Sunday, April 26, 2015

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friend: Musings on The Wonder Years and Square Pegs

Douglas Gomery, in his History of Broadcasting in the United States refers to The Wonder Years as “Square Pegs lite” (p. 330). Square Pegs, of course, was the creation of Saturday Night Live alumnus Anne Beatts, which ran on CBS from 1982 to 1983. For Gomery Square Pegs is one of the great TV programmes of the 1980s. The Wonder Years was the creation of Neal Marlens and Carol Black which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1993. After Marlens and Black left early in season two--they apparently had other obligations--Bob Brush would play a significant role in guiding The Wonder Years.

In 2011 I watched Square Pegs on DVD. I had picked up the DVD for $5 bucks at Target if memory serves. Recently I rewatched the first season of The Wonder Years on DVD thanks to Time-Life’s Star Vista Entertainment. Now that The Wonder Years is finally available on DVD. It was long in coming because of the Byzantine and labyrintian nature and the cost of obtaining music rights for shows shot before the age of the DVD. The Wonder Years had a large number of songs to obtain music rights for since its sound track was the sound track of the late sixties and early seventies. Star Vista was apparently able to obtain the rights to about 90% of the music—so we can finally compare and contrast the two shows.

Both Square Pegs and The Wonder Years were about the teenage years. Square Pegs took viewers into the high school with Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker) and Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker), two awkward teenage girls who desperately want to fit in to the cool school clique at Weemawee High School. The Wonder Years gave us Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage)—The Wonder Years with its adult Kevin narrator (Daniel Stern) is told from Kevin’s adult point of view—Gwendolyn “Winnie” Cooper (Danica McKellar), and Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and took us along with them on occasion to their newly renamed junior high school, Robert F. Kennedy Junior High. Both Square Pegs and The Wonder Years were one camera filmed TV shows, innovative for their times since videotaping sitcoms had become common in the 1970s and 1980s.

But there are real differences between these two shows that appear once one goes beyond the teen similarities. Square Pegs, unlike The Wonder Years, had the laugh track so common in American television sitcoms since their beginnings. The acting in Square Pegs was more sitcomy, more heightened, exaggerated, and theatrical (very Saturday Night Live sketcish) and as a result less naturalistic and less realistic than The Wonder Years. Though both Square Pegs and The Wonder Years were filmed The Wonder Years is far more cinematic than Square Pegs as the wonderfully lit shot of Kevin and Winnie at Harper’s Woods at the end of the first episode (“Pilot”, 31 January 1988) shows. Additionally, The Wonder Years throughout its run had an almost documentary quality to it. The show even incorporated faux home movies into its cinematic mix and this makes The Wonder Years seem like a predecessor to shows like The Office, British (BBC 2, 2001) and American (NBC, 2005-2013), Outnumbered (BBC 1, 2007-2014), and Modern Family (ABC, 2009-), all three of which play the faux documentary card that has become so common in TV these days.

The Wonder Years is actually less of a sitcom than Square Pegs. The Wonder Years, unlike Square Pegs, did away with the laugh track, as I mentioned. In fact, it actually makes fun of the sitcom laugh track in the episode where Kevin’s fantasises Winnie as Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie (“Dance With Me”, 19 April 1988). The Wonder Years is a comedy, a drama, a tragedy, a parody, even, at times, a satire, all of which arise out of the comedy, the drama, and the tragedy out of everyday life.

The Wonder Years is more of an ensemble piece than Square Pegs. Home life was barely depicted in Square Pegs while in The Wonder Years viewers saw, Kevin's home life, his Dad Jack (Dan Lauria), his Mum Norma (Alley Mills), his rebellious older sister, Karen (Olivia D'Abo), and his bullying older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey), and all of its trials and tribulations including arguments over the rightness or wrongness of the war Vietnam and American imperialism, though his eyes.

