The original late ‘80s comedy The Wonder Years opens with a montage: clips of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering an impassioned speech cut together with images of Nixon throwing up his iconic peace signs between videos of burning buildings and history-defining protests, all overlaid with a retrospective voiceover from an adult Kevin Arnold. It’s in this meeting of 1968 America’s rapidly shifting culture and the golden years of youth that set the tone for the rest of the series.
The Wonder Years revival is holding tight to the tenets of the original, while simultaneously updating it to speak to a new generation of viewers. It is a clear return to what made the series so special—heart, humor, earnestness—but make no mistake: Dean Williams is not the Black Kevin Arnold. And that’s by design.
Elisha “EJ” Williams, plays Dean, the awkward, bright-eyed twelve-year-old lead in the reboot. Though this isn’t his first turn at a major role (he voiced a lead in Disney Junior’s Puppy Dog Pals), EJ says The Wonder Years has been a definite change of pace. One thing that’s made it easier, though, is the encouragement from Fred Savage (who executive produces the reboot and starred in the original) to diverge from his portrayal of Kevin whenever possible.
“[Fred is] great at putting me in the spotlight to have my own way, to be in my own lane,” EJ says. But, he explains, due to the nature of the show—playing a young boy navigating first loves, evolving friendships, and attempting to carve out his way in the world—some similarities are to be expected.
“Kids are going to be kids. So, in a lot of ways, [Dean and Kevin] can relate. But Dean has, I hate to say it, different problems that most kids didn’t have at that time.”
Those “different problems” have everything to do with race, which the show makes no attempt to shy away from. In the opening narration, Don Cheadle—who voices the adult Dean—begins with a familiar refrain for many Black viewers: “Growing up, Mom and Dad gave me ‘the police talk,’ about how to handle yourself around cops.”
It’s an early effort to distinguish the show from its predecessor and anchor it in a timely conversation about police violence against Black people in America. But just as the show aims to portray a middle-class Black family as they contend with race relations in Civil Rights Movement-era Alabama, the new Wonder Years holds love and humor at its core. Black Lightning star Laura Kariuki, who plays Dean’s older sister Kim Williams, says the show has a vested interest in meeting every moment of heaviness with ones of equal light.
“I want people, when they walk away from the show, to see that it wasn’t all pain and strife, that it was a lot of joy and happiness,” Laura says. “Yes, there’s still racism in the world, but you still have crushes. You still go to school. You still have arguments with your family.”
One of the ways The Wonder Years reboot turns a fresh eye towards the United States’ complex past is by establishing Kim as a clear break from characters we’ve often seen on screen before. She is a self-assured, dark-skinned Black girl, who, from the moment she’s introduced, is presented as both desirable (the first time we see her, she’s necking—yes, I said necking!—in the front seat of a car) and determined. Not to mention, she’s a revolutionary in the making.
The show is set in 1968, the year the Black Panthers reached the peak of their prominence in the United States. As the nation is brought to its knees in the wake of a tragedy at the end of the pilot, Kim, seemingly frustrated with the consequences of pacifism, turns to the teachings of the Panthers as a path forward.
Her passion for change is the driving force for the rebellious streak she’s embarking on this season, Laura says—a passion that in many ways mirrors her own: “I feel like at any [time in history], people have the same feelings about wanting to make change and being so frustrated with what’s going on in the world. I’m feeling that now.”
The backdrop of both the original and the reboot are as timely now as ever, she adds: “History repeats itself. Yes, it’s a different time period, but there’s still so many parallels.”
While their characters are navigating the complicated dynamics of coming-of-age on screen, playing the role of Dean, EJ says, has been a real-life education as well. (It’s worth mentioning here that when EJ was offered the role by Savage and Saladin K. Patterson—writer and executive producer on the reboot—his reaction, in true middle schooler fashion, was: “You guys have made my day. First I get out of school early!”)
“When I was younger, I used to always think, whenever I heard stuff about what happened back in the old days, ‘Why do you want to tell me that? That’s just all depression,” EJ says. “But now that I’m in a situation where the whole entire show is based off that time . . . it’s helped me learn.”
According to EJ and Laura, as the season unfolds, we’ll continue to see the Williams family and the country step into a new era. But whatever comes next, we can be sure of one thing: This iteration of The Wonder Years is not your parents’ The Wonder Years. And that’s okay.
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