Can ‘The Wonder Years’ Break Through the White Noise of Nostalgia?

Only white people, the pop-culture conceit goes, can get excited about traveling backward in time. For other people, the past generally looks less like a vacation.

This idea has come up in films and TV shows from the “Hot Tub Time Machine” franchise to the British comedy “Timewasters” to NBC’s “Timeless,” in which Rufus, a Black member of a crew using an experimental time machine, says, “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”

Nostalgia is itself a kind of time machine, and TV has generally let white characters drive it. “Freaks and Geeks,” “That ’70s Show,” “Happy Days,” “Brooklyn Bridge,” “American Dreams,” “The Goldbergs” — these stories of fads and family and regrettable fashion choices, with occasional exceptions (“Everybody Hates Chris”), have not made for the most diverse of genres.

TV’s wellspring of Boomer remember-when is “The Wonder Years,” the dewy-eyed look back at 1968 from the vantage of 1988, when the pilot introduced Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), entering middle school in a generic suburb, his hormones coming to a boil in sync with the larger society.

Though “The Wonder Years” could be pat and heavy-handed (unpopular TV opinion alert), it was not Pollyannish about the old days. Near the end of the first episode, Kevin learns that his neighbor — the older brother of his long-running crush, Winnie Cooper — has been killed in Vietnam.

But the recurring theme, underlined by Daniel Stern’s voice-over, is that Kevin is learning about the larger world just as the larger world is learning unpleasant things about itself. To an audience that shared Kevin’s experience, it says: Sure, a lot of things started going wrong then, but we were just kids, figuring it all out. We didn’t start the fire!

Childhood memories, of course, are not unique to any demographic group — you find them in works by Black artists from Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” to Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” But it takes a certain kind of privilege to suggest that the larger world ever had an innocence to lose — that things were simpler and sweeter, once, before they turned bitter and complicated.

Your relationship to history has very much to do with which side of history your ancestors were on. And how comfortably you revisit the past depends on whether you assume the past is friendly territory for someone like you.

You don’t have to watch sitcoms to see this. The political culture-war rhetoric of nostalgia — appealing to the audience’s sense that the past was better for people like them, before their childhood favorites were recast or canceled — has been as central to Trumpist conservative campaigning as any policy plank. The “Again” in “Make America Great Again” is doing a lot of work. Great for whom?

The original “Wonder Years,” with Fred Savage and Danica McKeller, premiered in 1988.Credit…Nick at Nite

All this gives ABC’s new version of “The Wonder Years,” centered on a Black family, an immediate sense of purpose: to integrate TV’s Memory Lane, to complicate our idea of what nostalgia means, to show us what it looks like when someone else climbs in the time machine.

The focus is Dean Williams (Elisha Williams), an awkward 12-year-old growing up in Montgomery, Ala. If this “Wonder Years” had turned the clock back the same amount as the original, it would be set in 2001. Instead, it also begins in 1968, which the narrator (Don Cheadle, as the adult Dean) introduces as a year when there was a pandemic, Black parents gave their kids “the police talk” and “a presidential election that had created a racial divide.”

The sweetly funny pilot, written by Saladin K. Patterson, is emphatic that this is not a bad-old-days story. Dean, his adult self tells us, grew up in a safe, self-reliant, middle-class Black neighborhood that set him up for success. It’s as if part of the show’s mission is to say that kids like Dean have happy, occasionally cringe-y childhood memories like anyone else, and have just as much right to get misty over them as the suburban white boomers of 1988.

But those memories are complicated. Dean remembers his musician father, Bill (Dulé Hill), as a suave charmer (in contrast to Kevin’s distant simmering volcano of a dad). Bill’s watchword is “Be cool,” a phrase he applied to all situations — including being pulled over by the police in the family car.

Race isn’t a special-episode topic here. It’s part of life. It’s in Dean’s sister’s Black Panthers T-shirt; in the taunts of the bully who picks on Dean for carrying a lunchbox “like you’re white” (the insult “confuses me to this day,” the adult Dean says); and in a key scene, when the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination breaks while Dean is playing baseball against a white school friend’s team.

The original “Wonder Years” pilot is set months after the King assassination, at the start of the school year (when Kevin’s school is being renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, also recently killed). King does figure into a Season 2 story, when Kevin is cast as R.F.K. in a didactic school play about the recent troubles.

But the episode is mostly about Kevin’s doomed crush on the young teacher who wrote the play; the only Black character given a voice is a student who recites the “I Have a Dream” speech onstage. For Kevin, King’s murder is one of many sad things in the world that echo his personal melancholy.

Dean, like Kevin, is a kid who doesn’t keep close tabs on current events. He has a crush too, and it’s only when he sees her kissing another boy that, he says, “the anger I was seeing on the news made a little more sense.” Still, “The Wonder Years” makes clear that Dean can’t experience history as background noise to the extent that Kevin did.

Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh star as Dean’s parents.Credit…Erika Doss/ABC

At times the pilot seems wary of too strongly implicating its white characters (and, maybe, alienating white network TV viewers of today). Dean’s family learns about King’s death, for instance, from a sympathetic, distraught white couple at the ballgame. Presumably there were less charitable white reactions too in the Alabama of 1968 — the year the segregationist former governor George Wallace ran for president on his own racial nostalgia message — but we don’t hear those, for now.

There’s a more complex reflection earlier, when the white teacher at Dean’s integrated school scolds a Black student for saying “Yo’ mama.” “That’s something the Black students do that the white students don’t,” she says. Her prejudice isn’t lost on Dean, but, his voice-over notes, she also singles out some promising Black students, including him, for praise and extra attention. “Which may still have been racist,” he adds. “I don’t know.”

In one short pilot, the new “Wonder Years” is trying a lot: addressing and complicating racial issues, while not defining its characters solely in terms of them or allowing the 2021 audience an easy sense of superiority to past generations.

It all goes down gently, with a wry wistfulness that will not surprise anyone who watched the original series. Indeed, at times the new “Wonder Years” seems as much about nostalgia for the cozy sitcoms of the ’80s as it is about nostalgia for the ’60s.

But maybe that’s part of the show’s project as well. We usually talk about progress, in TV and elsewhere, as a matter of advancing into the future. But it can also be about who is allowed to find wonder in the past.

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