Narratively, Square Pegs is pretty much your standard sitcom with the standard John Hughes character caricatures. There's the geeks Marshall (John Femia) and Johnny (Merritt Butrick), the popular valleyish girl Jennifer (Tracy Nelson), the greaser Vinnie (Jon Caliri), and the mean girl Muffy (Jami Gertz). It adds a wrinkle into the sitcom by telling its tale from Lauren and Patty’s point of view, from a female point of view. The Wonder Years is more of a bildungsroman, a comedy, drama, and tragedy of growing up much like the later Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003). Robert F. Kennedy Junior High has, as Kevin tells us in the first episode ("Pilot", 1;!, 31 January 1988), its cool kids, its greasers, its nerds, its bullies, and its hippies. Kevin and Paul and to some extent Winnie, however, are not a part of anyone of these high school cliques. Speaking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wonder Years like Buffy the Vampire Slayer after it, used the classroom they took Kevin, Winnie, and Paul to, in the case of The Wonder Years, and Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and Xander (Nicholas Brandon) to, in the case of Buffy, on occasion, as a metaphor for what was going on in the lives of their teenagers. In The Wonder Years episode "Nemesis" (2:11, 14 March 1989) for instance, a classroom discussion on war is used as a metaphor for the increasingly complicated relationship between Kevin, Winnie, and Kevin's ex-girlfriend Becky Slater (Crystal McKellar). In the Buffy episode "Earshot" (3:18, 28 September 1999) a discussion on Shakespeare's Othello becomes a metaphor, in part, for Buffy's relationship with Angel (David Boreanaz).

Visually, The Wonder Years is much more innovative than Square Pegs. The Wonder Years, as I said, was filmed after all (probably on 16 mm). Square Pegs is your standard sitcom with its limited number of sets theatrical piece. The Wonder Years, on the other hand, has multiple sets and does a lot of “location” shooting. And then there are those pictures of the Beatles behind Kevin and Paul as they look at pictures in Our Bodies, Our Selves, from the White Album which came out in 1968, the year in which the pilot is set, in the series pilot.

Even in its sound The Wonder Years is far more innovative than that of Square Pegs. The TV, which seems often to be on in the Arnold kitchen constantly, provides the series with a digetic, an almost Greek chorus or Shakespearean chorus, commentary, that is more natural and realistic than its predecessors since it generally provides viewers with the broader social contexts of the years in which The Wonder Years is set, the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Additionally, The Wonder Years voice over narration by the adult Kevin (Daniel Stern) looking back over his wonder years also acts as a kind of distanced ironic, parodic, humourous, and bittersweet Greek chorus as does the similar voice over narration in "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters" (American Playhouse, 1:10, PBS, 1982, 16 March 1982), The Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983), "The Star Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosowski" (PBS, American Playhouse, 4:9, 11 February 1985) and "Ollie Hooopnodle's Haven of Bliss" (Disney Channel, 6 August 1988 & PBS, American Playhouse 1989), all television and film adaptations of Jean Shepherd's stories with their adult voice over narrator looking back at his wonder years past.

Then there is the use of music. Square Pegs tried to prove its coolness and its protagonist's coolness with its The Waitresses (they who gave us “I Know What Boys Like”) theme song and the appearance of Devo in one episode (“Muffy’s Bat Mitzah”, 29 November 1982). The use of popular music in The Wonder Years, however, gives viewers far more extensive insight into the characters, how the characters develop, the narrative development of the show, and the historical times in which the show was set in ways little seen on TV before The Wonder Years. WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982) used music like this in some instances, but not to the degree The Wonder Years does. Again, it would be Buffy that would make use of popular music in similar fashion almost ten years after the debut of The Wonder Years. Beyond the soundtrack, original music is also important in The Wonder Years. There is, for instance, a recurring “Winnie’s Theme” written by W.G. “Snuffy Walden that reappears at critical moments in the Kevin and Winnie relationship. Walden, by the way, wrote music for three other shows, thirtysomething (1987-1991), Roseanne (1988-1997), and My So-Called Life (1994-1997) which, along with Moonlighting (1985-1989), and like The Wonder Years, were changing the artistic face of ABC television in the 1980s and 1990s
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Scholars, of course, can disagree over the significance of TV programmes. I find The Wonder Years to be more significant and interesting than Square Pegs for a variety of different reasons than does Gomery. A lot of what The Wonder Years with its gentle humour and its bittersweet evocation of sixties and seventies life did, has become quite commonplace in so-called quality television that strives to be more artistic, these days. And that is one of the reasons that I think it is much more significant and frankly much more interesting than Square Pegs. As to the impact of The Wonder Years, a few facts, I think, speak for themselves. The Wonder Years alumni include Winnie Holzman and David Greenwalt both of whom would go on to play significant roles in three significant TV shows that followed The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life and Buffy and Angel (WB, 1999-2004) respectively. I suppose I should mention one other current "legacy" of The Wonder Years, The Goldbergs. I don't mean the show created by Gertrude Berg that ran on NBC radio from 1929 to 1946 and on CBS TV, DuMont, and in syndication from 1949 to 1956. I mean the TV show that has run on ABC since 2013 with an adult narrator reflecting back on his 1980s wonder years.

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