The term “spin-off” can carry a negative connotation. When you hear it, you may think of cash-grab projects designed by Hollywood executives for the sole purpose of squeezing out as much money as possible from a well-known brand. “The Wonder Years” reboot straddles the line between a spin-off of the 1988 series and something entirely new. The most noticeable difference between the two coming-of-age dramatic comedies is that while the original focused on Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage, “The Princess Bride”) as he grew up in a white, suburban town in 1968, the reboot focuses on Dean Williams (Elisha Williams, “Danger Force”) and his middle-class African-American family in the same time period.
A wide-eyed, 12-year-old boy, Dean doubts himself in comparison to his high achieving family members. Dean’s father, Bill (Dulé Hill, “Psych”), is a composed and principled musician who uses his go-to motto, “Be Cool,” for everything from minor mishaps at a family cookout to late-night police stops. Dean’s mother, Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh, “Respect”), is demanding but instills great values in her children.
Aside from carefully developing the Williams family, the pilot episode centers around a baseball game between Dean’s team and the white team across town. Dean and his two friends, Cory (Amari O’Neil, “NCIS”) and Brad (Julian Lerner, “Yes Day”), who are Black and Jewish respectively, seek to organize a scrimmage between the two clubs. Bill and Cory’s father, the coach, are originally against the idea because they fear that the white parents and players will be racist towards them. However, with the help of Lillian, Dean convinces them to allow the kids to play. Subplots include Dean’s crush on a girl, Keisa (Milan Ray, “Modern Love”), and struggles with the class bully, while the episode culminates with the family’s reaction to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
The reboot shares many themes with its predecessor: feeling out of place, the pain of liking a girl who doesn’t seem to share the same feelings, learning to deal with parents and simple childhood fun. The comedic styles of the two shows are similar as well. The format of the narrator, Dean as an adult, cracking jokes in between lines of dialogue, still works. Through these shared emotional arcs and methods of humor, “The Wonder Years” suggests that the human experience is universal. Dean deals with the same problems as Kevin. They live in similar settings. They face the same internal turmoil. However, if it were as simple as that, why would anyone tune into this reboot?
What separates the experience of Dean from that of Kevin is the additional stress that enters Dean’s life as a result of his race. The bully doesn’t attack Dean for an arbitrary characteristic, such as the way he looks; he beats him up for acting too white. In class, the teacher makes overtly racist remarks. These are issues Kevin never had.
In a perfect world, the experiences of Dean and Kevin could be the exact same. However, in 1968, that was just not the case. In the future, Adult Dean calls into question whether it could even be the case today, as he draws a comparison between the cultural setting of then and now, mentioning the issues of police profiling, a flu pandemic and a presidential election that stoked racial divides. He contemplates over shots of young Dean optimistically riding his bike down the street, with upbeat jazz music playing in the background. Yes, racial divisions and inequalities persist, but overall, children wants to play with their friends, fall in love, and enjoy time with their family. It’s up to all of us to ensure that one day, those will truly be the only things any kid growing up in America has to worry about.
Daily Arts Writer Aidan Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.