[Warning: The following contains spoilers from the Wednesday, Oct. 13 episode of The Wonder Years, "The Work Place." Read at your own risk!]
ABC's "Return to Wonder" event on Wednesday, Oct. 13 featured stars of the original The Wonder Years guest-starring in three of the network's Wednesday night comedy block sitcoms -- Fred Savage on The Conners, Danica McKellar on Home Economics, and Dan Lauria on The Goldbergs. The re-imagined Wonder Years, starring Dulé Hill as the Williams' family patriarch Bill, also had their own tribute to the original series. Hill performed his own cover of The Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends," as a nod to the Joe Cocker version that served as the theme song to the original show.
As part of (an almost forgotten) Take-Your-Son-to-Work-Day agenda, Bill brings Dean along to one of his studio sessions to see just how the old man lays down funk-tinged tracks with his bandmates. Just a few bars into the groove riff their playing, sharp-eared, long-memoried TV fanatics immediately recognize Bill's funked-up take on "With a Little Help from My Friends," the enduring tune penned by John-Lennon and Paul McCartney and first sang by Ringo Starr on 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Cocker's version arrived in 1968 (the same year as the show's setting) and was so effectively used as the original Wonder Years' opening theme two decades later.
The new version of the classic song -- which Hill also gets to sing on the show -- gives it as fresh a spin as Cocker did 50 years earlier, fusing it to a funkier beat and smoother vocal that evokes the Black lens the new series, still set in 1968, uses to explore the changing times and coming of age themes -- and a comedic tweak, thanks to Dean's saxophone reveries. Though the episode shifts to a story more focused on Dean's discovery of his mom Lilian's professional persona, it's a charming moment of homage to an era-defining, and series-defining, song. Hill dished to TV Guide on that more-than-Easter Eggy tribute to the Fred Savage-headlined first series of the '80s and '90s.
Not only did you make your Wonder Years singing debut in character, but you did it with a particular, very significant song. Tell me what that experience was like and how you geared up for it?
Dulé Hill: At first I think it was a little bit of trepidation, and I was like, "I'm sorry -- what are we doing? And you want me to sing what?" Because it's such an iconic song...You can really mess that up badly if you don't do it right. I think that for myself, that's always what I go through though, for any role that I play...I played Nat King Cole a few years ago on stage, and it was the same thing. "I'm sorry, you want me to do what?" I think that is just a part of the process of creation, of having that first reaction. And then I got excited about it. I got excited to be able to step into the studio with Jacob Yoffee and Roahn Hilton, who were our music supervisors. They brought me into the studio and we worked it out.
It was daunting. Especially when I found out where they wanted to go with the song, it was daunting. But as an artist, I always lean into those type of challenges. And for me, in the end, it ended up being exciting and inspiring for me. I hope that the audience appreciates it, I hope they enjoy it. And it was an honor for me to sing that song on this show. And to do any singing in our way. Because we didn't just do the same song. Of course, you got to add your own flavor to it. And I hope that folks appreciate the flavor that we're offering up.
How would you define the particular flavor that you guys brought to it?
Hill: How would I define that flavor? You just add your little thing on it. I don't even know how to explain that. It's like anything you do, you have to make it your own – otherwise, why are you doing it? It's the same thing with the show, if you're not telling this story and making it our own, making it unique, sharing this story, then why are you doing it? There has to be a different little energy to it, a different flavor to it. If you're going to offer it up, then let me taste something different.
You see, comparing the re-imagined, this version of The Wonder Years to the original version of The Wonder Years, it's the same thing, I think, with the song. If you're going to sing the song, then sing your song – don't sing his song; sing your song. So how does Bill Williams sing his song? You know what I mean? And I'm always... as an artist I'm not so cerebral in all that I do. It's hard for me sometimes to take it from what's inside of me and put it into words. But it is something that I just innately understand inside of myself, if that makes any sense. I think it makes art art, and that's what makes the artists who they are is, what do you bring to this equation?
