If someone put a gun to my head and asked, “Which country produces better youth television content: Canada or the United States?” I’d quickly and confidently say, “Canada.” Did I mention that this gun is a super soaker? This is not a hard question, people! In terms of television as a whole, United States has the budget and support and audience to call itself the best in the world. Unfortunately (although the situation is getting better) with all those resources, American television producers still give youth media the short end of the stick (…or whatever the expression is). For some reason, Canadian youth television (although past its peak) is more willing to take risks, be bold, and provocative than its Southern neighbors.
I think the biggest reason Canadian television does children’s television better is because of their commitment to the “half hour drama.” Although these shows are usually targeted towards teens, the length of the episodes and easy to digest plot lines allow them to appeal to younger audiences. I was ten when I first watched and enjoyed Canada’s ultimate half hour drama, Degrassi, and it took me about a decade before I realized that I was probably out of the show’s demographic and “too old” to obsess over it like I used to (although I still never miss an episode). Along with all the incarnations Degrassi, Canada has produced a multitude of critically acclaimed half hour dramas, like Edgemont (which starred Kristin Kreuk and Dominic Zamprogna), renegadepress.com (which featured Tatiana Maslany), Ready or Not, Straight Up, and Madison (the latter two are impossible to find and I have not personally watched them, unfortunately), and even Hillside, which aired on Nickelodeon as Fifteen, but was still very much Canadian. These weren’t teen sitcoms like Saved by the Bell; they weren’t speculative like the otherwise beloved So Weird, and they weren’t 44 minutes like popular American teen dramas like 90210 and The OC. Those hour long dramas, although had/have their merits, sometimes can alienate younger viewers who are still trying to transition from That’s So Raven to “That’s so Real.”
That’s why I wish half hour dramas had become more of a standard in the United States. Currently, we have the Saturday morning show The Inspectors, Disney’s Andi Mack, and, although speculative, Gortimer Gibbon‘s was the most real children’s series of 2016. I think streaming giants like Amazon and Netflix are, at least, making an effort to produce more dramatic television for children. And Disney, still recovering from the rise and fall of Girl Meets World, seems to not want to appease the “One Million Moms” crowd so much anymore, and put all their eggs in the “Andi Mack basket.” I do consider Andi Mack to be a drama, because, right now, it doesn’t seem like the show is trying to be funny. It’s more focused on setting the scene, telling the story, and creating new twists. But the humor is even softer than that of the show’s spiritual older sister, Lizzie McGuire.
Still, we could be doing more to commit to the half hour drama. With adult dramas like, Girls, Transparent, Divorce, and Mozart in the Jungle seem to be doing, at least, mildly well, it’s clear that audiences want dramatic shows where they can be really invested in the characters, without having to commit 1/24 of their day’s time to do it. And that can also apply to young audiences as well.
However, there was one popular half hour drama that appealed to teens that the United States produced. And that was The Wonder Years. The show lasted for six years from 1988 to 1993. Set during the Vietnam War, the show follows Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), and his suburban middle class life with his dorky best friend, Paul, his childhood crush, Winnie, his hippie older sister Karen, his hip breaker older brother, Wayne, and his housewife mother Norma, and his overworked grumpy father, Jack. The show was mostly told through Kevin’s point of view, with an older Kevin peppering the show with voice over narration. The show follows Kevin from 7th grade through high school.
For the purposes of awards, the show was considered a “Comedy.” In fact, it won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series for its first season. And the show aired on primetime on ABC, so it wasn’t exclusively targeted towards young people. It was for families. I suppose the adults who watched the show focused on the cringe humor, and it allowed them to look back at their own similarly awkward childhoods. However, for the kids who watched The Wonder Years, whether during the late eighties, or later when the show was rerun on syndication, this show was sometimes too real for it to be too funny. In fact, it was our first exposure to dramatic television. We’re drawn in because the show has a kid protagonist and the stories are told from a young person’s perspective. But we can relate to it the same way that adults can relate to hour long dramatic programming. So, yes, I can be generous and call The Wonder Years one of America’s few “half hour drama” triumphs.
