Early ’90s TV is hitting the refresh button this fall, in the case of “The Wonder Years,” delivering an impressive and ambitious ABC dramedy. Coming on the heels of Disney+’s “Doogie Howser, M.D.” reboot, the two shows join the earlier “One Day at a Time” in proving it’s possible to nostalgically recycle titles and still produce distinctive and captivating series.
Directed by original star Fred Savage, “The Wonder Years” revisits roughly the same period beginning in 1968, this time examining those turbulent years from the perspective of an African-American family and its 12-year-old son, Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams).
Once again featuring narration by a grown-up version of the kid (courtesy of Don Cheadle), the elder voice amusingly recalls an era when spanking kids was perfectly okay, his father (“The West Wing’s” Dulé Hill) responded to stressful situations by telling everyone “Be cool” and both parents (Saycon Sengbloh plays his mom) were fond of snapping at their kids, “Stay out of grown folks’ business.”
As the youngest of three, Dean watches the tumult of the ’60s at a greater sense of remove than his teenage sister (Laura Kariuki) and mostly seems preoccupied with a girl in his class, Keisa (Milan Ray). A lot might change in filtering the show through this different point of view, but the pangs of puberty remain universal.
Adapted by Saladin K. Patterson, working with a production team that includes Savage and “Empire’s” Lee Daniels, this new “Wonder Years” finds a great deal of humor in seeing the past from this distance. Set in Montgomery, Alabama, Dean attends Jefferson Davis Jr. High and is told reassuringly that a White person isn’t racist because “he watches ‘I, Spy.'”
Like the prior version, the show unearths the drama and poignant qualities of those years, in a front-loaded pilot that leverages a major event to set the scene and mood — a logical decision, if a device that the writers will be hard-pressed to replicate in terms of emotional resonance going forward.
Both this show and “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.” have also nailed the casting of their youthful leads, no small feat with such exercises, with Williams capturing the mix of naivete and awakening that’s key to coming-of-age fare.
In terms of old-fashioned scheduling concerns that were far more significant when the original aired, “The Wonder Years” also looks right at home sandwiched between the nostalgia-tinged “The Goldbergs” and “The Conners,” a Roseanne-less revival of another ’90s staple. (Scheduling isn’t a consideration, of course, for those who’ll just stream it later on Hulu.)
Whether the series can sustain the charms and deft balance that its pilot exhibits remains to be seen; still, just getting out of the gate this looks like one of the fall’s most appealing shows, in a way that manages to be, as a musical remnant of the era put it, some kind of “Wonder”-full.
“The Wonder Years” premieres Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
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