When the original The Wonder Years first aired in 1988, it viewed the coming of age of young All-American Everyman Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) in the turbulent, culturally seismic 1960s from two decades of distance, hooking Baby Boomers with an alternately funny and moving blend of nostalgia and universality. But it only told a portion of the bigger story that unfolded during the game-changing era.
Today mentions of The Wonder Years evokes its own nostalgic feels, and a new incarnation of the series explores the other side of the equation, this time from a vantage point of over 50 years on: the late 1960s and onward were a rich period of growth and advancement for Black Americans, many of whom moved into the middle class and experienced opportunities long denied them for the first time, even as looming social and institutional obstacles continued to make the struggle a very real and constant part of their journeys.
With a new leading man in the form of Dean Williams (Elisha "EJ" Williams), a shy but sunny 12-year-old navigating a post-MLK world in the same way Kevin contended with a nation after the loss of JFK, filtered through the memories of his grown self, voiced with wistful wisdom by superstar Don Cheadle.
Executive producer and showrunner Saladin K. Patterson -- a seasoned television scribe and veteran of wildly beloved TV institutions includingFrasier, Psych, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory – convened with TV Guide to reveal how he re-imagined the classic series for a new generation of TV viewers, driven as much by a sense of authenticity as pervasive nostalgia. The process included getting by with a little from his friends: most notably, original series star turned accomplished TV director Savage and filmmaker/TV creator Lee Daniels (Empire), both of whom also executive produce the show.
Tell me creatively what struck the spark for you to want to reinterpret The Wonder Years. I'm sure like all of us you grew up on the original series, so what was the thing that made you say, "Yeah, I know I can do something with this"?
Saladin K. Patterson: When I was first approached by Lee Daniels and by 20th [Century Fox] to come up with the take of The Wonder Years, I'll be honest, my first inclination was to say no because, as you alluded to, I was a huge fan of the original. It meant so much in terms of the impact it had on TV, but also the impact it had on me, seeing reflected in front of me stories of coming of age. It was such a high bar to try to reach for to do any sort of remake of it.
What helped me wrap my head around being able to do it, though, was when I sat down with 20th and Lee Daniels' company, and they were very open and welcoming to me making it as specific a take as possible. And that led to me saying, "Okay, well, I don't want to do a reboot, then. Let's call it a new phrase for it: let's call it a re-imagining. It needs to be a whole new family" – which Lee had wanted to do anyway – "but let's give them a totally separate drive and storyline, experience." I was like, "My family's from Alabama. And if we're setting something in the late 60s and we want to do a Black family and we want to deal with some of the challenges that Black people would have had at that time, middle-class or not, why not set it in the South and hit these issues full-on, but also show a surprising side of that experience in the South as well?
And once 20th and Lee Daniels' company and ABC were welcoming to me kind of basing it loosely on my parents' experiences or my family members' experiences who came of age during that time and set it in Alabama, and I realized we had an opportunity to shine a light on how we're still dealing with some similar issues in society now, that kind of helped me wrap my head around, Okay, then I do think there's a way to re-imagine this show that feels on how wonderful," no pun intended, and great that the original Wonder Years was, but still shows it through a different lens and will give a contemporary audience a new perspective on some of those issues that a Black, middle-class family would have been having.
You're a little younger to have grown up in that exact period of time, right?
Patterson: That is correct. So I was born in '72, so if anything, I'm a child of the late 70s and then the 80s. So actually, the first thing I mentioned to them was like, "Hey, guys, my Wonder Years may have been a little later," but they really trusted me as a storyteller, and that actually helped me, like I said, wrap my head around what a contemporary version would look and what a re-imagining would look like. Because I was like, well, my parents and my aunts and uncles who were 12 in the late 60s, and my parents who were adults during that time, they have stories and a perspective that I haven't seen represented on TV yet, especially during that tumultuous time in the late 60s for Black people.