Now that I am finished with my little soapbox, I can actually get to the main point of this article which is to rank the 20 best, most memorable episodes of The Wonder Years, out of the 115 that were produced. The Wonder Years is truly one of my favorite shows of all time, and, especially since it was a “period” piece, it’s a show that will probably never get dated, and die. It’s a show that proves that regardless of whether it is 1970 or 2017, the problems and issues that teens go through in all eras are universal and relatable for all audiences. It’s a show that I plan on showing my kids, when I get some of course! And there are some episodes that are perfect, little nuggets of art. If this show was an hour, many of the story lines and resolutions would have been drawn out. The half-hour length allows us go back and easily revisit our favorite episodes and moments. There is currently no show on American television that is quite like The Wonder Years. ABC does have “look back” shows like The Goldbergs and, to a lesser extent, Fresh off the Boat. Both shows are great, but they’re too comedic and broad for it to truly be a real successor to The Wonder Years. The Wonder Years was made during a time when networks still cared about dramatic content for young people. Even though the cancellation was premature, I’m glad we have six seasons of this gem. Now, let’s quickly go through this list, starting from the bottom and going up!
20. Separate Rooms (season 4): With Karen out college, Kevin and Wayne squabble over who gets Karen’s room. A classic sitcom premise that, like most episodes, ends with a lot of emotion and a lot of heart.
19. Carnal Knowledge (season 5): In the midst of trying to sneak into an R-rated movie, Paul reveals he lost his virginity, making Kevin very jealous. Paul and Kevin’s friendship is one of the most memorable facets of the series, but this is the episode where their innocent relationship, built on mutual nerdiness, begins to change.
18. Walkout (season 2): Kevin and his peers decide to plan a walkout to protest the Vietnam War and our involvement. Imagine if something like this (in the context of the wars we’re currently involved in or, even more controversial, BLM) aired today!
17. Mom Wars (season 3): Kevin and his mother butt heads over him playing tackle football with his friends. This might be the first full episode of the show I ever watched, so I might just have a sweet spot for it!
16. Daddy’s Little Girl (season 3): Karen and her father also butt heads; this time over her plans for after high school. This won’t be their last fight on the show, but it shows that, no matter how bad things get, Mr. Arnold will always support and love his daughter.
15. Private Butthead (season 5)/14. Homecoming (season 6): The Wonder Years is one of those shows that did a really honest and thoughtful job of telling stories related to the Vietnam War. And there are definitely more on this list. These two episodes, in particular, are truly heartbreaking. The first episode revolves around Wayne deciding to enlist in the Army, against his father’s wishes. While he is unable to pass the physical, his friend, Wart, does, and is shipped to Vietnam two months later. In the next episode, the season premiere, Wart comes back, clearly suffering from PTSD. It is at this moment, Wayne has to realize that his friend has changed, and has to offer support any way he can.
13. Independence Day (season 6): If The Wonder Years had to get cancelled, at least it got to end with such an emotional and memorable finale. And this finale is truly one of the best in television history, particularly the final 5 minutes where voice over Kevin reveals the fates of all the characters, most notably the fact that he and Winnie don’t end up together (and that his stay-at-home mother becomes a successful businesswoman. Go women’s lib!)
12. Pilot (season 1): The show not only had one of the greatest series finales ever, it also had one of the greatest pilots. Very few series come out of the gate so perfect; The Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Freaks and Geeks and Cheers are other notable examples. Most other series have understandably dusty premieres. But The Wonder Years achieved the impossible. In this episode, Winnie and Kevin share their first kiss after it is found out that Winnie’s brother died in Vietnam.
11. The House That Jack Built (season 4): This is also the episode that built David Schwimmer. Anyway, in this episode, Karen reveals that she has a live-in boyfriend, angering her father, and severing their relationship, forever (well at least for half a season).
10. Square Dance (season 2): This is one of those “too real” episodes for me. Kevin befriends the school’s resident weirdo, Margaret. However, not wanting to be made fun of by his peers, he breaks off their friendship. The episode reveals that Margaret grows up to become very successful, professionally and personally. This episode beautifully confirms two things: 1.) High school is only “for now,” and who you’re branded as in school doesn’t have to be carried with you for the rest of your life. And 2.) The best revenge is your success. And, it’s comforting that this show is not afraid of unambiguous endings, because what makes this episode truly a treat is that, in the end of it all, Margaret gets her own last laugh.
9. Glee Club (season 3): I believe this must be the second episode I ever watched, so I also have a sweet spot for it. Also, this episode is the best case for the show being considered a comedy, since it’s definitely the most hilarious of the series. The title itself says it all. It’s about a disastrous school glee club led by the overly optimistic Miss Haycock.
8. Good-Bye (season 3): We’re approaching the “classic episodes” portion of this list, and this is certainly one of the most memorable. It involves Kevin’s relationship with his strict math teacher, Mr. Collins, before Mr. Collins unexpectedly (well, to everyone but Mr. Collins himself) passes away from a heart condition. Kevin gains perspective into Collins, his relationship with his teacher, and his own academic success. Be nice to teachers, because most of them really do care.
