ABC’s ‘The Wonder Years’ Draws ‘Meaningful’ Racial and Political Parallels Between 1968 and 2021

The Wonder Years Fall TV Preview
Courtesy of ABC

ABC’s reboot of “The Wonder Years” exists in the same universe as the original 1980s and 1990s coming-of-age sitcom, but creator and showrunner Saladin K. Patterson considers Kevin Arnold’s story, as told then, to be a parallel one to Dean Williams’ story, which is being told now.

Both versions of the show are set in 1968 and told from a young boy’s perspective, in addition to that boy’s adult self narrating with present-day perspective. The original starred Fred Savage as the young character; he now serves as an executive producer on Patterson’s version of the show. Daniel Stern was the narrator, offering commentary from the character about two decades later. In Patterson’s “Wonder Years,” Dean is played by actor Elisha “EJ” Williams in the 1968 storyline, and his 2021 perspective is narrated by Don Cheadle.

“A lot of the excitement that we had in doing this reimagining and setting it in ’68, besides getting to show this perspective from a middle-class Black family that we hadn’t seen on TV before, was there are just so many parallels between what’s going on in the country and society and the world now to what was going on in the late ’60s,” Patterson tells Variety. “By taking advantage of a narrator who can talk about the present day, I thought it allowed us to be able to say something in a more meaningful way.”

Some of the reflection Cheadle’s narration provides includes consideration of microaggressions or other subtle racist acts such as characters not wanting to drink at a water fountain after Dean did, which the 12-year-old version of the character might have missed. But there is also opportunity to compare big political moments, from the presidency to the struggle over voting rights to war, between the decades.

“There are some events that would have affected a Black family in a major way,” Patterson says. “The Vietnam experience was certainly a part of the Black experience and it was a unique experience because it was the first time that Black soldiers could be superior officers over white folks, and so, that’s a unique perspective to come back with — when you come back to a society where you don’t have any power over your white counterparts.”

The real-world events get pulled into the show are determined by what events would affect Dean — and when.

“Our stories are going to be about our family through the eyes of our 12-year-old protagonist as told by his present-day self, so everything has to be about how it affected him and how it affected his family, his coming-of-age, his understanding of the world around him, his relationships,” Patterson explains. “If we start there, then sometimes by default what’s going on in the world affected that. Not every time, though. We don’t want it to feel like a documentary, we don’t want it to feel too didactic, we don’t want it to feel like we’re preaching or teaching too much about what happened in the times.”

How any real-world event gets discussed within the world of the show needs to be true to the time period, Patterson says. The show needs to tread carefully when depicting historical events because the characters couldn’t possibly know the full weight that assassinations and protest movements would have in the long run.

“There’s a moment at the end of the pilot where the ABC of 2020 and 2021 really put a lot of pressure on me, saying, ‘Let’s make this a moment where the family gets together and the parents are talking about why this is happening and why this is important.’ And I really pushed back against that because everyone I spoke to who experienced that just said, ‘Things didn’t happen like that. Adults didn’t have the wherewithal to gather the family and talk about things; they were just trying to process things themselves,'” he explains. “And parenting was different then: we try to think about how we’re going to enrich our kids’ lives now, but kids were seen and not heard in the late ’60s; the world didn’t revolve around the kids. And so, I pushed back because that was projecting a 2020 mindset onto a family in the ’60s.”

The first season of “The Wonder Years” is set in 1968, and like the original series, the plan is to keep each season’s stories set within the same year. However, Patterson notes that the show is “going to take advantage of the fact that memory is not linear.

“It’s not going to be ‘Memento,’ but at the same time, our episodes don’t have to stick strictly to chronological order for the calendar year because they are memories of a time. As long as the relationships track, we’re going to give ourselves the liberty to maybe have an episode down the line that predated the pilot,” he previews.

Also similar to the original show, music will play a big role in Patterson’s “The Wonder Years.” The patriarch of the family, Bill Williams (Dulé Hill) is a music professor and a musician, based on Patterson’s real-life father, which opens the door for original music in the series. Patterson also wants to pay tribute to some of the rich artistry of the era that isn’t as well known as Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

“That was a time when Black culture was starting to influence American culture in a new way,” Patterson points out. “We want to benefit from having a soundscape and soundtrack of all of the great music of that time, [including] lesser-known artists who were still a part of the music scene and influenced the hits but didn’t necessarily obtain the fame. We want to feature those artists and give them their day now.”

“The Wonder Years” premieres Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.