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I remember a house like a lot of houses, a yard like a lot of yards, on a street like a lot of other streets. I remember how hard it was growing up among people and places I loved. Most of all, I remember how hard it was to leave. And the thing is, after all these years I still look back in wonder.—Kevin Arnold
The Wonder Years is a nostalgic semi-comedic series about a boy growing up in The Sixties - or, to be more accurate, a middle-aged man reminiscing about growing up in The Sixties, with a voiceover narrating/voicing the boy's thoughts. The series was basically a warmhearted and vivid recollection of a specific time and (inspecific) place.
The boy in question Kevin, who has an abusive older brother -- Wayne -- and parents whom, while still in love each other, would often fight. Kevin's friend Paul is a gangly geek with frequent asthma attacks, and the Girl Next Door is Winnie Cooper (with whom affection is mutual but "She Is Not My Girlfriend").
The show is one of the earliest half-hour sitcoms done in single camera format -- and without a laugh track, being a precursor to the shows that are considered to launch the format such as Spaced and Malcolm in the Middle. It wasn't afraid of addressing touchy subjects and was often frank about things that happen when growing up. One episode dealt with Kevin getting to touch a girl's breast for the first time.
This show provides examples of:
- Big Brother Bully: Wayne.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Becky Slater.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Series Finale. (Jack is revealed to have died shortly after the finale, and while Kevin eventually marries and has a son, it's not with Winnie.)
- Break the Cutie: Subverted with Winnie somewhat. Considering that at the end of the first episode, her brother dies in Vietnam -- and at the end of the second season, her parents get a divorce -- she is still a perfectly normal teenager.
- Catch Phrase: Wayne calling people (usually Kevin) "Butt-Head".
- "And there you have it."
- Christmas Episode: Several.
- Classically-Trained Extra: Dan Lauria, who played Jack (the dad), is a Shakespearean actor who initially considered the role beneath him. This may, however, have helped him maintain his dour, beaten-down-by-life attitude on-screen.
- Dad the Veteran
- Dawson Casting: Largely averted for the main cast. One notable exception was Julie Condra, who guest-starred as a high school freshman at age 20. This made the story arc where Condra's obviously older, sexually mature character comes on to innocent young Kevin Arnold rather jarring.
- Did Not Get the Girl
- Downer Beginning: The very first episode ends with everyone learning Winnie's older brother was killed in Vietnam.
- Embarrassing First Name: Florence.
- Fake American: Olivia d'Abo. You know, Karen Arnold. Wait... you did remember that Kevin and Wayne have an older sister, didn't you?
- First Kiss: Kevin and Winnie in the first episode. It was apparently the first kiss for the actors as well.
- Hot for Teacher: The episode, "Our Miss White", has Kevin having a crush on his teacher Miss White.
- Girl Next Door: Winnie
- Inflation Negation: Kevin does chores around the house as suggested by his dad to earn money to go out with his friends. Kevin's dad is a stickler though, and for all his effort he gets a dollar from his dad's wallet. There are sound effects of a safe opening and closing when his dad opens his wallet too.
- Jerkass: Wayne Arnold.
- In one episode, Kevin is this when Becky Slater tells the whole school what he says about them behind their backs. Hilarity ensues.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Wayne never quite grew out of being the obnoxious older brother, but he eventually showed a Big Brother Instinct and genuine concern for Kevin as the show went on.
- Keep Circulating the Tapes: The large amount of hit songs featured in the show -- and the corresponding legal and financial snags involved with licensing the rights to all of that music -- make a proper, uncut DVD release of the show nigh impossible.
- Loud Gulp: Several times throughout the show, whenever Kevin had an Oh Crap moment, the narrator would simply say, "Gulp!"
- Master of the Mixed Message: Winnie Cooper.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: The actor who played Wayne, Jason Hervey, was said to be a rather nice guy and was hurt that people thought of him as the epitome of abusive older brothers.
- Nostalgic Narrator: The adult Kevin, voiced by Daniel Stern. Not the Trope Maker, but almost certainly the Trope Codifier, and thus the most parodied.
