The Wonder Years Was Wonderful

It’s been a lot of fun this month to visit a variety of eras in my blog series: “Timeless Comedies: Living in the Past.” Last week we learned more about the fifties on Happy Days. Today we travel a few short years and end up in 1968 where we get to know Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) on The Wonder Years.

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Debuting in 1988 following the Superbowl Game that winter, The Wonder Years is narrated by an older Kevin; it described the life of a 12-year-old boy which is what viewers see. The show would last till 1993, and we were able to follow Kevin in his journey from a preteen to a man. The series produced 115 episodes during its time on the air.

Husband and wife Neal Marlens and Carol Black created the coming-of-age show. Kevin experienced all the typical angst and joy of an American kid growing up in the turbulent sixties. From heart-warming to heart-breaking, we journeyed with Kevin through the ups and downs of growing up.

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Kevin lives with his father Jack (Dan Lauria), his mom Norma (Ally Mills), his older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo), and his annoying older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey). We also get to know Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and his girlfriend Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). Although Kevin narrates the show, it’s narrated from an adult perspective and voiced by Daniel Stern. The narrator for the pilot was Ayre Gross. Later Stern re-recorded the episode so it matched the future shows on DVD.

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Both the critics and viewers loved this show. After only six episodes aired, the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

The theme song was Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

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When Black and Marlens began casting, all five casting directors they spoke with recommended Fred Savage for the role of Kevin. He had recently been in The Princess Bride. Finding an actress for Winnie became a bit harder. After narrowing down the choices, the creative couple were looking at two sisters, Danica and Crystal McKellar.  It was practically a toss-up, but in the end, they chose Danica.  However, they liked Crystal so much, they wrote her into the show as Becky Slater as an alternate girlfriend for Kevin in the later episodes.

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In the pilot episode, Winnie’s older brother is killed in Vietnam. When Kevin consoles her, they end up having their first kiss. It truly was both the actors’ first kiss, so there is a tension there that made it touching. There is always an interest between the two but Winnie starts dating an eighth grader Kirk McCray, and Kevin eventually goes steady with Becky. When he realized he couldn’t shake his feelings for Winnie, he breaks up with Becky. Winnie goes through a similar process. The two share a second kiss at the beginning of their summer vacation the next year but continue to be just friends for a while.

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Winnie and Kevin eventually become a couple. Not long after, Winnie moves. While her house is only a few miles away, she must change schools. The two continue their relationship for a while until Winnie becomes interested in another boy at her new school.

The three schools that Kevin and Winnie attend are RFK Junior High, Lincoln Junior High, and McKinley Senior High. All three were named for famous political men who were assassinated. Another fun fact about the schools is that whenever the kids were in the cafeteria, they have green Jell-O.

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Winnie and Kevin would get back together again after she is injured in a car crash. They both attend the same high school and date much of that time.

It was tough for both the producers and the cast when you have minors on the set because you have to follow child labor laws. Savage explained his frustration at times. “You have to get at least three hours of school in every day. So, whenever I’m on a break, I go to school. It’s really intense because I have to get a lot done in short periods. And it’s hard because if they need you back on the set, they pull you away every twenty minutes. If you’re writing an essay and suddenly get inspired, you’ve got to stop and go back to work.”

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Black and Marlens left the show after season one.  I never found a reason listed, but some sources claimed it was because they were having a baby and wanted to escape the Hollywood environment and bring up their children somewhere else.

The show was cancelled in 1993. It was getting harder to keep the plot innocent and fitting for the primetime slot people were used to with a seventeen-year-old. Escalating costs and declining ratings also took their toll. When the final episode of the series aired, the cast still was not sure if this was the final show or if it would be coming back for a seventh season, so the finale was not as smooth or wrapped up as the team wanted.

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I’m sure one of the questions people ask Fred and Danica was were they also in love. The fact and fictional parts of the show blurred a bit. Both Fred and Danica mentioned in a People interview that they had a crush on each other at one time or another. Fred said, “I was in love with her for the same reasons every other boy fell in love with her.”  He also said, “You won’t meet a sweeter, nicer girl—and she’s gorgeous.” Danica also talked about her crush. “In the beginning we had a mutual crush. Then things went into the teasing stuff and then into a more comfortable, brother-sister thing.”

