Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Happy birthday The Wonder Years and Homicide: Life on the Street

Less than a year ago I ran my blog series, 16 Great TV Shows, which focused on the shows that most shaped my own writing and my own love of television. Today, two of those shows are having notable birthdays. Even though I've recently written tributes to both, it seems wrong not to mark the anniversaries for The Wonder Years and Homicide: Life on the Street.

How is it possible The Wonder Years is 30? The series - created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black - first aired on January 31, 1988, with its setting in 1968. From there, the series remained set twenty years prior to the time in which it aired. So had the series never been cancelled, the episode airing this week would be set in 1998 and probably would have the Monica Lewinsky scandal as its backdrop. I can tell you one thing I was doing this week in 1998: watching reruns of The Wonder Years on Nick-At-Nite. It's a bit staggering to be confronted with that realization that much time has passed.

My earlier tribute covered so much ground that I don't know what to say except marvel that somehow the young woman who was the first crush for many guys my age, Danica McKellar, gets more stunning by the year!

In all seriousness, I remember one of my earliest realizations about The Wonder Years being that despite the period setting, my world and Kevin Arnold's world weren't so different. The school environment was largely the same, the kinds of relationships you had with friends, family and crushes were all mostly along similar dynamics, whether you came of age in the 70s or the 90s.

And that's when I realized that a coming-of-age show set in the 90s would stick out as far more of a period piece than The Wonder Years did to a kid growing up when it was on air. There are two things that changed being a teenager forever. In 1999, the horror of the Columbine High School shooting completely altered the way teens felt about how safe their school was. Security measures were implemented and for a while, it felt like we'd never look at alienated students the same again.

The second advent was the concurrent development of smart phones and social media. It completely altered the landscape, particularly for teens, where both facilitated new means of bullying and emotionally abusing people. If you watched American Vandal or 13 Reasons Why, you get a good sense of how all of that is different now. It makes me wonder if The Wonder Years still feels relevant to the current generation.

For as much as I've seen people talk about the sixties as a similar time, the show resonated with me because of how easily I could see myself in Kevin's shoes. Maybe today it plays as an idealized depiction of a simpler time. Or maybe it's as foreign to modern teens as Little House on the Prairie was to me. The show is the teenage experience I hope everyone gets to live through in some fashion, heartbreak and all. I'll admit, it's a little weird to watch The Wonder Years and long for the time in which the show was produced.

And then we have Homicide: Life on the Street, celebrating 25 years this year. Like The Wonder Years, it premiered after the Super Bowl, though it struggled for much longer to find an audience. I wrote a pretty exhaustive retrospective piece five years ago for the 20th anniversary, in addition to my tribute piece last year, so you'd be justified in thinking I had little left to say.

Homicide is the true beginning of the Peak TV era. It's everything that came together to make The Wire, but done on a network TV platform. For me, 25 years of Homicide means two and a half decades of prestige TV that strives to transcend its medium. The show remains distinctive in a way most shows akin to the CBS procedural genre do not. When you turned on Homicide, you never would mistake it for a different show on the air at the time and even now, I can't picture many people confusing it for any other procedural, past or present.

I don't know if there's every been a greater broadcast TV actor than Andre Braugher. While that statement might be hyperbole, it's even more accurate to say that the perfect marriage of actor and character in Braugher's Frank Pembleton is even rarer. Frank gave the show many of its most intense moments, but he also had so many moments of emotion and heart with his partner Tim.

Richard Belzer's Munch had an even longer legacy, going on to 13 seasons as a regular on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and appearing on 10 series as that character. For a show that struggled in the ratings during most of its run, it cast a long shadow on TV.

There's one Homicide story I keep thinking of as we find ourselves in the conversation about the importance of representation in film and TV. Showrunner Tom Fontana spoke of filming a scene where Lt. Giardello, Pembleton, Lewis and Captain Barnfather are all in a heated discussion about how to handle a particularly delicate case. Once they called cut, Braugher went over to Fontana and said, "Did you do that on purpose?" Fontana, taken aback, said he didn't know what Braugher meant.

Braugher said that he'd never been in a scene with four black actors that wasn't about race. This was just a scene where all the characters happened to be black - their skin color wasn't a story point, or even a thematic issue. There was no "other-ing." I found it fascinating that Braugher picked up on that at once AND that it was notable enough that he assumed it must have been done on purpose to make the very point the actor highlighted.

It seems equally telling that that issue was completely invisible to Fontana. He wasn't trying to make any point - this was simply the result of him having a diverse enough cast where this could happen without it being an event. This also resulted from him writing his characters as being true to their natures and not defining their identities solely by their skin color.

More than twenty years since that scene and it still feels like it would be an anomaly on contemporary television. Hopefully the next two decades will bring bigger strides forward.

Happy birthday Homicide and The Wonder Years! You've certainly aged better than shows that were three decades old when YOU were first on the air.

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