I am certain that there are enough and more Indian fans of popular sitcoms like ‘Friends’ or ‘How I met your mother’. But for the 80s generation, I guess one of the most popular series of our times was ‘The Wonder Years’.
I remember watching it in mid 90s on our local cable network. It was pre-internet era and you took your entertainment when you could grab it. There were no re-runs and often your schedule ensured a few skips. But it was all the more reason to ensure to manage watching the TV series that had Kevin Arnold written all over it.
Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) played the role of an average teenage kid who grew up in a middle class American family of the 60s. He has a fairly mixed up family with a reticent dad, an affectionate mother, a bossy brother and a hippie sister. He has a cute ‘girl-next-door’, Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), as his girl friend and a best buddy, Paul, who is nerdish but intelligent. His family has all the trappings of the middle class but not the patina of money and success. He is just an average kid who has his wits about him. He may not be as brainy as Paul (who eventually makes it to Harvard to study Law) but he is far better at judging people and social situations to manoeuvre his way around.
Well I did not quite know it like that when I saw the series myself. For me it was purely aspirational to watch the show – we could only wish to have a cool life just like him. I had just completed by High School and was about 18 years old. And yet I couldn’t have lived a life like that as a middle class kid in India. Liberalization had just started in the 90s and we were nowhere near the life we saw on the tube. No wonder we had a craze for anything associated with being ‘Foreign’ or ‘Imported’.
The story had its staying power and merits as well – I liked the throwback style of the narrative wherein Kevin is now in his mid 30s and is reminiscing (mostly in a pleasant manner) about his wonder years. The love story between Kevin and Winnie was surely one of sweet innocent love even for those conservative days. It was a family sitcom story – none of the uglier aspects of brazen behaviour like drugs, sex, or other kinds of abuse. No wonder it had more staying power in our mind and we all rooted for them to be united.
And yet the narrative was far from being hunky dory story – many episode were rather bittersweet and like life’s early lessons for a youngster. One particular episode that stayed in my mind was the one in which Kevin happens to visit his father at office and learns a bit about his father’s struggle in the corporate world. Kevin’s relationship with his father has been a strained one and he doesn’t often get his father’s moodiness and reticence.
The penny drops somewhat when he does visit his dad and learns about his daily struggles. His dad even confides in him about wanting to be Captain of a Ship; instead he is a middle-level Manager in a Corporate set up. In true bittersweet style, the episode ends with a disaster where Kevin’s dad is pulled up by his boss.
Well that is no fairytale is it – but instantly it also strengthens Kevin’s relationship with his father as he is able to understand him better. And wasn’t it a standard prototype but most of us grew up with authoritative father figures who tended to talk less and keep their emotions (including pride) all bottled up. No wonder then that the kids felt a but lost and it was left to the lady of the house to mend things up.
Yet another strength of the show was its narrator, Daniel Stern, – it was an amazing voice-over act that pulls your attention to the story. It might even have been only a radio show if one were to go by it – but it is truly more than that.
It all seems academic now to dissect the theme but it was magical to watch it all unfold at that time. One could simply enjoy without having to analyze. It was a time in life where I had just stepped into my college, my father was set to retire in couple of years and my future was uncertain though I felt I knew quite well what I wanted to do with my life.
Run-ins with my father and others were as common as in Kevin’s life and I would be left wondering why it happened to me like that. Well that no longer happens to me today but that is just all the more a reason to celebrate my wonder years now just like Daniel Stern did on the show.