DVD Review: The Wonder Years (The Complete Series)



In the 1980s and early ‘90s my favorite channel was Nickelodeon. Mr. Wizard’s World. Double Dare. You Can’t Do That on Television (featuring a pre-“Ironic” Alanis Morrisette). Salute Your Shorts. These were some of my favorite daytime shows. But as the days ran into nights Nickelodeon would become Nick at Nite and that’s where I got my classic television education. Looney Tunes, Dennis the Menace, The Donna Reed Show, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis provided a great introduction to the television show that I continue to hold most dear more than twenty years after it went off the air.

The Wonder Years.

Premiering on ABC after the Washington Redskins blowout victory against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, the series was a coming-of-age comedy set in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam era. Using the backdrop of this transitional time in America’s history with the maturation of Kevin Arnold as he made his way through adolescence, the series brought emotion and context to moments that would tend to be overplayed in more by-the-numbers situational comedies. Just as Kevin was entering middle school I was making my way through elementary school. Yet, despite the differences in primary school years as well as time and place the show felt relatable to me. It may have to do with growing up in a household listening to the same music of my parents’ generation. The music of local drug stores and soda pop shops. That may explain why I’m also fond of coming-of-age and ‘60s/’70s set movies in general (The Sandlot, Back to the Future, Breaking Away).

For the longest time it looked like The Wonder Years would never get a proper home video release. While Anchor Bay released two volumes to DVD in 2000 – The Best of The Wonder Years and The Christmas Wonder Years – they lacked most of the original music due to rights restrictions. And with music having always been a cornerstone of the program, acting as a character to an extent, these DVDs were less than appealing.

Fourteen years after those two volumes StarVista/Time-Life has released what was long considered impossible: A complete series of The Wonder Years. To ensure that they didn’t sing out of tune and have people stand up and bypass this release the company was meticulous in clearing as many songs as possible. Since the coming-of-age series has been one of the most requested TV programs for DVD release since the inception of the format in 1996, the label issued multiple press releases breaking down the songs that had been cleared, songs that had to be changed (plus indicating the replacement music), and the enormity of supplemental material included.

Unless you have never heard of The Wonder Years or missed it during its initial airing and subsequent runs in syndication, the story begins with Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) starting to attend Robert F. Kennedy Junior High (Go Wildcats!), at a time when a number of schools across America were changing names to reflect the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers. Joining Kevin in his adventures is best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano, not to be confused with Marilyn Manson – remember that rumor?). The two are a bit dweebish in character but before boarding the bus Kevin’s eyes veer down the sidewalk to a girl with a pink and orange sweater walking lithely to the bus stop. That girl just happened to be the girl next door to Kevin (okay, a few houses down across the street), Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), who ditched her glasses for contacts at the end of summer.

If it wasn’t enough that Kevin had to navigate the halls at a new school, he has to come home to his jerk of an older brother, Wayne (Jason Hervey), who would always call him “butthead” or “dorkface”. Then you also have the gruff and stoic dad, Jack (Dan Lauria), the she-means-well mom Norma (Alley Mills) and make peace, not war hippy older sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo). As crazy as this family looks in description, they are relatively normal. They eat dinner together, bicker about topics of the day (contraception, politics, et al.) and storm off or retreat to cool down.

The key in distinguishing The Wonder Years as a simple period comedy is the addition of voice-over narration as an older Kevin (Home Alone‘s Daniel Stern) reminisces about his upbringing in an ordinary suburb where everyone had the same model house, kids played outside until dark, and it was okay to leave the doors unlocked.

Whenever I think about voice-over narration two things spring to mind instantly. The first is the scene from Spike Jonze’s Adaptation where Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman attends one of Robert McKee’s one-day screenwriting seminars. In the scene, McKee (as played by Brian Cox) says voiceover as a substitution for telling story via action and dialogue is weak. The second thing to spring to mind is Frank Darabont’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and Morgan Freeman’s beautiful narration as prison inmate Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding. In the case of The Wonder Years and The Shawshank Redemption both use the device as a means of recollection, much like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (another Stephen King adaptation) where The Writer (Richard Dreyfus) recalls the time he and his three friends venture to find the body of a missing boy the Labor Day weekend before the start of their freshman year in high school.

The use of voiceover in The Wonder Years is not only about recalling events or particular situations, sometimes it is used as a momentary stop gap, which is kind of strange, because viewers will sometimes hear the voice of Fred Savage instead of Daniel Stern. In revisiting the series again, having gained a wealth of knowledge about the ins and outs of television and cinema, the importance of timing and pausing was a key element in delivery and reaction, and easy to overlook for a seven-year-old (which I was when the show premiered). In the extras, to which there are a wealth of, many of the young actors recalled having to listen to someone reading Stern’s narration off camera and having to act against a hanging tennis ball representing another actor in the scene. Much of this had to do with limitations placed on young actors and the amount of hours they could devote to working on set. If they weren’t working, they were doing schoolwork with tutors off set – twenty minutes here, forty there, or banking a full nine hours if the opportunity presented itself. Knowing all of this now, about acting against a tennis ball and timing the scene just right to fit the narration, I still poised the question to friends on what The Wonder Years would be like without the voice-over narration. One person remarked it would mostly be Fred Savage staring a lot. Can’t say I disagree.

