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'The Wonder Years' review: Reluctant reboot faces difficult balancing act

ABC's "The Wonder Years" stars Dule Hill, Saycon

ABC's "The Wonder Years" stars Dule Hill, Saycon Sengbloh, Laura Kariuki and Elisha Williams.   Credit: ABC/Erika Doss

SERIES "The Wonder Years"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on ABC/7.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's 1968, but the winds of war and racism have scarcely ruffled a serene Black neighborhood in Montgomery, Alabama. Dean Williams (Elisha "EJ" Williams) is about to go into middle school but already wants to figure out his role in life — something his popular teen sister Kim (Laura Kariuki), adoring mom Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh) and music professor dad Bill (Dulé Hill) seem to have figured out for themselves. He appoints himself "the great unifier," and for his first unifying act, organizes an integrated baseball game between his team, and his friend Brad's (Julian Lerner) all-white team.

The adult Dean — Don Cheadle in voice-over — has lots to say about all this.

This reboot o-f the original "Years" (1988-'93) was created and written by Saladin K. Patterson ("The Bernie Mac Show," "The Last O.G."). Fred Savage — Kevin Arnold himself — is an executive producer and directed the pilot.

MY SAY There's a scene midway through Wednesday's pilot where Dean is drinking from a water fountain at school, when two white teens approach the fountain. They hesitate, turn, then walk away.

Set in the midst of this boyhood idyll, it's a jarring note but far from the last. In another early scene, the Williams are pulled over at night by the police, with the metronomic blinking of the cruiser's red lights reflected off Bill's frozen face.

Off camera, adult Dean, 65 years old, allows all this to pass without comment. Maybe he simply knows too much circa 2021 — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter — but certainly has the advantage of hindsight, or 53 years worth. To say anything might be redundant — or a bummer and one mustn't have bummers in a reboot of "The Wonder Years."

In an obvious sense, this show — or at least this pilot — wants to subvert or invert what many white Americans still reflexively think of the Black experience of the era, the one limned by poverty, violence, of single-head-of-family lives in a hardscrabble world. Dean's world, in fact, is just like theirs, only better. This Black Alabama neighborhood is both tree-lined and crime-free, full of middle-class Americans "all united by pride and self-determination," as Dean says in voice-over.

But in another obvious sense, this "Wonder Years" knows what the adult Dean knows: That while it might be able to debunk those long-standing prejudices, it can't ignore history. That history is threaded through every scene outside the safe confines of the Williams home. Meanwhile, this "Wonder Years" also wants you to know that it never entirely went away either.

It's a difficult balancing act for a reboot like this, maybe impossible, which is why the pilot often feels like a reluctant reboot, or a show that wants to tell one story but is forced to conform to the formula of another. The original "Years" never had this problem because it simply ignored race. Kevin Arnold lived in an all-white neighborhood hermetically sealed off from the racial strife dividing the country. But the self-appointed "great uniter" Dean already knows he will have to navigate — in Martin Luther King Jr.s telling phrase — two Americas.

The cast is excellent, and Williams perfect as the wide-eyed idealist who sees those Americas with all the innocence and wonder that you hope he always will (but you know he can't.) There is the potential for an excellent show here, even an important one. A pity it's called "The Wonder Years."

BOTTOM LINE Uneven pilot which at least promises something much better.

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