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Another blurring was some of the script language. I remember Sherwood Schwartz’s daughter complaining that something happened in her life and then it ended up on The Brady Bunch. In a similar manner, some of the writers incorporated things Fred and Danica said to each other off camera into the scripts.

Jason Hervey improvised some of the scenes he had with Kevin. Jason remembered some of the things his older brother did to him and in turn tormented Kevin with them. There are a few scenes when Wayne has to drop Kevin off or pick him up, and he would keep inching the car forward as his little brother tried to get in or out. That happened to him in real life.

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Finally, the show mirrored life in that on the show Paul Pfeiffer attended Harvard to become a lawyer. In real life, Josh Saviano also became a lawyer, after attending Yale.

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The show has held up surprisingly well in reruns. It’s similar to M*A*S*H. You know the show is set in Korea in 1950, but the themes it demonstrates are timeless and the relationships could occur in other times and places.

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The Wonder Years works for the same reasons. Neither Kevin nor Winnie are the most popular kids in the school, but they are two of the nicest. If you ever looked back in an old yearbook from junior year or high school, you’ll see kids that you kick yourself for not dating. At the time, they just weren’t the popular kids everyone was interested in, but you realize they were the kids you should have ended up with. Although this show is set with the backdrop of the sixties when times were unpredictable, the primary subject of the show is the relationships Kevin has with this friends and family. The reality and sentimentality of those relationships is the same whether you watch a show from the 1940s, the 1960s, or the 1990s.

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Do yourself a favor if you never watched the show or haven’t seen it in a couple decades and treat yourself to a week-end of binge watching. It only gets better with age.

Just “Ellen”: The First Ellen DeGeneres Show

I remember watching Ellen when it first aired. I don’t recall many details, but I remember it being funny and the characters rang true to me. I recently watched the episode about bowling for another blog (see September 3, 2018), and it prompted me to take a closer look at the show.

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Ellen DeGeneres was born in Metairie, Louisiana into a middle-class family. When she was sixteen, her parents divorced and later when her mother remarried, she moved to Atlanta, Texas with her new husband and children. Ellen started college but decided it wasn’t for her and made her living in various jobs before trying stand-up comedy. Only four years after graduating from high school, she was touring the nation with her comedy. In 1986 she would appear on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

From 1989-1990, Ellen starred as Margo Van Meter in Open House. Open House was about a real estate company. Ellen played the man-hungry secretary. In 1992 she gave sitcoms another try, portraying Nancy MacIntyre on Laurie Hill. This time the show was about the medical profession, and Ellen was a nurse with a great sense of humor.

Ellen appeared in a handful of shows and movies and then received her own show, Ellen, not to be confused with The Ellen Show which debuted in 2001 or The Ellen DeGeneres Show which aired in 2003 and is still going strong. Ellen ran on ABC from 1994-1998. The show was created at an interesting time in her career. Now a household name, Ellen had established herself as a respected comedian but was not the typical star who carried a self-named sitcom. Think of The Doris Day Show, The Jimmy Stewart Show, or The Joey Bishop Show, all well-established stars.

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Ellen was created by Carol Black, Neal Marlens, and David S. Rosenthal. (Black and Marlens had created Growing Pains and The Wonder Years as well. Rosenthal would go on to produce many successful series.) Originally titled “These Friends of Mine”, the show is centered around Ellen Morgan, a bookstore employee and her friends and coworkers, whose lives become intertwined. Like Seinfeld, the show was primarily about Ellen’s relationship with her quirky friends and dealing with day-to-day life and issues. Ellen works at “Buy the Book” bookstore. She lives in an apartment with Adam (Arye Gross), a college friend.  Adam just can’t find the right woman and gets dumped often.

Recurring characters throughout the series were Ellen’s parents, Harold (Steven Gilborn) and Lois (Alice Hirson). Her dad is a bit naïve. Her mom spends a lot of time interfering in Ellen’s life. At one point, they plan on getting divorced but later reconcile.

