Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Wonder Years

So I've been waylaid by sinusitis this week, which makes me sleep at odd times and work at odder times. On one such bedrest jaunt I caught two episodes of "The Wonder Years"on Nickelodeon. I remember that show so fondly. It was actually something my entire family and I liked to watch together, back in the days before cable, when we were all actually home more and even ate dinner together before the night shift at the Times (figure out for yourself which city's) stuffing newspaper inserts--a job for the whole family, a job in which I slept on bales of newspapers with my newsprint tattoos on my skin and a head full of knowledge. So I think of The Wonder Years as a family event. Then again, I also think of The Simpsons as a family event. Go figure. But this was my early teenage years.

How I loved growing up with Kevin Arnold. His on-and-off first love with Winnie, the girl-next-door of envious hair. The secret crush I had on Paul, he of awesomely nerdy glasses and perpetual underdog character. (Paul, by the way, is now an associate at Morrison Cohen.) The way Wayne reminded me of my own brothers, in how they used to hit me and run away to get me to chase them (they still do). How I wanted to grow up to be as beautiful as Karen. How the nurturing Norma reminded me of my own mother, and Jack of my own gruff father. Yes, in America, it is possible that an American-born Vietnamese girl growing up with an uber-strict Asian family can feel kinship with the most white bread suburban family.

So the first of the two episodes dealt with the father, Jack, struggling with providing his family and asking for a raise. And he got one. He became regional manager, and the pride of the family in their father--oh, how I remember that. But then the inevitable, Arthur Miller and David Riesman cost--his advancement meant leaving his family behind. Jack had to travel for work , leaving behind Norma and the kids. He even had to miss Thanksgiving dinner--which was made on the lovely new stove, bought with his new job, but at the cost of his family table. Norma, the long-suffering wife, suffers in silence (like my mom) as she totters around alone in her kitchen with her new stove cooking enough food to almost replace the empty seat. But this is The Wonder Years, not Death of a Salesman--sentiment over sadness. Despite the cost, Jack flew home, just for an hour before flying to his next job. And the airport scene. Can we talk about the airport scene? These are the days before 9/11 and The Patriot Act. Norma and the kids actually meet him coming off of the plane. Norma runs into his arms, legs swinging in the air. And that is the romance of middle aged suburban love, when a man and woman remember the boy and girl they once were. And that is when I started crying.

In the second episode, Paul and Kevin struggle with the changes of growing up. Wait, that was every episode. In this particular episode, Kevin has to adjust and recognize that Paul is changing and becoming a different person than the one he's always known. As far as Kevin has known, Paul sucked at basketball. As far as Kevin is used to, Paul is always his slightly less-cool friend who always has time to hang out with him. But then Paul gets onto the varsity basketball team. Paul is suddenly cooler, and more popular. Paul has less time for Kevin. Paul is the better player. Kevin is now literally on the sidelines. There is a choice--let the friendship drift away, or become Paul's biggest fan. Kevin chooses the latter, and this choice entails a necessity--the necessity of recognizing and growing with change. If you no longer share the same world and the same friends, then maybe you should try to make your world a bit bigger and let your circle grow. How sometimes you have to grow apart to stay friends. I watched this, a couple weeks after The Best Friend got married. Our world is much larger than when it was when we lived only streets apart. Now it's a bi-coastal world, and one day, if she ever gets a job abroad, it might be trans-continental. Our friendship has grown to absorb the shocks and changes of growing up, the many ways we have become different from the girls we once knew each other to be. My circle now encompasses her husband and the family they create. It's a different world, but I'm glad for it.

I really did like The Wonder Years. I liked the Rockwellian moralisms at the end, the omniscient voice-over that is wise only with hindsight. It's funny, I found myself tearing. What is it about coming-of-age, bildungsroman type art that binds us all together? It's the same way David Copperfield is one of my favorite books. The show is about the tumult of growing up during the tumultuous times that were the 60s, and I identify with things like a family struggling to make ends meet, the stay at home long-suffering mom, the annoying brother, the hesitant rush of young love. The last time I liked such a show was "Freaks and Geeks." Everything else, except maybe My So-Called Life, sucked (Dawson's Creek, Felicity, etc. etc.). I never really wanted to grow up with Doogie Howser (too high pressure), and Dawson Leary was way too annoying. But I wanted to grow up with Kevin Arnold, and I think I did.

I know it's not fashionable to admit that you like such treacly stuff, but I did. TV is now almost too good, cable has raised the standards too high--we are supposed to love the ironic genius of Joss Whedon, the fun romp of Battelstar Galactica, the grittiness of the Wire and the Sopranos, the suburban angst of Weeds and Six Feet Under, the aspirational and sex-and-wit-laced living of Sex and the City. But whatever happened to the good ol' family sitcom about growing up (sans sex and drugs, but even The OC is over), the voiceover telling us the meaning of things? Whatever happened to the simple pleasures of life? I think the adult Kevin Arnold, as voiced by Daniel Stern, would ask the same thing.