TV’s ‘60s: War and Remembrance : Success Turns Into Mixed Blessing for Creators of ‘Wonder Years’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Neal Marlens and Carol Black, the creators of ABC’s “The Wonder Years,” had plenty of time last season to hand-craft each episode of the nostalgic comedy, which reminisces about life in suburbia circa 1968 through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy.

After all, there were only six episodes. The run was short but sweet--the show won favorable reviews, was picked up for fall and netted an Emmy Award as the season’s best comedy series.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 1, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 1, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 10 Column 6 Television Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In an article Wednesday about “The Wonder Years,” The Times incorrectly identified the actress who plays the mother on the ABC comedy. The character is portrayed by Alley Mills.

Success, however, is turning out to be a mixed blessing for the husband and wife executive-producing team of Marlens, 32, and Black, 30. The proud parents of the show, which launches its second season tonight at 9, are sometimes having to leave their offspring with a baby-sitter.


“Last season, we could really do each episode ourselves,” Black said in a recent conversation at the show’s Culver City headquarters. “Now that we’re doing 22, we had to put together a staff, involve other people in what we’re doing, delegate responsibility a little. We’re torn between wanting to maintain the tone of the show, and wanting to let individual writers have their input, too.”

“We’re trying to trust other people’s creative impulses,” Marlens added. “But it’s a hard thing to do when you’re asking people to get inside your head alittle bit, especially with a show like this that doesn’t follow traditional sitcom style and structure.”

Marlens and Black have brought in a new co-executive producer, Bob Brush, who worked with Jay Tarses last season on “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” and two new staff writers, Matthew Carlson and Dave Stern; the whole team has been sitting down together to watch and study last season’s episodes.

One of the rare half-hour comedies that is neither filmed before a studio audience nor imbued with a laugh track, “The Wonder Years” is even more distinctive because it has a narrator--the disembodied voice of the adult Kevin Arnold, harking back to his junior high school experiences in 1968, a time when “there were moments of sorrow and wonder.” The series stars 12-year-old Fred Savage as the young Kevin.

Marlens and Black ruefully admit that the narrator has been a stumbling block for free-lance writers.

“We’ve found that literally everybody who writes the show for the first time uses the narrator excessively,” Marlens said. “It’s such a fun thing to write, first of all. And it’s so easy to create the illusion that you’re writing yourself out of a corner.”

Added Black, giggling: “It came up as our ‘Wonder Years’ parody ending: We’d have the narrator say at the end, ‘You know, the events that happened that day still don’t really make sense to me. Maybe they never will. . . .”

Black noted that a show like “Wonder Years” could become a parody for real if the delicate balance of comedy and pathos is not maintained. The show’s Emmy-winning pilot episode successfully kept from wallowing in melodrama even when focused on two heart-tugging events: Kevin learned of the Vietnam death of a neighbor he worshiped and got his first kiss from that neighbor’s little sister, Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar).

“A show can become formula so fast,” Black mused. “And you don’t want to create that moment --that special ‘Wonder Years’ moment--every week: ‘It made me laugh, it made me cry.’ You don’t want to become a parody of yourself.”

“Especially,” Marlens added wryly, “because it can be argued that parodying yourself is the best way to become a successful television show.”

Marlens and Black said that it will still be 1968 in the series this season and Kevin will still be in the seventh grade. They plan to spend more time than last season exploring the lives of Kevin’s parents (Olivia D’Abo, Dan Lauria), but everything will still be filtered through the boy’s eyes.

“One of the appeals of our show is that people can say, ‘I remember that.’ It’s not really profound or anything, it’s just sort of fun,” Marlens said.