In a television climate where a series seems to run on forever, particularly crime procedurals (pretty much everything on CBS) and sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience (pretty much everything on CBS, again), The Wonder Years ran for six seasons – or half the run of Two and a Half Men – and received tons of praise and accolades. Even though its first season was limited to six episodes, debuting in the latter part of ABC’s broadcast schedule in 1988, it won the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy. Fred Savage also became the youngest-ever Emmy nominee for Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series. Not bad for a kid who would grow up to be prolific behind the camera instead of in front of it, directing episodes for more than fifty different television shows (including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Party Down, Modern Family, and IFC’s Garfunkel & Oates).

The Wonder Years even with a good run, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in a thirty-minute block, did seem to lean towards the avenue of after-school special at times, not unlike what we got on Full House (anyone else remember DJ passing out in the gym due to exhaustion and starvation?) or Saved by the Bell (Jessie’s “I’m so excited, I’m so scared” caffeine pill addiction moment). Nevertheless, it overcomes this fault by remaining timely and moving to viewers both young and old.

From a pilot that brilliantly encapsulates everything right about 1960s suburbia capped off with a heartfelt moment set to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” to the abrupt, if unsatisfying, series finale that came about because ABC executives resisted to maturing the subject matter as Kevin got older (it was marketed as being family-friendly oriented after all), The Wonder Years still remains an important milestone in television history serving as a precursor to television’s resurgence in recent years with the likes of Breaking Bad, True Detective, Netflix originals (House of Cards, Orange is the New Black), and many others.

If the series itself is the main course and desert, the icing is everything StarVista/Time-Life has done to make this the best DVD set of 2014. Beyond the amount of hours spent getting the rights to 401 songs integral to the story (from Joe Cocker’s cover of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which served as the intro theme for all 115 episodes, to Randy Newman’s end theme from The Natural, one of the few non show-period compositions from the show – it’s from the year 1984) is the amount of hours of supplemental material (more on that in a bit).

In terms of picture and audio quality there are no noticeable improvements. The Wonder Years was originally shot on 16mm to give it a dated look and presented in 1.33:1 full frame, so the lack of updated audio and picture is not surprising. If you are a videophile disgusted by what is probably VHS SP quality video at best, then you will not like the picture. But if you are an ardent fan of The Wonder Years you probably won’t find it that distracting.

Squabbles about video aside, the quality of the package is what counts most. The distribution label has provided different options depending on your level of fandom. The first season is available for purchase or an 11-disc set that collects the first three seasons. If you want the entire series in a collectible package there are three options depending on fan interest. There’s The Complete Series (which comes encased in a metal locker with magnets, a Kennedy Jr. High yearbook with quotes and anecdotes from the set, and the 26 discs housed in reproductions of Kevin and Winnie’s binders), The Wonder Years Experience (with even more locker-stuffing collectibles), and The Wonder Years Experience: Signature Edition (for superfans who want their yearbooks hand-signed by Fred Savage, Danica McKellar and other cast members – only a total of 500 were signed).

I got the Complete Series and I’m more than satisfied, though the discs in cardboard sleeves are difficult to remove. So if you have any plastic sleeves that may be a better housing alternative. Plus it will prevent scratching.

Now let’s talk about extras. There is a TON! New features and fresh interviews with many of the key personalities that made the show a legendary success add up to a total of nearly twenty-four hours of supplemental material. We get a cast reunion featuring the principal cast, extensive individual sit-down interviews with the seven key cast members (Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills, Olivia d’Abo and Jason Hervey), in-depth interviews with narrator Daniel Stern and show creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, and ten new featurettes. And that’s just for starters. We also have outtakes (including all six takes of Winnie and Kevin’s first kiss with optional commentary), writer/producer Mark B. Perry’s personal home video set tour from the end of the final season, actress Alley Mills reading a letter she sent to executive producer Bob Brush about the series finale, and the one-hour finale as it originally aired on ABC on May 12, 1993 with a deleted scene not included in the half-hour broadcasts of the final two episodes. For posterity’s sake, we get both versions of the finale.

Whew.

If I were wearing a cap right now, I would tip it to the fine folks at StarVista/Time-Life. This is by far my favorite release of 2014. A lot of that has to do with my love of the series, but the amount of effort to produce this complete series set is worth applauding, too. For those who like to binge when it comes to viewing television programs, not to mention those who like to watch extras, you will be busy for quite some time with The Wonder Years: The Complete Series. Don’t be a Wayne Arnold insult (ahem, butthead). Do yourself a favor and get it today.

StarVista/Time-Life presents The Wonder Years: The Complete Series. Starring: Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Josh Saviano, Dan Lauria, Alley Mills, Olivia d’Abo and Jason Hervey. Boxset Contents: 115 episodes on 26 DVDs. Released: October 7, 2014.

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