It’s really hard for me to believe that The Wonder Years – which I think of as being a fairly recent show – is 21 years old.
But it’s true – the first episode aired in January 1988. It ended six seasons (115 episodes) later, with the final episode broadcast in May 1993.
Every season of the show was set exactly 20 years before the year in which it aired. So the first season was set in 1968 and introduced us to the young Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and his family (dad Jack, mum Norma, big sister Karen and older brother Wayne) and his best friend Paul Pfieffer.
And then, of course, there was Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), the girl the girl of his dreams, around whom much of his world would revolve, through good times and bad, throughout the series.
I was, and still am, very fond of The Wonder Years. It was one of the first American TV comedies I can remember watching that ditched the traditional studio-based, filmed-in-front-of-an-audience sitcom set-up that was the norm at the time, and which was more like watching a play, in favour of a more real-world, cinematic look and feel.
The Wonder Years may not have been the first TV comedy filmed largely or entirely on location and without a studio audience or a laugh-track – but it certainly did it better than any other show had managed up till then, breaking new ground and pushing at the boundaries of the artform in the process (for which it won a Peabody Award in 1989).
But the show wasn’t only innovative in terms of its style of production – despite the familiar small-town family setting, the storytelling wasn’t quite like anything we’d seen before in American TV comedy.
In fact, to describe The Wonder Years merely as a comedy or sitcom is to do it a disservice because it was so much more than that.
It’s often, unfairly, said that Americans can’t do irony. The Wonder Years was dripping in irony, not to mention pathos. The show could switch effortlessly from slapstick to scathing sarcasm to tragedy in a heartbeat.
While feelgood humour was always at the heart of the show, in another departure from the norm not every episode was primarily played for laughs – many episodes centred on the sadder aspects of childhood and the harsher life lessons we all learn as kids.
Yes, the show was unashamedly sentimental, particularly the voice-overs from grown-up Kevin (provided by Daniel Stern) – but never sickeningly so. It’s surely a testament to the quality of the writing that however moving or touching the storylines were, the show never descended into sickly-sweet false sentimentality.
The Wonder Years always remained grounded in reality and because we had all gone through the same kinds of experiences as Kevin and his family and friends, the emotion never seemed contrived or phony or manipulative.
All of which brings us to this week’s classic clip, which is split over the two videos below. It’s the final few minutes of the show’s last-ever episode, when we discover what happened to Kevin and Winnie.
The story so far: Kevin falls out with his dad, leaves home and heads off in his car for the holiday resort where Winnie is working during the summer break.
When he gets there, he finds out she has a new boyfriend and hits the guy, getting both himself and Winnie kicked out of the resort. As they hitch-hike home (Kevin having lost his car in a poker game) they continue to argue bitterly but are then forced to take shelter together in a barn when a storm hits:
The next scene continues on from the previous scene, as Winnie and Kevin arrive back home on Independence Day, which that year not only celebrates their nation’s independence but also their own – the end of an era as they prepare to leave their childhood behind and step out into the world as adults:
UPDATE: Since the first video I linked to above has been taken down, here’s a single video with both of the above scenes and a little more of the final episode besides: