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'The Wonder Years' Faces Growing Pains

October 03, 1989|STEVE WEINSTEIN

His brother is a jerk. His sister's a loon. His best friend's a geek. His best girl is too tall. And his mom tries to smooth over every family crisis by dishing up yet another bowl of mashed potatoes.

But none of that is enough to thwart Kevin Arnold, TV's modern-day version of Holden Caulfield. His family, his friends and his suburban stamping grounds are all mere kindling for the poignant revelations about life, adolescence, love, friendship and family that come to him each week of his television life.

"The Wonder Years," the story of one boy's childhood in the late 1960s told in his own words as he looks back at it with the wisdom of hindsight, begins its third season tonight at 8:30 on ABC. Already, it's had a storied run--winning an Emmy as best comedy series last year after only its first six episodes and, pleasantly sandwiched between ABC's "Who's the Boss?" and "Roseanne," consistently drawing good ratings. How good is "The Wonder Years"? Seen-it-all TV critics have tagged it with such adjectives and similes as "genius," "stunning," "wonderfully evocative" and "like eating a dish of rich, homemade ice cream on a hot day." The series lost out to "Cheers" in the Emmy race last month, but it did win an Emmy for best direction and earned four of the five nominations for outstanding writing in a comedy series.

But as the show enters another season and its adolescent actors shed another year's worth of baby fat, it seems appropriate to wonder: How long do "The Wonder Years," both literally and figuratively, last? How, under the grind of cranking out 22 episodes a season, can the show remain so consistent? How many poignant revelations can this one kid have? And what happens when the show's 13-year-old star, the diminutive and accomplished Fred Savage, goes through puberty?

Executive producer Bob Brush, who took over after series creators Carol Black and Neal Marlens left in the middle of last season, refuses to speculate about such questions, but acknowledges that expectations are high.

Working on a show in which the quality of the scripts and the acting are so important to viewers "is a constant, demanding challenge," he explained, "because you have a sense that to let the quality slip is to break some kind of inherent bond with our audience. There is a sense of possession the audience feels about the show somehow, that the story we're telling is their story. I felt the same way about the 19 people that watched 'Molly Dodd.' I wanted them to be proud of the show."

Brush, who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs some 10 years earlier than Kevin Arnold, most recently worked on two widely praised but commercially failed programs, "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd." He marvels at the ABC estimate that more than 30 million people watch "The Wonder Years" each week.

Unlike any other comedy on television, "The Wonder Years" is told in the first person, by an adult Kevin Arnold remembering back to his days as a kid in suburbia. There is no laugh track, no live audience, no pratfalls and not much of the usual sitcom huggy-wuggy. Many of the shows even end on a sober note.

"But even then there's a great joy," Brush said in a recent interview in his Culver City office. "We did one episode about Kevin's piano teacher and his missing an opportunity to find something that would have helped him. There is a bittersweetness in that memory, yet there is a strength too in looking back and knowing himself.

"I do think that it's a miracle that this show got on the air and a miracle that it continues. The fact is, the public found a voice that is speaking for them. People share his points of view, and the resonances of his memories, I think, are universal."

The '60s do provide a fertile backdrop--what Brush calls the metaphor of America going through "a period of great self-discovery, joy and effusion, and yet at the same time a great paranoia" that match perfectly with the prevailing emotional swings of adolescence. But Brush said the writers never search the history books for relevant events around which to write an episode.

What they win Emmy nominations, critical plaudits and viewers loyalty for, he said, is their "harrowing search" each week to find the kernel of truth enmeshed in Kevin's experiences, to pare away the trappings of the day to reveal the true feelings involved in watching his mother strut her independence by taking a pottery class or helping his flower-child sister get away with ditching school.

"It's easy to simply remember those moments," Brush said. "What's hard is saying, 'What was the prevailing emotion of those moments? Where did it hurt? Where did it help? What did it change in me?' Those are the things we strive to uncover."

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