‘The Wonder Years’ revolutionizes Black middle-class families on TV

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September 21, 2021 1:21 p.m. EST
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When executive producers Saladin K. Patterson and Lee Daniels (yes that Lee Daniels, of The Butler and Precious fame) first started discussing the potential of a Black version of The Wonder Years, they knew it was an opportunity to go back and tell a story that had never been told before.

[video_embed id='2286653']Fall premiere week continues with 'The Wonder Years' [/video_embed]

The Wonder Years, which originally ran from 1988 to 1993, was the story of a boy named Kevin (Fred Savage) as he came of age, figured out his place amongst his family, crushed on a girl named Winnie (Danica McKellar), and hung out with his best friend Paul (Josh Saviano). It was narrated by Daniel Stern as Adult Kevin looking back at his “childhood” from an adult perspective.

This new Wonder Years very much follows suit, at least when it comes to premise and tone. It, too, is set in the late 1960s where a new narrator, Don Cheadle, recalls his character’s experiences growing up in Montgomery, Ala. Elisha Williams stars as the new lead, Dean Williams, and his parents are played by Dulé Hill (Psych) and Saycon Sengbloh (Respect).

Okay, so how is this Wonder Years different?

Think about the last time you saw a 1960s Black family in a movie or on TV. Almost always, the characters’ journeys are about trauma, oppression, loss and grief. The Wonder Years takes place during the Civil Rights Movement, and while those themes are present (because those themes are always present) they aren't the center or driving force of the story.  

“When you think of this time period in Black America, you don't really think of middle‑class Black people. You think impoverished; you think of what the media portrayed us to be,” said Lee Daniels during a Television Critics Association panel for the show.

“We wanted to really take the opportunity to show a part of Black middle-class life that had not been seen before,” added Patterson. “The perspective of the Black middle-class during that time specifically was something that stood out to Lee and then stood out to me as well when we first started talking about even doing a reimagining of this show,” he continued.

“We really gravitated towards sticking to The Wonder Years universe of the original, and really looking at this Black middle-class perspective during that time because we haven't really seen that represented on TV and film before.”

So tell me about this family, then.

In the 1968-set pilot, we meet the family of five through Dean’s 12-year-old eyes. His father is a music professor by day and a funk musician by night, and his mother is a university grad with a master of arts. His older sister Kim (Laura Kariuki) is popular and his offscreen older brother is the athlete.

That leaves Dean trying to find his place in the pilot. He settles on the “great uniter” as he attempts to organize the first integrated baseball game between his team and his friend Brad’s (Julian Lerner) team. Along the way, we also meet his crush, Keisha (Milan Ray) and his best friend, Cory (Amari O’Neil). Allen Maldonado rounds out the cast as Coach Long.

In the pilot, that baseball game and Dean’s relationship with his father—whom he very much looks up to—is front and center. There are hints of change within the community (the bus drives by the kids’ old school pre-desegregation, the teacher makes flippant racist remarks she thinks are helpful), but overall, it’s a safe space full of loving characters living their everyday lives.

Sounds interesting—anything else I should know?

Another notable difference between this family and the white-centered norm on television—during any decade—is that Daniels intentionally cast darker-skinned actors, rather than gravitating towards light-skinned Black actors, as is commonly the case in Hollywood.

It was particularly important to both Daniels and Patterson that they showcase darker actors and actively reject Hollywood's archetype.

“I think this is a first—there's so much Blackness on this damn show, I can't—it’s Blackness, you know?” Daniels said. “Over the years we have been brainwashed by studios and networks to think that the lighter… no shade to my light‑skinned brothers out there, I love you, but we have not been represented,” he continued.

“Darker people have not been represented on television as a family, as a unit. [This family isn’t] representative of what white people thought Black people looked like. So, this is a first, and I'm really excited about it.”

“We really wanted to represent the diaspora of Blackness, for sure, and some of that is in appearance and looks; some of it is just in the background, and in those individual stories that come from those mixtures of cultures,” added Patterson. “This is a good time to have these conversations; it's a good time to talk about representation; it's a good time to talk about different stories.”

I’m in, when can I watch it?

The Wonder Years debuts Wednesday, September 22 at 7:30 pET/PT on CTV

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[video_embed id='2284988']BEFORE YOU GO: Michaela Coel honours 'sexual assault' survivors [/video_embed]