We did have nostalgia and joy that we were able to forge in spite of the obstacles, and I thought that could be a very uplifting story to tell. So that made me happy that it wasn't necessarily from my experiences because I would have been too close to that. I think I'm actually better able to tell the story based on my parents' and my family's experiences.
In terms of capturing that framework and the spirit of the original series, you have the advantage of creative input from Fred Savage, who along with being the star of the first series has since gotten thousands of hours of behind-the-camera television experience to his credit now. Tell me what his perspective has meant to the shaping of the new show.
Patterson: Once I came aboard and once I got 20th on board with the particular take I had, the first thing I said to them was, "I want to do this with Fred Savage." Fred and I had worked together a few years ago on another pilot for ABC that we shot that ended up not getting picked up to series, but we had such a good creative relationship. I certainly wanted to do something again with Fred.
But when this came up, there are the obvious reasons that it makes sense. Fred is our touchstone. He's our connection to the original. Everything that's great about what the original did for TV that we want to emulate, Fred lived it. He experienced it, both as an actor, but also he came of age as well through portraying that character. So he's invaluable in terms of consistency of tone, in terms of being able to kind of push the envelope, because that show was groundbreaking at the time.
Now, there are many shows that emulated it since then, but we find ourselves now in the TV landscape where there are not a lot of shows on broadcast TV that are unique in the way The Wonder Years was in terms of balancing drama and comedy, storytelling, unconventional storytelling, like you said, heart, things like that. So he is also kind of an ambassador for us, really pushing ABC out of its comfort zone and letting us do something that's going to feel unique right now. So I couldn't ask for a better creative partner. But outside of his affiliation with the original Wonder Years, Fred has developed himself and made a name for himself as a fantastic director in his own right. So I'm also benefiting from just his great skills as a director as well.
I'd guess probably the most daunting challenge you faced out of the gate was casting your Dean, and you seem to have nailed it. Tell me about finding Elisha "EJ" Williams.
Patterson: I love to hear that you feel that we picked the right kid to play Dean! EJ Williams is a very special kid. I've benefited from the Lee Daniels machine in that way in that we had two great casting directors, both of them, in New York and LA, and one of them is Lee's sister, Leah. But they had helped Lee cast the role in Precious.
Now, our role is not similar to that role at all, but what they did for Precious is they did a nationwide, international search because they wanted a unique character that hadn't been molded by TV and movies in the way that a lot of other characters had. And so we wanted that same thing for our main character. He needed to feel like a real kid, because we're not telling typical sitcom stories. We're trying to ground the show like the original was, and so we need a kid who can really play real moments of emotion, of ups and downs.
We didn't want a kid who'd been so rehearsed and put through the machine of kid actors to where he was skilled at hitting all the right precocious notes. We wanted a kid that felt real, and couldn't have done a better job than finding EJ. He is an old soul. He's pensive, he's thoughtful, so he gives us all the reflection that we need for the nostalgia. But he's a sweet kid, too, and he's a kid that you root for, the kid that I think everyone will look at and find something that they identify with in that kid, which is all you can ask for for a main character.
I know you and Dulé Hill have worked together before, but this is a whole new side of him – and I thought I'd seen just about everything he could do. What about Dulé told you that this was the perfect fit for him?
Patterson: When we sold the show to ABC, Dulé was the actor I had in mind from the get-go to play the Bill character. That's because people know and love Dulé already from The West Wing and Psych. But having had the privilege of working with Dulé for so many years, I knew there was so many sides to him that the world had not seen yet. He's so multi-talented as an actor, as a performer, as a dancer, as a singer, but also Dulé as a dad as well. He and I had had many discussions about fatherhood. He has a teen daughter like I do. He has a young son who's a toddler now. And I knew the life perspective that Dulé has been gathering that the world hasn't seen yet through his acting because he had not been given an opportunity to play a role that could tap into that.
