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A reimagined ‘Wonder Years’ moves to Montgomery

The beloved ’80s show gets a reboot with an all-Black cast set in Alabama

Motown, marches and mod. The 1960s have been the subject of pop cultural fascination over the last four decades, but the 1988 sitcom The Wonder Years was one of the first to revisit the decade that changed America through the eyes of a child. In the series, 12-year-old Kevin, played by Fred Savage, experienced the full span of middle school angst against the backdrop of the space race and the Vietnam War.

​​Now the ABC series has been reimagined with an African American family living in Montgomery, Alabama. Dean Williams (Elisha “EJ” Williams) is every bit as precocious and girl-crazy as Kevin, but he’s also living through school integration. This version is the brainchild of Saladin K. Patterson, who is also an executive producer on the FXX series Dave. Patterson teamed up with Savage and Lee Daniels to bring the show to the small screen. Don Cheadle narrates.

In the pilot, premiering on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET, the audience meets Dean’s father Bill (Dule Hill), a music professor who is the keeper of cool. However, the family dynamics do not hinge on Dad having an after-work cocktail. Dean’s mother Lillian (Saycon Sengbloh) is an accountant, his sister Kim (Laura Kariuki) is deciding between joining the Black Panthers or going to college, and his brother is fighting in Vietnam. This family is a working democracy. When Dean wants his baseball team to compete against his Jewish friend’s team across town — and his dad objects — hilarity and high jinks unfold.

That laughter meets gravitas as the series explores the different experiences of Black and white people in the 1960s. In the original series, the greatest threat to the American dream was women working outside of the home. In the new one, white men with guns are more dangerous than anything. The thread that keeps the original tied to the reboot is the hope of a child who believes in a better tomorrow.

The Undefeated recently sat down for virtual interviews with the cast of The Wonder Years to hear their perspectives on family and why now is the perfect time to revisit this story.

Watching the original pilot and the new one side by side, have you all been surprised by the resonance of the storylines between now and then?

Laura Kariuki: I feel like we wouldn’t be doing the story justice if we didn’t leave in all the historical events. I think we do a really good job of showing the positive and negative things that were going on at the time. Honestly, it’s still relevant today because there are a lot of parallels in the world and not much has changed. I think it’s good that we show it all.

Saycon Sengbloh: There are shows that can be straight comedy that don’t tell that part of the story, but we balance comedy, drama and real life. We have to play all of that. The subtext is there and it tells the story for us.

Elisha “EJ” Williams: I’m big on looking back at work to understand what’s going on, but something we wanted to make sure didn’t happen is that people think this is an exact copy. The original show was unique and they set the bar pretty high. We don’t want to meet the same standards. We want to go even higher than that. There’s always room for improvement. If the improvement keeps coming then we can hopefully go higher than what the original did.

Dule, did you watch The Wonder Years as a kid?

Dule Hill: Yes. You couldn’t be a child of the late ’80s and not watch. It was a part of the collective consciousness. We didn’t have as many distractions back then, so if you wanted to be in the know, The Wonder Years was a part of the conversation. As much as I loved the original, I was aware of not seeing myself as much as I would have liked. There’s a wider story that could be told, which is part of why I said yes to this role. To be able to look back at the late 1960s and explore a story of a full African American family who go through their ups and downs and are connected in love in the midst of everything around us. … It’s an important story and it’s my honor to be a part of this cast.

The Wonder Years is a coming-of-age story set in the late 1960s that takes a nostalgic look at a Black middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama, through the point of view of imaginative 12-year-old Dean. Dule Hill portrays Bill Williams (left) and Saycon Sengbloh stars as Lillian Williams (right).

Erika Doss/ABC

There are some laugh-out-loud moments in the show, but you all also tackle some heavy issues. What is the atmosphere like on set?

Williams: It’s very unique. It’s great to have a sense of family on set. A great thing for me is being able to feel like we’ve all known each other for years. It feels like a family reunion and it sparks a great chemistry. Jokes are my thing. I get giggles and that’s good enough for me.

Hill: EJ makes a great effort to bring laughter to the set. It’s often met with silence after he tells one of his terrible jokes. He’s still working on it.

Sengbloh: Levity is needed in the midst of all that stuff. Dule and Saladin are always going back-and-forth. Whenever Allen [Maldonado, who stars as Coach Long] is around, it’s hilarious. During that last scene in the first episode, we were holding back trying not to laugh.

Women in the 1960s had fewer rights and less of a voice than women do today. How did you prepare to play a role where you had to be less outspoken and take up less space?

Kariuki: Our characters are very strong-minded women even though in the time period women weren’t always treated well. I still feel like we are very strong characters.

Sengbloh: Yes, and there were strong women in that era. So many of them helped lead the civil rights movement and there are so many projects coming out now about them. Black women in that era were making major moves. What’s exciting about this show is that our characters are everyday women. My character is an accountant, Laura’s character is a student. That is the everyday woman, but you’re getting to see the extraordinary in their everyday lives. It’s important for people to see that, because I feel like for Black characters in the 1960s, they only focus on the superhero characters. Seeing the smaller small strokes among the broad strokes is so good and powerful with this show.

From left to right: The stars from ABC’s The Wonder Years: Amari O’Neil as Cory Long, Milan Ray as Keisa Clemmons, Elisha Williams as Dean Williams, Saycon Sengbloh as Lillian Williams, Dule Hill as Bill Williams, Laura Kariuki as Kim Williams and Julian Lerner as Brad Hitman.

Matt Sayles/ABC

Why is now the right time for a reboot?

Williams: The world needs to have an example. There are billions of people in this world, so everyone’s example can’t be the same, but I believe that this family can set an example for what families should be like. No family is perfect, obviously, but there are different ways to come together as one. It shows togetherness, love and joy, and that’s what the world needs right now.

Hill: It’s a wonderful thing to tell a story about that time in this time because as long as we take the time to look back, we can really take stock of how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. It allows us to expand the world and reimagine this story in an African American family. I hope it’s the beginning of what we should be doing, which is seeing the fullness of ourselves reflected on our television screens. The country is very dynamic and diverse, we’re not just one group of people. I think the more we can highlight the different stories that we have to tell, the fuller our viewing experience and our living experience will be.

What do you hope people take away from the experience of watching the series? What types of conversations do you want them to be inspired to have?

Sengbloh: I would like viewers to walk away knowing that Black people are not a monolith. Every single episode is a different story, a different slice of life. People can reflect themselves in us, and that’s everybody no matter what race.

Hill: I want audiences to be able to see our own nostalgia, to see that African Americans have had our own nostalgia. In the midst of everything that is going on, we still have our own unique memories. I want people to connect to a sense of familiarity, not just in the African American family. I also want people to see our strength. No matter what may come our way, we pick ourselves up, keep on pressing forward, love each other, connect with each other and create our own wonder years.

Kelundra Smith is a theatre critic, playwright and arts journalist whose mission is to connect people to cultural experiences and each other. Her work appears in The New York Times, Food & Wine, American Theatre, Bitter Southerner, Atlanta Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association Executive Committee, and she also teaches workshops about addressing cultural identity in cultural criticism at theaters and universities across the country. Follow her on Twitter @pieceofkay or Instagram @anotherpieceofkay for musings on life, art and everything else.