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Clea Lewis

Ellen’s friend Holly (Holly Fulgar) is only seen in season one. She is very shy and introverted but would like to be an extrovert. Anita is another first-season friend who is not seen in subsequent years. Joe (David Anthony Higgins) is a sarcastic Canadian and the coffee barista at the bookstore café. He becomes closer to Ellen as the series continues. Audrey (Clea Lewis) began as Ellen’s neighbor and eventually becomes a coworker as well. Audrey has a high voice and is extremely perky and cheerful and she loves pink. She was born into a wealthy family but has put her money aside for a job at the bookstore.

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During season two, Joely Fisher joined the cast as Ellen’s friend Paige. She works for a movie studio and is a little arrogant. Paige had previously dated Spence (Jeremy Pivens), Ellen’s cousin, and she leaves her fiancé at the altar to resume the relationship.

The show always did well in the ratings but because some of the characters were more appealing than others, most of the main cast was dropped for the third season.

The theme song from season three on was an altered version of “So-Called Friend” by a Scottish band, Texas. A running gag on the show centered around the altered lyrics which changed from time to time. The lyrics resulted in different opening sequences as Ellen searched for the perfect opening.

During season three, Adam moves out when his character takes a job in England. and Ellen lives alone. Eventually her cousin Spence moves in. Spence has been going to medical school but wrestles with a career decision, going to law school for a bit before returning to the medical profession.

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During the fourth season, Ellen buys her first house. Paige is still having a hard time adjusting to Ellen’s being out of the closet but accepts it at the end of the fourth year. Another change during season four is the arrival of Ed who manages the bookstore. He often disagreed with Ellen on how to run the business.

Of course, you can’t discuss the show without talking about a 1997 episode, “The Puppy Episode” that made television history. DeGeneres revealed that she was gay in real life which the writers and producers decided to carry over into the sitcom, making Ellen Morgan the first openly gay sitcom character who was the star of a show. Other gay characters appeared on shows; e.g., Billy Crystal as Jodie was a gay character in Soap, but he wasn’t the star. Ellen’s therapist on the show was Oprah Winfrey. The revelation caused a lot of controversy and media exposure.

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While the show made it easier for gay characters on television in the future, it didn’t help Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres not only was chastised by members of society who didn’t approve of gay characters, she also was criticized by the LGBT community as well. They were unhappy when she said she never wanted to be a role model for LGBT. “I was looked at as the new leader, and I didn’t want to be a leader and I didn’t want to be political . . . I just wanted to be free from a secret and that’s all I wanted.” She was portrayed as not gay enough for some groups and too gay by others, a no-win situation.

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With so much controversy, I think the powers that be on the show could not make the announcement and then ignore it but to put too much emphasis on it detracted from the relationship all the characters were involved in. Most of the subsequent episodes focused too much on the gay issues, destroying the camaraderie of the group by focusing more on one character. Rather than shows being about the group or even Ellen, it was about being gay. Ratings declined and the show was cancelled, but it had an impact, making way for gay characters in the television community. Despite all the backlash the show received for featuring a gay character, Will and Grace debuted the same year Ellen was cancelled and became a huge hit.

Of course, Ellen DeGeneres would go on to become a superstar with an award-winning talk show and a producer extraordinaire of eclectic shows. She does games shows, she has a line of home goods and shoes on QVC, and she has hosted a design competition on HGTV. Like Oprah, she has the avenues open now to explore whatever types of shows capture her interest. I have not seen Ellen on syndication in years, but episodes exist on YouTube. The DVDs were released from 2004-2006.

It’s too bad the show could not return to its original premise. Like Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it had a cast of interesting personalities that had a special bond. Ellen DeGeneres received Golden Globe nominations for best comedy actress for the show three of its seasons. Joely Fisher received best supporting actress in 1998. Ellen also received the Emmy nomination for best comedy actress every year from 1994-1998. The show was also nominated for Emmys for directing, writing, and guest stars. It was a hilarious show, and it would have been amazing to see how long it could have lasted if it had not been forced off the air for non-creative reasons.

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As I mentioned, I recently watched the bowling episode which brought out Ellen’s competitive streak. I remembered how funny the show was and what an amazing ensemble cast the show featured. I will definitely watch more episodes.