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ABC's New 'Wonder Years' Succeeds By Centering A Black Family In History

Laura Kariuki, Elisha Williams, Saycon Sengbloh and Dule Hill star as the Williams family.
Erika Doss
Laura Kariuki, Elisha Williams, Saycon Sengbloh and Dule Hill star as the Williams family.

Experienced critics know: sometimes it pays to be skeptical of TV show revivals that try to make an old series feel fresh by changing the race of the main characters.

But ABC's Black-centered reimagining of TV's classic exercise in nostalgia, The Wonder Years, avoids that pitfall for a simple reason. The year in which it is set, 1968, was one of the most pivotal times for Black America in recent history.

Think about it. Malcom X had already been assassinated. Riots over racial issues convulsed poor Black neighborhoods from New York City to Los Angeles. The Vietnam War was claiming more young brothers every year. And Black artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield were trying to shrug off their buttoned-down images and bring a grittier, street-level energy to their art.

That's why I was so excited to see that, in ABC's new version of The Wonder Years, 12-year-old Dean Williams' father was a too-cool R&B musician who also teaches at a local college in Birmingham, Alabama. Played by The West Wing and Psych alum Dulé Hill, Papa Williams has a hit record on the radio and a habit of telling his family to "be cool" whenever a tense moment approaches.

The pilot episode set the scene quickly, with charismatic star Don Cheadle serving as Dean's grown-up voice, narrating the action as if he was looking back through a slender haze of nostalgia.

"Growing up, Mom and Dad gave me 'the police talk,' about how to handle yourself around cops," Cheadle says over images of young Dean (Elisha "E.J." Williams) riding a bike through his neighborhood, a Sam and Dave song percolating in the background. "There was a presidential election that created a racial divide, and there was a flu pandemic that they said would kill a million people around the world. But it was 1968... and that's the state our country was in."

Surprise! Turns out that 1968 was more like 2021 than you might think.

What I love most about this new Wonder Years is how it balances coming-of-age moments which are universal for middle class Americans – bullies at school, wanting your crush to notice you, struggling not to embarrass yourself at a Little League game – with stuff that was specific to Black families like mine.

Dean's dad cautions him that setting up a Little League game against a white team might not end well. When Dean asks about certain subjects his parents are talking about, he's reprimanded with a curt command: "Stay out of grown folks' business." Dean has to wonder if his white teacher is racist in a way that might actually help him and gets beat up in school for acting too white.

Elisha Williams plays Dean Williams in The Wonder Years reboot.
Erika Doss / ABC
Elisha Williams plays Dean Williams in The Wonder Years reboot.

And a twist at the episode's end brings home how different this era can be for Black folks hoping to reach toward equality in the years to come.

A recent rewatch of the original Wonder Years pilot from 1988, starring Fred Savage as 12-year-old Kevin Arnold and soon-to-be Home Alone costar Daniel Stern as his grown-up voice, reveals a show positioned as a baby boomer's manifesto. Kevin is heading into middle school struggling to balance his geeky friends, overbearing siblings, a simmering crush on a neighbor and the occasional intrusion of bigger events, including — spoiler alert — the death of a neighborhood boy drafted to serve in the Vietnam War.

Filled with needle drops worthy of The Big Chill soundtrackWhen a Man Loves a Woman, Turn, Turn, Turn and With a Little Help From My Friends were in the pilot episode alone – the show explained the formative years of a generation reared in a suburban paradise and tempered by war in Vietnam, sliding from the Age of the Greasers to the Age of The Hippies.

Their world was so white it almost hurts your eyes to look at it now.

One big reason changing the races of characters in a series reboot can make sense is because the adjustment can reclaim a bit of cultural space – allowing people of color to tell their own stories in a fictional world where they had previously been rendered invisible. (Though it is interesting that series star Fred Savage also serves as an executive producer for the reboot and directed the pilot episode.)

That's the real reason I enjoyed the new Wonder Years reboot so much. Here, I'm not the one trying to imagine how people like me would fit into a narrative set at such an important time.

And, just maybe, the rest of America might learn a little more about its history by seeing those pivotal moments from a perspective different than their own.

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.