Coming of Age with ‘The Wonder Years’

Watch as Kevin Arnold (and Fred Savage) grows up and reminisces about his first and maybe one true love in the classic TV series.
Binge Header Wonder Years
By  · Published on March 28th, 2020

This article is part of our One Perfect Binge bracket project. Follow along with here for updates and on Twitter, keep tabs via #OnePerfectBinge.

The first episode of The Wonder Years begins with The Byrds’ cover of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and would remain associated with that song forever. It’s a fitting tune because of its appropriation of Biblical scripture to describe the natural cycle of life and history, affirming that things change but also that there are a time and a place for everything (under Heaven). Superficially, it’s also just a famous song from the era, an anti-war anthem with a catchy guitar riff that reworked a 1950s folk ditty and became the most popular version of the tune. As a cover song, it represents a cycle and a change itself, evolution and progression, a new generation and coming of age for this composition that would continue to grow through the decades.

In a way, The Wonder Years felt like a cover as well. The nostalgic coming of age story set during the 1950s or 1960s was actually getting kind of tired by 1988 when the half-hour series premiered on ABC. With a voiceover from an older actor portraying the main character as an adult (now a writer), we were reminded of Stand by Me and maybe A Christmas Story before it. Making a parallel between young adults’ coming of age and changing times in the world was done perfectly 15 years earlier with American Graffiti, similarly with a jukebox soundtrack filled with needle-drop moments with just the right song. And in turn, The Wonder Years has been mimicked many times since, to varying degrees of success. To everything, turn, turn, turn.

Through six seasons, ending in May of 1993, The Wonder Years follows the coming of age of Kevin Arnold, alongside his best friend Paul Pfeiffer and first love Winnie Cooper, from age 12 at the start of junior high to 17, just ahead of their senior year of high school. At the same time, the show meta-textually depicts the growing up of lead actor Fred Savage, as well as the regulars Josh Saviano and Danica McKellar and other young performers who’d come and go over the show’s run. To see the real kids of a show or movie franchise get older over time isn’t uncommon, but when the work is focused on characters’ coming of age, like The Wonder Years or the Harry Potter films, the correlation stands out.

When the pilot re-aired at its regular time in March of 1988 (following a post-Super Bowl broadcast in a different form in January), I was five days shy of turning 11 years old, a year younger than Kevin (whose own birthday was just two days different from mine). So, I guess you could say I also came of age alongside the cast and characters, albeit much differently, as I watched week after week, year after year. Surely that provided more meaning for me and others of my generation, especially as it gave us a hint of our parents’ experiences 20 years or so earlier. Today, The Wonder Years can be (thanks to music rights finally figured out) looked back on with a nostalgic legacy of its own, and it’s neither dated or just a product of its time.

To binge-watch the show now offers a different encounter with the story, of course, one that takes us through Kevin’s life and the “turbulent” time period of the late ’60s and early ’70s much more quickly. And maybe the path of the series is more clearly a devolution from being an intimate look at a child’s self-discovery within his family life, his love life, and his school life, all amidst the backdrop of America’s own major turning point, to more of a navigation of Kevin’s revolving door of high school girlfriends and the will-they-or-won’t-they cliche of his relationship with Winnie amidst the backdrop of typical family drama situations. But viewing the series all at once (turn! turn! turn!), you also get to find out the fates of everyone much faster. As adult Arnold (Daniel Stern) says at the end of the series finale, “Growing up happens in a heartbeat.” That’s definitely true watched this way.

As with most series, there’s never anything like that first season (for The Wonder Years, that was just six episodes because it was a mid-season replacement). The pilot, a classic episode in the pantheon of television history, introduces us to a show that will deal with the comedies of coming of age as well as such serious issues as someone dying in Vietnam. It delivers a first kiss, first act of rebellion, concise encapsulation of the Arnolds’ family dynamic, and of course the beginnings of a music-cue bonanza, which wasn’t like most soundtracks in that it often uses snippets of popular songs for scoring purposes rather than just relevant lyrical application — basically what MTV would come to do with their TV shows in the coming decade.

At its core, The Wonder Years is about a boy who starts out realizing his attraction to his female friend from childhood and (spoiler) ends with him implied as losing his virginity to the same girl five years later. “Every single thing that ever happened to me that mattered, in some way, had to do with her,” adult Kevin says in the last episode. The show deals with the boy’s growth in all facets of his life, but especially his experience with other crushes, courtships, couplings, controlling partners, etc., and maybe even his memories of his parents’ marital problems are part of that lived education, as he reflects on that first love from its start to its finish(?). Through it all, he always turns, turns, turns, to her.

If The Wonder Years was a movie — one with a running time of roughly 44 hours without commercials — the program would definitely have a place on lists highlighting the best of the coming of age genre. As a series, it’s still one of the best of the genre for that format, having been an early pioneer when most shows with kids had leaned younger and been about childhood, rather than its departure, or they had been concentrated on whole families with every member getting equal time. And even today, the genre tends to exist primarily in limited series form because ongoing shows are less figured out from the start. The Wonder Years may have concluded earlier than some wished but it wraps its story up well enough while also looking ahead.

You can binge all six seasons of The Wonder Years on Hulu, and now’s as good a time to watch it as it was during its initial broadcast. As The Byrds say in the last line of that song that kicks off the show, “I swear it’s not too late.”

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.