Co-created by Carol Black and Neal Marlens, The Wonder Years debuted on NBC on January 31, 1988 and the first season lasted only six episodes. The show was, however, a commercial and critical success and it was soon renewed for a full second season that ran seventeen episodes. Following their massive ‘complete series' release from last year, Star Vista is now making individual seasons available on DVD. The complete four series of the show ran from September 1990 through May 1991.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it revolved around the exploits of Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), a kid growing up in the late sixties. Kevin lived at home with his kindly mother Norma (Alley Mills), his surly father Jack (Dan Lauria), his hippie sister Karen (Olivia D'Abo) and his obnoxious older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey). Together they lived in a perfectly normal suburb where Kevin went to school with his best friends Paul Pfieffer (Josh Saviano) and Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), the latter of whom would be Kevin's on again/off again girlfriend throughout much of the series. The series is presented with narration from Kevin's adult self (voiced by Daniel Stern) which in turn provides some reflection on the events we see unfold from an adult perspective.
The episodes that make up season four are presented across the four DVDs in this set as follows:
Growing Up / Ninth Grade Man / The Journey / The Cost Of Living / It's A Mad, Mad, Madeline World / Little Debbie / The Ties That Bind
The Sixth Man / A Very Cutlip Christmas / The Candidate / Heartbreak / Denial / Who's Aunt Rose? / Courage
Buster / Road Trip / When Worlds Collide / Separate Rooms / The Yearbook / The Accident / The House That Jack Built
Graduation / The Wonder Years
You don't have to have been around in the sixties to appreciate this show. As it was in the first three seasons, the way in which the story of Kevin and his family and friends unfolds in this fourth run is plenty easy to relate to as it is very much grounded in reality. The series does intertwine newsworthy events and topics of the era into the series as it deals with everything from military conflicts to free love to drug use to civil rights, but we see this through Kevin's eyes and experience it with him rather than watch him go it alone. The narration also does a great job of providing a more modern, adult context to what we see Kevin going through in his younger days. Stern does a fantastic job here and anyone who has personally looked back on something they did as a kid and wondered why they did what they did should appreciate his take on the material. This was always part of the show's charm and it's as evident in this run as it is anywhere in the history of the series.
Season Four, like every season of the show really, also features some great music. Contributions from the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Ronettes, The Monkees, Hank Williams, Glenn Miller and Aretha Franklin appear alongside occasional classical selections like pieces from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. The music in the series is a big part of its appeal, not just in the selections that make their way into the series, but just as importantly how those selections are used. Those behind the music in the series very clearly put a lot of thought into how each selection would have an impact on the viewership, be it to heighten dramatic tension or enhance the series' typically very effective comedy.
What makes season four differ from the first three is that Kevin and his friends are, once again, getting a bit older and growing up. Since the series started with him as a pretty young kid, each season sees this happen to an extent but in season four we see him change from a kid into an adolescent. This is made clear in the season opener when he and some of the other boys are at the public pool checking out a young lady filling her bikini rather nicely. That same episode finds Karen being shipped away to college, Wayne getting a new girlfriend and then promptly being dumped by her, and Jack losing out on a promotion. So right from the start, a lot is happening in Kevin's world, even before the wonders of puberty are taken into account.
When that summer comes to an end, it's time to start his first year of high school, the big difference here isn't so much that he's in high school but it's that Kevin's best gal ever, Winnie Cooper, isn't with him. She's off at another school on the other side of town, but meeting Madeline Adams (Julie Condra) makes that a little easier for him, at least at first. Kevin is bullied, he and his friends try to make their way into a girl's sleepover under the pretense that they'll be bringing some beer, and Kevin decides to increase his earning potential by taking a job at the local golf course, which leads to a lesson in respect when he winds up caddying for his dad and his boss.