7. Poker (season 6): Remember earlier when I said Kevin and Paul’s friendship changes over the course of the series? Well, this is the episode that most explicitly acknowledges this. Something strange happens in season 6. Paul appears in only half the episodes, while Kevin spends most of his time with another friend, Jeff. In this episode, during poker night with a few other friends, Kevin and Paul come to the realization that they’ve changed, and so has their friendship. It’s a “half-goodbye” since they’ll always care for each other and be friends. It’s a sad episode, especially considering this is the final season, and the last time the two appear together until the finale, but it’s also very real, since I’ve lost contact with many of my friends from highschool, even in this connected, social media world.
6. The Accident (season 4): Winnie and Kevin was such a saga, and it reaches its peak in this episode. The two still not on speaking terms after an earlier fight, Winnie gets into a car crash. Kevin secretly visits a bandaged Winnie in her room (through the window, outside), where they tearfully mouth “I love you” to each other. I dare you to find a better use of “We’ve Got Tonight.”
5. Brightwing (season 2): In this episode, one of the rare Karen/Kevin storylines, Kevin discovers that her sister has been skipping school to hang out with other “hippies.” Kevin soon starts joining them, worried that they’ll soon get caught. Although Karen wishes to be free and independent, especially from her iron father, she gets a dose of reality when she tries to run away from home. As a younger brother to an older sister myself, that dilemma between wanting to be the cool little brother and doing the right thing hits close to home.
4. Pottery Will Get You Nowhere (season 2): Norma and Jack confront each other over how little they feel the other appreciates his/her work for the family. The scene with the their three kids silently listening to them argue in the other room is one of those moments that stays in your head every time you even think of the show.
3. Our Miss White (season 2): The show centered on a white family in a mostly white community in California, so it couldn’t logistically do a lot with the Civil Rights movement. However, I think this episode, although isn’t the most raw depiction of Civil Rights on television, really does a nice job of showing the main character’s honest feelings and reaction to the subject. The main plot of the episode is Kevin’s infatuation with his English/Drama teacher. However, the ending, which is set during a performance the class gives on the Civil Rights movement and important figures during the time (MLK, Kennedy), really puts Kevin’s feelings over his teacher and this play she wrote and this whole Movement into perspective. He was too young to fully understand the Civil Rights Movement, but seeing how much passion his teacher had for the subject helped him gain further understanding of the world he was living in.
2. Angel (season 1): Season 2 was probably the show’s peak, but the abridged first season gave us the show’s two finest moments. First is “Angel” which is centered around Karen bringing her new boyfriend Louis (played by John Corbett) over for dinner. During that scene, Louis gets in a really heated argument with Jack over the Vietnam War, with Louis being a pacifist, while Jack believing that his anti-war thoughts are un-American. It’s the sort back-and-forth we still have today. Somehow, being anti-war is equivalent to being anti-vet or not “patriotic” enough. But, at least in this specific instance, one can take both arguments seriously, and realize they both come from a place of shared pain and fear. In the end, Louis reveals that he is 1.) being drafted, and 2.) cheating on Karen, thus we never see him again after this episode. For some reason, maybe because she appears the least out of all the other main characters, Karen episodes seem extra special and emotional, particularly because they involve Jack, one of the most complicated TV dads. I am writing this post on Memorial Day, and this episode makes me realize that even though the threat of being drafted is so far removed, our discourse on war still remains complicated and ideologically mixed.
1. My Father’s Office (season 1): Yeah, Mr. Arnold really is one of the most complicated fathers on TV. He’s not a smarmy know-it-all like Dr. Huxtable, but he’s also not a complete dunce like Archie Bunker. He is not particularly likable, but we, as an audience, sympathize with him anyway. And this episode is probably the biggest reason why. When Kevin finally visits his father’s work, Kevin finally learns why his father is always in such a grouchy mood. While he rules his home with an iron fist, he has very little power in his actual workplace. Does this excuse his behavior with his family? I mean, I wouldn’t say Mr. Arnold was particularly abusive. He’s, for the most part, a good, caring father. But if you feel the father was too mean to his wife and children, then I don’t think this episode completely absolves him. It just allows us to see another side of him. Like a lot of people, I never visited my parents’ workplace. I never got to see that side of them. I wish I had, because maybe I’d get that second layer of my parents’ psyche that Kevin gained with his father. This episode is wonderful, and probably the best case for the show being only half an hour. All the power and urgency, yet simplicity, would have been sucked dry with a longer run time. This episode, like all the episodes on this list, and all the other episodes that didn’t make it, are a perfect slice of Americana, all through the eyes of a teenager. This is why The Wonder Years is one of the best youth series the United States has ever produced.