So I was looking forward to just bringing Dulé aboard, because I knew he could really channel everything that I wanted for the Bill character. Like in real life, the Bill character is very talented, but lives in a time when there were challenges to a Black man's talents and abilities being recognized to their fullest potential. And just like Dulé the man, Bill the character has so much more to give to the world than the world is expecting or that the world even allows him to. So I know Dulé could also channel that into the character.
You've worked on a number of super-popular, broad appeal shows, and you haven't necessarily always gotten to tell stories through a Black lens. So tell me more about what excites you about the opportunity to dig into that aspect of the show.
Patterson: I'm excited that I'm working at a time when the industry has kind of caught up with the rest of society in that the industry has started to value specific points of view and cultural specificity in the content it creates. Decades ago that was seen as a liability because the question was, "Well, can that have broad appeal?" But the proliferation of so much creative content – I think there are like 500, 600 TV shows now, has created a need for all the outlets and channels and streaming outlets and things like that to try to make themselves stand out and kind of cut through some of the chaffe, so because of that, they realized that audiences have an appetite for it and are really responding to specific stories based on people's specific experiences, and authenticity in that specificity. So they really love seeing a story that is unique and has richness that they're not familiar with, but yet still feels like stuff that they can relate to because of the common human experience that's behind everything.
And so I certainly am excited to benefit from that with this re-imagining of The Wonder Years, because it is a very specific lens that we're putting on this show because of the Black family living in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late 1960s and the type of family they are and the values they have and the specificity of the characters. They're all inspired by people from our real life. So I'm excited as a creator and as a writer to be able to lean into that and not have it seen as a liability or something that's niche or something that doesn't have broad appeal, but actually having it supported as something that we want a broad audience to kind of experience and live with us.
And it helps that you've got an Avenger doing the narrating! Tell me about working with Don Cheadle, because his vocal style really does suit the show and it kind of really connects to a sort of adult version of EJ. How did you get him on board?
Patterson: I wholly believed that it was divinely ordained for Don to be a part of this project, as it was for other people as well. But Don because he was at the top of our short list for people that we wanted to go out to for the narrator, because it's a very tight Venn diagram of what this character of the narrator needed: he needed gravitas; he needed to be a voice that America trusted and had some recognizability to. And thankfully, Don's fast, fast work both in movies and TV meant that the audience already trusted him and knew him and would invite him into their living rooms – or I guess in these days invite him into their iPhone screens or wherever they watch the show. But he certainly had the broad appeal we needed.
But he also carries the wisdom and reflective perspective that the narrator needs. Unlike in the original when Daniel Stern is in his 30s, our narrator is going to be playing someone in his mid-60s, so he has to have a lot of wisdom to the comments that he's making because he's already raised adult kids. Don certainly brings that gravitas to the role that is needed for an audience to go along on this ride and want to hear what he has to say, want to hear the perspective that he has. And plus, Don's comedic timing is just genius and he's funny and he's good to work with and he's fun to work with. He was the perfect choice for us.
The other thing you get to have a lot of great fun with on the show that mirrors the original is the music. What's been your experience like looking for those just-right songs to evoke the era, but that also say something about what we're seeing on screen?
Patterson: Again, talk about people who were divinely ordained to be on the show: our music supervisor, Amani Smith – he goes by Burt Blackarach professionally – is a godsend. He is an expert because of his own musical taste, but also because of his father's role in the music industry in this time period. He is an expert not only on the sound of the late 60s and the early 70s, but of the unknown artists who were just as instrumental in creating that sound but who may not have gotten the recognition or the name as some of the more well-known artists. So he is like a kid in a candy store anytime we have to spot music or cue music because he has such a deep knowledge of these great underground artists or B-sides to well-known artists – the B-sides that never got the notoriety of some of the other hit songs.
It's just a fun musical landscape period, and he knows that musical landscape better than anybody, so I'm really excited that the music will be a character for this re-imagining in the show, just like it was in the original. But because of our family being different, of course the musical soundscape is going to be one that reflects this family.
The Wonder Years premieres Wednesday, Sept. 22 at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.