But of course, sooner or later it's got to come back to Winnie, right? She and Kevin share their one year anniversary (marking the date when he should have asked her out but didn't) when she gives him an ID bracelet. Instead of going out with her that night, however, he has to go to Madeline's house to work on a school project. This understandably causes tension in the world of young love, a world that becomes even more complex when Paul's younger sister, Debbie (Torrey Anne Cook), starts to crush pretty -hard on Kevin. As the school year moves on, Paul actually makes the basketball team, Jack gets a promotion that requires him to travel more, and Kevin busts Coach Cutlip working a second job as a mall Santa. Kevin launches a campaign for Student Council President against Becky Slater (Crystal McKellar) and then, on a field trip done in conjunction with Winnie's school, Kevin can't help but notice how her new friends have changed her already, only to find that she's met someone else. They break it off and Winnie sets out with new beau Roger. Kevin doesn't take this well, and there's a good stretch of episodes where she doesn't appear. When she does come back to the series, she's split with Roger but there are still some obvious walls up. Again, Kevin is going to do what Kevin has to do here, but we won't spoil the later part of the season for those checking it out for the first time.
The series, as Kevin gets older, becomes increasingly more adult as it goes on and you can really start to see that this time around. Kevin's becoming a young man, and all of the toils and tribulation involved in that evolution are on full display. Of course, the backdrop of the era in which all of this takes place still factors into the storylines. Kevin's mom is still very much that, a stay at home mom, while Jack heads out into the work force, bound and determined to get enough money to buy her a new stove. With Karen off at college she factors into the series less (though she's not completely absent) and Wayne takes more of a back seat here than he has in the past, letting us focus on Kevin's issues more than anything else. And it works. His circle of friends expands a bit, there's more to it now than just Paul and Winnie, but they remain his closest confidants, even as things appear to be shifting in the season finale.
The series is firing on all cylinders at this point in its six season run. The writers were taking things in more interesting directions, the drama and the comedy were mixing flawlessly and the actors were doing work that was just as strong as those behind the scenes. At this point, we really felt like we knew the characters and anyone old enough to relate to the experiences of the teenagers in the series would have no trouble doing just that. Great television, through and through.The DVD:
Each and every episode of The Wonder Years: Season Four is presented in its original fullframe broadcast aspect ratio, which is as it should be. The video quality here isn't going to floor anyone but the material here looks decent enough. As a lot of fans are probably aware, the series was shot on 16mm to give it an authentic period feel, but then transferred to tape for editing purposes. Given that it is from those tapes that the DVD transfers would seem to have been sourced, you can't expect sterling picture quality here but the show is definitely watchable enough. Black levels can sometimes be closer to dark grey than true black but for the most part the colors are reproduced reasonably well. Some small white specks do pop up here and there and there are some minor compression artifacts throughout but odds are that if you're not specifically looking for them you won't notice them. Given the origins of the series, the good definitely outweighs the bad here. This is a perfectly decent presentation of some iffy source material.Sound:
An English language Dolby Digital 2.0 track is provided for each episode with optional closed captioning provided in English only. Quality here is fine, there are no issues with any hiss or distortion and the dialogue is clean, clear and easy to understand. There's some good channel separation when the music kicks in and a reasonable amount of depth here as well. No alternate language audio or subtitle options are provided.Extras:
First up, as far as the extras go, is a featurette called ABC: Teachers That Made A Difference that is a thirty-six minute long piece that covers the cast members that played the teachers in the Wonder Years universe. Through a series of interesting cast and crew interviews we look back at Kevin's crush on Miss White (Wendel Meldrum), the English teacher who talked him into performing in the school play. We also learn about his relationship with Mr. Collins, his science teacher Mr. Cantwell (Ben Stein), his math teacher, and of course his relationship with Coach Cutlip (Robert Picardo), the gym teacher who always seemed to butt heads with young Mr. Arnold.
Aside from that we also get some decent interviews with Fred Savage, Robert Picardo, Ben Stein and Wendel Meldrum. These are all done on camera, individually, and they're pretty in-depth. Savage covers some of the same ground here he has in other interviews on earlier seasons but getting the actors who played the teachers down to talk about their work on the series was a good move, as they've got their share of amusing anecdotes to offer up. Menus and chapter selection are provided for each episode. There's an insert booklet included in the set, containing information on each episode as well as credits, guest appearance info, an intro from Fred Savage and more.Final Thoughts:
The Wonder Years: Season Four is as strong as any season that the series has to offer. The cast and crew do great work, the writing is top notch and the series is as hilarious as it is often genuinely touching. The DVD set looks about as good as it probably can, it sounds fine too and it features some decent extras. Highly recommended.