Was there anything else about the episode that was especially either challenging or exciting or just made you say "Yes, this our Wonder Years?"
Hill: In totality, what I loved about the episode is that we don't always stick to what is expected. I love how... we saw a little bit in last week's episode, where what you think is not exactly what is. Let's say for example, with the adult magazines, it was assumed that it was Bill Williams' magazines, but it was not. I love that as we go into this episode, what we assume in terms of who Lillian is and what she brings to her workspace is not. I love how we show that she's a very progressive woman who was out there doing her thing, knocking down walls, chipping away at it in her way and doing the unexpected. Especially in terms of Dean's mind. So that's something that I appreciated about the episode as a whole.
In terms of myself, the challenge for me was singing the song and shooting that aspect of the show, of seeing me on camera, playing the guitar, singing this song. That was the biggest challenge for me, but also the basic excitement for me. It wasn't a challenge that scared me into running the opposite direction. It was a challenge that inspired me to lean forward. Like "Yeah, let's go. This is why we're here. Let's do it. This is the song that we are trying to sing." And in the end, I'm really proud of how it came out. And I hope that the audience appreciates it and hope that it brings back some nostalgia to the original, but also brings some joy into where we are now in the story that we're trying to tell today.
How much was The Wonder Years -- the original version -- a part of your own growing-up experience? Was it something that was a regular appointment TV kind of thing for you, or were you more passingly familiar with it?
Hill: In the late '80s you didn't have as many options, and if you missed something then, maybe you put it on VHS or Beta, but most of the time it was, you watched it when it came on. So it was appointment television for me, along with a lot of other shows that were out at that time. I always say that it wasn't a water cooler talk; it was a water fountain talk, because in school we didn't have water coolers. But everyone had a crush on Winnie Cooper and everyone knew Kevin Arnold. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, so there was a lot that I could relate to. So I did watch the show when it was out. But I also was very aware that I didn't see myself reflected in the show the way that I would have desired. A lot of my friends watched the show and we all were into it.
The show is going into uncomfortable territories, with a little bit more poignancy and pathos. What does it mean to you to be able to use this framework to tell stories that resonate and hit a little deeper today?
What I'll say is, one, it goes back to the brilliance of Saladin Patterson in collaboration with the entire writing staff, Fred Savage, and all the creatives because to be able to tell a story that has levity, has humor, but also has heart, that entertains, but also enlightens, that can be powerful and profound, it takes a skilled hand to be able to do that. To look back with nostalgia on challenging times, but also to be able to find the love and connectivity within the family at that time. It's not something that's easy to do. I love the idea of being able to tell those kinds of stories. America's a very diverse nation. Oftentimes what's put out there is that this particular aspect of America is what America is and that's just not true.
There are so many stories within this country to share that are regular American stories about regular American families. America is a big melting pot, and all of our stories, all of our unique stories, are what makes America who she is. So telling this version of The Wonder Years, I'm excited about it, I'm hopeful about it, that hopefully, it will allow people to see themselves in some aspects of it, but also understand a different experience in other aspects of it.
That's why I do like the setting of the story. Being set in Alabama in the 1960s, because the experience of the 1960s is different for the Williams family than it was for the Arnold family. There are a lot of things that are very similar, but I think if Kevin Arnold and Dean Williams got together and talked, there would be a lot of things that were similar, but there are other things that I think they both could learn from each other by just talking. And that's what I feel like this shows hopefully doing, which is allowing us to go beyond our four walls. Even though this show and even the original show is letting people into our four walls, it is also hopefully inspiring people to go beyond their four walls to see what it was like for someone else, through the lens of somebody else. A fellow American, a fellow citizen in this country, another family.
And this is only one other version of The Wonder Years. There really could be numerous versions of The Wonder Years telling stories about regular American families. Because the thing about what makes it an American family, a regular American family, is that it's not regular. Each story is unique. That is what being an American family is to me, is that we all are unique. But we all have value and all of our stories are important and all of our stories matter and all of our stories should be shared so that we all can hopefully connect and understand each other as we go forward in our tomorrow.