With the sixth and final season of "The Wonder Years" receiving its individual release officially marks the end of an era for many DVD collectors. Long anticipated but thought to be an impossibility, it's still stunning to realize Time Life was able to release the seminal series given the multitude of music rights issue surrounding it; save for a few unobtainable songs, the sixth and final season of the series arrives with little fanfare (truth be told, most fans likely snagged this as a complete series release a few years back). In the 22-episodes that make up the release, the saga of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) winds to an end, marking a journey from middle school through high school for a character who represented the average American teen of the 1960s.
A large theme running through the final season of the series is bidding farewell to old memories and embracing the unknown; the series begins and ends on these notes perfectly and the experience of fishing the series for the viewer echoes many of those feelings as we have come to know Kevin Arnold, his family, and his friends almost as our own over the course 115 episodes. It's a rare experience for a series to build such authentic characters and allow us to watch them grow and mature in a generally chronological order. However, while season six does feature a handful of memorable, if not iconic episodes, I found myself a little taken aback at how the season itself felt unevenly paced and ultimately, ending in a bit of a rushed fashion.
Speaking of iconic episodes, the series nearly opens with one of these instances, taking Kevin, Wayne (Jason Hervey) and gruff but caring Jack (Dan Lauria) on the annual fishing trip. While the series opener itself began to plant the seeds of change with a callback to a previous season episode focused on Wayne's friend "Wart" leaving for Vietnam, with seeing "Wart" return a changed man and one not accepted by the community he was once a member of. It's a sobering reminder of this turbulent time in American history as well as a sobering caution to our protagonist that times are changing. While seeing "Wart" called a murderer and feeling like he served his country for nothing is a painful scene to endure; watching the Arnold patriarch realize that years of memories with his two boys camping and fishing are behind him is handled with a careful balance of comedy and unspoken somber heartbreak.
The seeds of change don't just affect Kevin and his high school comrades, but Kevin's family. Wayne continues the evolution from over-the-top comic relief older brother to a man who strives to make his father proud while still paving his own way; this subplot plays out as Wayne balances working with his father who sets his own sights on owning a furniture factory and leaving years of thankless work at NORCOM behind, while starting his own family with Bonnie, a single mother who raises the eyebrow of both Jack and Norma (Alley Mills). While the season's most enduring moment and episodes still revolve around Kevin and Winnie (Danica McKellar), the most consistent stories focus on Jack and Wayne. Lauria's performance as Jack is arguable one of the most underrated "TV dad" performances of the 20th century, and while early episodes such as "My Father's Office" get singled out for praise, Lauria's understated performance is allowed to evolve and come full circle.
In the end, viewers keep tuning in week after week to find out what would happen with Kevin and Winnie. In that aspect, "The Wonder Years" offers viewers what they longed for; it becomes very apparent as the season moves on and Kevin sees himself growing apart from old friends Paul (Josh Saviano) as well as new, that perhaps his own relationship with Winnie is not destined to be. Sadly, the few episodes leading up the two-part series finale feel most like seasonal padding when it comes to the relationship of Kevin and Winnie, but the seeds of change are still present, even if tiny quantities. The finale of "The Wonder Years" is a bittersweet experience; a mixture of tension, romance, and heartbreak, it sends viewer away with a satisfying, realistic conclusion that will wet the eye of even the most stone hearted in the closing coda, narrated perfectly as always by Daniel Stern, answering in the most brief and believable fashion the questions viewers have about what happen to the characters once end credits roll for the final time.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is as good as the series will likely ever look, barring a major restoration of the original negatives. Color is generally well reproduced, while contrast is a little on the light side. Detail is average throughout with minimal compression artifacts and no sign of DNR. On a whole, the show looks leagues better than the DVR recordings I have from its airings on the ION network over a decade prior, but not as striking as other series of its times. Given the 16mm format that evokes a period feel, these issues are understandable
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track is a clean and clear track that sounds better than the show ever did upon original broadcast. It's far from a dynamic offering, but it gets the job done for a dialogue rich show and does distinguish itself when the iconic soundtrack takes center stage.
Extras consist of a brief featurette focused on the series finale, a five-minute interview with Alley Mills, and an extended, nearly hour-long interview with executive producer Bob Brush that is insightful and and incredibly encompassing of the entire series.
If you've come this far as a "Wonder Years" fan, this is a no brainer purchase. While season six isn't going to be argued to be the best of the series anytime soon, it has a number of iconic episodes and provides the logical conclusion the series needed. The acting is top notch through and through, and even at its lowest moments, "The Wonder Years" remains infinitely watchable television. Highly Recommended.