For example, most online episode guides show the song "Foxy Lady" by Jimi Hendrix as having appeared in the episode "Angel" (s.1 e.4). The song that is featured in that episode online is a generic knock-off done in the same style but is beyond a doubt not Jimi Hendrix or "Foxy Lady". This substitution brings to mind the read-alike and sound-alike advisory activities that librarians do on a daily basis.
Were you a fan of the show? What are some of your favorite moments?
In the tradition of other recent lists I'd like to offer a season one guide to The Wonder Years.
Episode 1 – Pilot
"Turn Turn Turn" – The Byrds
"Both Sides Now" – Judy Collins
"Crystal Blue Persuasion" – Tommys James and the Shondells
"When a Man Loves a Woman" – Percy Sledge
Our Body, Ourselves
References and details
The episode takes place as Kevin, Winnie, and Paul start the first day of school in the fall of 1968. The school, like so many others at the time, had just been renamed Robert F Kennedy Junior High. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968. This occured in Mad Men season 6 episode 7 ("Man With a Plan"). Judy Collins' rendition of the Joni Mitchell song "Both Sides Now" was also used to close out the Mad Men season six finale, running during the credits and perfectly summarizing the events of the final episode. "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was not released until the spring of 1969. The narrator (Kevin as an adult, looking back upon his life) references Charles Manson, which fits if the narrator is looking back in time, but not if the reference was from Kevin in 1968, as the Manson murders did not happen until the following summer. Our Body, Ourselves was not published until 1971. The revised and expanded edition depicted in the show was released in 1976.
Episode 2 – Swingers
"For What it’s Worth" – Buffalo Springfield
"Young Girl" – Gary Puckett & The Union Gap
"Tell It Like It Is" – Aaron Neville
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) - Dr. David R. Reuben
Ivanhoe - Walter Scott
War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
References and details
The opening lines of the episode: "We live in confusing times. Times of change and of disagreement." Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) was not published until June 1969. In Kevin's room are photos of The Beatles from The White Album which was not released until November 1968.
Health and Human Sexuality was the text book in the PE class.
Episode 3 - My Father's Office
"Blackbird" – (a largely instrumental cover version of The Beatles song was used in the show)
Reference and details
"Blackbird" was on The Beatles White Album which wasn't released until November 22, 1968.
Episode 4 – Angel
"(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons" – Nat King Cole
"Foxy Lady" – Jimi Hendrix (sound-alike used)
"Blowin’ in the Wind" – Bob Dylan (sound-alike used… Kevin’s sister is on the lawn singing this song)
War and Peace – The teacher is asking the class about values and holds up a book. It appears to be the same prop used in the previous episode.
Any idea what western this is? The Virginian? Lancer?
References and details
This episode features Louis, a junior and honors student in political philosophy at the state university, active in student government and various non-profit social causes, and a vegetarian. Louis is played by none other than actor John Corbett (credited as Jack Corbett). Louis was quite possibly the inspiration for Corbett's character Chris Stevens on Northern Exposure which followed two years later in 1990. At the very least, Louis is related to Chris Stevens. Or perhaps Chris Stevens was a time traveler! For more on Chris and the books he read look here.
Episode 5 - Phone Call
"I’m a Believer" – The Monkees
Theme from Romeo and Juliet – Nino Rota
Let’s Make a Deal
References and Details
Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet was released October 8, 1968. There is a reference to the Apollo 8 entering its orbit around the moon. The Apollo 8 did not do this until December 24, 1968.
Episode 6 - Dance With Me
"The Letter" – Joe Cocker (sound-alike used)
"Magic Carpet Ride" - Steppenwolf
"Girl From Ipanema" – Astrud Gilberto (sound-alike used)
"Louie Louie" – The Kingsmen (sound-alike used)
"Born to be Wild" - Steppenwolf
"There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)" - Herman's Hermits (sound-alike used)
"Tears of a Clown" – Smokey Robinson
"Cherish" – The Association
"I’ve Been Loving You Too Long" – Otis Redding
I Dream of Jeannie
References and details
This episode takes place the week of October 17, 1968. Kevin's teacher gives a slide lecture and references two folk songs by asking "Where have all the flowers gone?" (Pete Seeger) and "How many roads?" (Bob Dylan's "Blowin in the Wind"). "Tears of a Clown" was originally released in 1967 but it didn't become a hit in the US until it was released as a single on September 24, 1970.