Reeling in the Bittersweet ‘Wonder Years’ : With Rising Costs, Aging Cast, Series Comes to a Close
“The Wonder Years” ends as Kevin Arnold loses his virginity.
At least, that’s the way the producers wrote it. ABC executives didn’t like that scenario, however. So the climactic scene of tonight’s finale was shot in a way that leaves what happened to the viewer’s imagination.
And therein lies the reason that Bob Brush, the show’s adoptive father and executive producer, believes this is the right time to bring the Emmy Award-winning series about adolescence to a close.
“There has always been a question,” he said, “of just how long the wonder years last. As the kids were developing and getting older, there were of course new stories to tell, but the tension and constraints of the deadline of the concept of the wonder years were beginning to press on us.”
As Kevin (Fred Savage) has grown from the doe-eyed, impish 12-year-old he was when “The Wonder Years” began in 1988, the battle with ABC’s standards department has gotten worse, Brush said.
“When he became 16 and 17, there were really things he needed to get to that we couldn’t do at 8 p.m., especially with the kind of venerable cachet that the show had obtained with its audience,” he said. “We would get notes from the network saying, ‘You could do this on any show besides “The Wonder Years.” ’ “
Last season, for example, Brush said he ran into a “buzz saw” with the network because Kevin put his hand on a girl’s breast, even though it was shot and handled in “a mature and subtle way.”
“They said, ‘No one in the history of television at 8 p.m. has ever touched a breast,’ ” recalled Michael Dinner, executive producer and director of many episodes, who had to cut 1 1/2 seconds of offending footage to mollify the network.
An ABC spokeswoman explained that the broadcast standards department “felt it was inappropriate to present Kevin’s sexual awakening because of the setting in the 1960s, the gentle tone of the series and, most importantly, the 8 p.m. time period"--when many young children were watching.
“The show was largely viewed by young audiences who watch with their parents,” she added. “And we had to be considerate of the viewer expectation that they could watch together and feel comfortable doing so.”
The real killer of the series, however, was economics, not prudishness. As Kevin aged, especially after he got his driver’s license, the producers felt compelled to shoot more scenes on location, away from the Arnold home. Coupled with escalating cast salaries, the budget soared to a whopping $1.2 million per half-hour episode, Brush said. Many hourlong dramas are shot for less.
The ending aside, tonight’s hourlong conclusion is not the episode that Brush would have wanted to write as the series’ finale, had he been given the opportunity. That would have dealt with how the winding down of the Vietnam War mirrored the winding down of the years of wonder. But since he did not know for sure if the series would be canceled until after the episode was shot, he had to settle for a finale that suggests Kevin’s breaking with the people from his childhood and looking ahead to his adult future.
“It’s a show about suburban images--sort of a salute to them,” said Dinner, who directed the finale. “It’s the last Fourth of July he ever spent in that town. It’s also about standing up to his father and then reconciling with him. It’s one last recollection of his icons of childhood.”
“Some viewers will be surprised that nothing works out the way your fondest wish would be,” Brush said. “The message I wanted in there is that that’s part of the beauty of life. It’s fine to say, ‘I’d like everything to be just the way it was when I was 15 and I was happy,’ but it seemed more nurturing to me to say that we leave these things behind and we go on to forge new lives for ourselves.
“The mail is coming in now and everyone wants a real traditional kind of sitcom end, which is everyone hugs and everything is OK between Kevin and Winnie (Danica McKellar)--and there is some of that. It’s not a bitter ending at all. But I never looked at us as being in the business of providing America with a happy half-hour.”
Created by Carol Black and Neal Marlens, who handed the show over to Brush after the first six episodes, “The Wonder Years” won the Emmy for best comedy its first year and captured several others for writing and directing in subsequent seasons. When it aired ahead of “Roseanne” on Tuesdays, its ratings were blockbuster.
But with the move to 8 p.m. Wednesdays two seasons ago, both the ratings and the accolades seemed to fade.
Though Brush--who formerly wrote and produced “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story” and “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd"--has doubts about finding another show as creatively satisfying, bidding farewell to Kevin Arnold is not cause for grief.
“It’s funny. You work on the last episode, and I’m looking up that street that I saw Kevin walk down and ride his bike down and drive his car down, and I’m OK with it. I feel like, yeah, it’s time to go. And in terms of what TV is aspiring to, which is not much, I’m not sure there is another ‘Wonder Years’ waiting in the wings. But I feel like a body of work has been completed. I have some regrets that a lot of episodes were not a lot better. But I feel like the narrator: that this halftime of sitting around telling childhood stories is over and it’s time to go play with my own kids.”