- Out of Focus: Paul in the later seasons, after Kevin gets a bigger social circle. In the last season, Jeff and Chuck get many more episodes, and much more screen time, than Paul.
- Picked Last: An early episode had the final two kids left to pick from being Paul Pfiefer and another student played by Dustin Diamond on numerous occasions. The episode's main focus, however, was on Paul's love for playing basketball and sheer lack of ability, which would make him one of the most undesirable players to have on a team. Kevin's protests to Coach Cutlip about how unfair the captain system is have the adverse affect of earning him a spot as a team captain. He decides use his position to pick all of the least talented kids for his team. This also led to a kid with a noticeably athletic build being the last pick, behind a nerd who was half his size.
- Pop Culture Osmosis: An entire generation now only thinks of this show when they hear Joe Cocker's cover of The Beatles "With A Little Help From My Friends".
- Present Day Past: Look behind their heads out the school bus windows. Count The Eighties cars.
- Put on a Bus: Karen, after having a falling out with her father. Craig Hobson by his parents in Season 4, much to Becky's chagrin.
- Real Life Relative: Danica McKellar's sister Crystal plays Kevin's vengeful ex-girlfriend Becky.
- Also, Fred Savage's own little brother Ben Savage played the "cupid" character on the Valentine's Day episode.
- Real Song Theme Tune: Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends".
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: When one of Wayne's pranks goes too far, Kevin lets it all out.
- Round Table Shot
- Saw Star Wars 27 Times: Humorously used in this scene in the episode "Eclipse" where Chuck, who is uncomfortable with the creepy man who picked him up while he was hitchhiking, tries to lighten the mood by sharing how he's reminded of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents story about a man with "a big butcher knife" who was picking up hitchhikers. Getting creeped out by the man again, Chuck decides to drop the discussion, leading to the following exchange:
Chuck: Nevermind, probably didn't see the episode... Did you?
Creepy Guy: 27 times! [creepy stare]
- Chuck quickly leaps out of the moving pickup truck.
- Series Continuity Error: After he hit puberty, Fred Savage's voice was noticeably deeper than that of Daniel Stern, who narrated the show as Adult Kevin. It's not uncommon for Men's voices to dip down during puberty and eventually middle out, but it stood out nonetheless.
- She Is All Grown Up: Winnie Cooper goes from scrawny dork to "Fan Service for pre-teens" incarnate.
- She Is Not My Girlfriend: One of Kevin's first lines.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Waynes friend Wart comes back from Vietnam and has trouble adjusting.
- Sibling Rivalry: Kevin and his older brother, the butt-headed smart-ass Wayne.
- Slice of Life: During 1960's Vietnam War Era America.
- Spiritual Successor: To Stand by Me and (arguably) A Christmas Story.
- Teacher-Student Romance: Subverted in "Our Miss White". Kevin develops a crush on his teacher throughout the episode, but at the end of the episode, he notices her kissing her husband in the stage background.
- The Everyman: Kevin is supposed to represent the life of an average teenage boy growing up in the 1960's.
- The Talk: "I actually had to hear my dad say 'genitals'."
- Three Amigos: Kevin, Paul, and Winnie
- Two Guys and a Girl
- Wham! Episode: Shockingly done in the very first episode; it appears to be a fairly standard comedy/drama show, but at the very end of the episode, the audience finds out that the neighbors' son was killed in Vietnam.
- Where Are They Now? Epilogue
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The exact location of the show's suburban setting is never explicitly spelled out, although it's presumably somewhere in California. (In one episode, we see a closeup of a letter Wayne's holding, and it shows the Arnolds' address as being in California, while in another episode Kevin is shown to have a California driver's license.)
- Will They or Won't They?: Kevin and Winnie run an on-again, off-again relationship for almost the show's entire run. They spend about as much time apart as they do together.
- In the end, it's revealed that Kevin ends up marrying another woman, but he and Winnie remain friends through the years.
- Yandere: Becky Slater.
- Zettai Ryouiki: Winnie in the episode "Fate".