'Wonder Years' Pays Its Respects to '60s Suburbia

Times Staff Writer

Inside each one of those identical plastic boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table, with its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle, there were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments . . . of sorrow and wonder.

--From the pilot of "The Wonder Years"

As defined by the Wonder Bread commercials that aired in the 1960s, the Wonder Years were the crucial growth period between ages 1 and 12--during which eating plenty of that marshmallowy, eminently squish-able white bread in the polka-dot plastic wrapper "helps build strong bodies 12 ways."

Neal Marlens, 31, and Carol Black, 30, remember Wonder Bread well. And in "The Wonder Years," their new half-hour comedy on ABC, they re-create the experience of growing up in the 1960s through the eyes of Kevin Arnold, a 12-year-old boy entering junior high school in American suburbia, 1968.

"The Wonder Years" pilot episode first aired Jan. 31 following ABC's Superbowl telecast; the series of six episodes returned March 15, beginning with a repeat of the pilot. Since then, the series has aired at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays behind ABC's hit "Who's the Boss?," where it has been drawing big ratings. It was the eighth most-watched program on TV last week--boosting its chances of being renewed for the fall.

In the show, the now 31-year-old Kevin Arnold is the off-screen narrator, reminiscing about growing up in a typical suburban household in the days "when a kid could still go for a long walk alone at dusk without ending up on a milk carton."

The young Kevin is portrayed by 11-year-old Fred Savage, whose credits include the feature films "The Princess Bride" and "Vice Versa."

The people in Kevin's little world include his bespectacled best friend Paul Pfieffer (Josh Saviano); Winnie Cooper, his first love (Danica McKellar); his uncommunicative father Jack (Dan Lauria); his bullying older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey); his older sister Karen (Olivia D'Abo), blossoming into adolescent hippie-hood, and his mother Norma (Alley Mills), stalwartly in control of maintaining status quo and making sure the Jell-O mold sets on time.

Although not the first writers to look back at the turbulent decade of the '60s, Marlens and Black are among the first to view the period from the perspective of those born at the tail end of the baby boom. In 1968, the youngest members of the TV generation were more concerned with the traumas of grade school or junior high than political upheaval or social reform, watching bemusedly while their older brothers and sisters went to Woodstock and got shipped off to Vietnam.

"By the time you were 12, the whole world had changed before you were exactly sure how to think about it," Black said during a recent conversation at the "Wonder Years" production office in Culver City.

Black and Marlens both grew up in East Coast suburbs and met while they were college students. After moving to Los Angeles, the pair, who are now married, pursued separate careers for a time. Although Black worked with Marlens on ABC's comedy "Growing Pains," which Marlens created, and they co-produced the feature film "Soul Man," "The Wonder Years" is the first project they have created together.

They remember their years in suburbia as a jumble of major world events and minor childhood concerns that somehow seemed equally important.

"I was in the kitchen making toast and the toaster caught on fire, and I heard on the radio that Martin Luther King (Jr.) had died," Black reminisced. "I went in to my mom and dad's bedroom and I said, 'Mom, Dad, the toaster caught on fire!' And then once that crisis was over, I said, 'And Martin Luther King was shot.' People getting shot was just something that happened every once in a while."

Added Marlens: "I was 8 years old when John Kennedy got shot. That sort of sets the tone, when you're 8 years old and the President gets shot. At that point, what else could have been surprising? That notion of instant crisis was something that became everyday."

Marlens noted that not only have recent TV shows and movies concentrated more on older baby boomers in their late 30s and early 40s--include on that list ABC's "thirtysomething" and the feature film "The Big Chill"--but they have also focused on the current disillusionment of that group, rather than looking back at its past.

Even though some in the TV industry have jokingly called "The Wonder Years" "twelvesomething" or "The Little Chill," Marlens said the show views the world with 12-year-old wonder rather than the disillusionment of radicals who have reluctantly entered the Establishment.

"We saw that a lot of the shows that seemed to be made by yuppies, baby boomers, people in their mid-30s to mid-40s, seemed to be so directly and literally about contemporary life," Marlens said. "I think there's some value in that, but it's also real dangerous. It's like looking in a mirror, which is not necessarily the best way to get a perspective on yourself."

"The Wonder Years" does borrow one element from "The Big Chill": the use of plenty of pop music of the era as a backdrop for the story. The producers said, however, that they don't plan to limit the selections to the classic pop hits that still turn up on the radio, but want to revive some of the unmemorable tunes and bubble-gum music popular with the teeny-boppers of the era.

"In some ways, that music brings back the period even more, because you really haven't heard those songs in 20 years," Black said.

But Marlens and Black both add that they want "The Wonder Years" to address the universal experiences of childhood, rather than be a statement about an era. "When the show becomes more about a period than about people growing up, then there's a problem with the way we're writing the show," Marlens said.

Through "The Wonder Years," Marlens and Black also hope once and for all to debunk the notion that everyone who grows up in the middle-class American suburbs, as they did, somehow ends up as pasteurized, processed and homogenized as a block of Velveeta cheese.

"It is, in a sense, an apology for being suburban and middle class," Marlens said.

Black added that the problems of the people in "The Wonder Years" are no less compelling because of the suburban setting.

"We just basically like doing small stories about ordinary people," she said. "You see those kinds of stories being done set in Texas during the rural Depression, or in the French countryside during the Occupation, and they seem very pithy and meaningful. But we didn't live in rural Texas during the Depression; we lived in the suburbs in the '60s."

Marlens acknowledged wryly that middle-class suburban Americans are not "a particularly victimized group," but added that they still have a valuable statement to make about the universality of human nature through the gentle humor of "The Wonder Years."

"We both went to small Eastern colleges, with a significant number of students from urban private schools," Marlens said. "They had a sort of attitude of superiority, that anything that happened in the suburban middle-class culture was significantly less important than anything that happened in the urban culture.

"At a certain point, you begin to question whether that is inherently the case. If middle-class suburban life is essentially dulling and uninVolving, then we're all in a lot of trouble, because a vast proportion of Americans come from that background."

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