Monday, June 26, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 1: The Wonder Years


Over a month after I finished watching 13 Reasons Why (a period which included three viewings of the series in the span of three weeks) I still felt like this show had struck a chord with me like few other shows. This one left a mark. Now I'm a big TV junkie. I watch a lot of shows and I enjoy a pretty broad range of shows, but the number of those shows that really stick in my gut and keep compelling me to seek out write-ups and behind-the-scenes interviews is much smaller.

It was one of those shows that I felt would leave an impact me as a writer nearly as much as a viewer. It took a familiar genre and told its story in such a unique way that it didn't feel like an imitation of anything else. When I look at 13 Reasons Why, I see a show that years from now will have spawned many antecedents in its wake, as well as being something we cite with "Wow, can you remember when Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford really came out of nowhere to be some of the best actors of their generation?"

As an exercise, I sat down and tried to list all of the shows in the past that left me with this kind of feeling. I thought of the ones that made me want to write stories of the kind that fit into that kind of storytelling, and I scoured my brain for the series that had influenced my own writing. In the end, I was left with precisely 16 shows. This wasn't a list of my favorite shows, exactly. I left off a lot of shows with really terrific writing. This was more of a list of shows that were groundbreaking for me, or opened me up to new possibilities within the medium. Unsurprisingly, I found plenty of these had direct impact on my own work.

So my mission for the next month is to do short posts on each of those shows and explore what they mean to me. I'm going to go in (mostly) chronological order of when I discovered them, not necessarily in their order of release.

Check the "what about..." comments at the door. This is MY list, and one that is devoid of plenty of favorites that didn't fit the conditions of this exercise. Loved Cheers, but in the end, it didn't really change my understanding of the sitcom. Frasier was another painful omission. There were plenty of brilliant episodes and character arcs, but it didn't belong on this list. Also, I didn't hold a series's decline against it. If a show had one brilliant season that blew me away and three shitty seasons, the brilliant season got it on the list. 66 bad episodes don't erase the impact that 22 exemplary episodes made.

So let's begin with the first show I joined an online fan group for when I first got online in the 90s - The Wonder Years.

No, really. My senior year in high school was when Nick at Night started rerunning the series, just as my parents got an online account at home. For some reason it was THAT fan community I was drawn to, even before perennial favorites like Star Trek.

I had been familiar with the show long before that, though. To the best of my recollection, I began watching the series at some point in its second season, 1988-89. Before then, my experience with sitcoms was pretty much of the TGIF type. Growing Pains and Who's The Boss were in regular reruns after school, to the point where I probably saw all of those episodes many times. I was not yet old enough to reject Full House, Perfect Strangers or Family Matters, and I had also seen plenty of older shows from the 60s - Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Leave It To Beaver, etc.

The Wonder Years, created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black, was nothing like those, either in terms of visuals or emotions. It wasn't three jokes on a page. The characters weren't exaggerated stereotypes, nor were they treated as either punchlines to the adult stories or wise-beyond-their-years smart alecs. They were just kids. Kevin Arnold and friends were about four years ahead of me in school (and 20 years BEHIND me thanks to the shows Vietnam Era setting), but their world was instantly recognizable. More than any other show I'd seen at that point, it seemed to understand what it felt like to be a kid.

I remember thinking, "Wow, you could make a TV show about my life - or anyone my age's life - and it could be interesting without any far-out gimmicks." Kevin was hitting the same milestones I and my classmates would soon hit. The writers would build entire storyarcs around his conflict, eventual respect for, and loss of his math teacher. Tension with friends and would-be girlfriends formed enough of a story to tell an entire episode. Week-to-week, The Wonder Years showed me what a show was like when it put character first. Even when the action was built around a plot like Kevin's first job, or being forced to perform in a piano recital, it's all filtered about what it meant to Kevin. It wasn't the A to B to C plotting you'd get when one of the Brady kids faced a challenge.

Later shows would push the boundaries more, doing higher concept stuff like being set entirely during a night of Kevin delivering takeout food, or building a half-hour around what happens during Kevin's lunch period.

And of course, there was Winnie Cooper, the girl everyone wished lived next door.

Weirdly, it's a show that holds up at multiple ages. When you're younger than Kevin, it's aspirational. When you're his age, it just GETS you and everything you're going through. And when you're older, you look at it like Daniel Stern's narrator does, "Ah, I remember when..."

The Wonder Years was the first time I encountered a show that was truly universal. It tapped into the shared experience of adolescence both through the milestones of youth and perfectly evoking how those felt. It was my first lesson in how to get an audience emotionally invested in a series. It was also the earliest I remember watching a show that felt like a mini-movie. You'd never mistake it for any other show on the air, and in hindsight, I can follow a straight line from this show to several of my other favorites that will appear on this list.

As I work my way through my twenty shows, see if you can come up with a list of the shows that influenced you as a writer. I'd be fun to compare results.

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