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Thursday, August 03, 2017

I Learned Some Bad Lessons About Love from The Wonder Years

I don't know what all this business about family togetherness and keeping fingers of phones at the table is about. My family watched TV at dinner. From six o'clock to seven, pre-prime time, were all the syndicated sitcoms from the house that Generation X built. Murphy Brown, Designing Women, America's Funniest Home Videos, Empty Nest, Growing Pains, Night Court. And The Wonder Years.


I didn't know it at the time, but The Wonder Years was for my parents what The Goldbergs is for me -- a sitcom that capitalizes on nostalgia and trying to convince oneself that the pop culture was more meaningful than it was (in this case, that the sixties were about more than sex and drugs).The difference is there's less melodrama. This was one part of the The Wonder Years appeal.

The other is Kevin, the thirteen-year-old boy trying to make sense of all this history unfolding. The observer watching the toxic masculinity of his older brother, the victimization of his sister, the semi-abusive father, and the oblivious, ignorant mother. This basically means Kevin's on his own when it comes to figuring things out, because everyone else is setting a bad example. This unfortunately extends into his love life and his series-long goal -- Winnie Cooper. She was his childhood friend until she showed up at the bus stop having grown bangs overnight. And boobs.


The series is all about Kevin's attempts to make Winnie love him. Kevin + Winnie is the OTP of this series. What that means is that any time Kevin is not attempting to woo Winnie -- e.g. one of the handful of episodes where he's paired with another girl -- it's all a mistake. It's a plot to make Winnie jealous or another bump in the road to realize he's taken a wrong path. A little filler. A little drama to stretch out the series.

The Wonder Years left me with a terrible impression of how love/romantic relationships work. In fact, I think it may have influenced me in a terribly negative way, such that if this show didn't exist, I probably would have had a more positive high school experience. At least one without so much trauma. Because, at my tender age of seven to nine, this is where you start taking things to heart. The whole point of the show was that Kevin was doing things wrong because he was a kid. But I didn't know that at the time.


Here are the fundamentals of what I learned. If you like a girl, never ADMIT you like her. To anyone. Watch her from afar. Send her notes. Put her on a pedestal. That's romantic. It's better to pine for a woman than to actually treat her as a human being. Life is about waffling back and forth. Expect her to say no at first. Expect her to change her mind because she's confused. That's okay, she's just searching for the right answer (which is you). Never define that line between friends and lovers. Because that's scary (and too conclusive). And as Daniel Stern might have said before a fade to black, as you get older, communication gets more... complicated.

No, idiot. YOU made it complicated. Because you're a fucking coward. Here, let's take a look at some prime examples from a few episodes.


"On the Spot"/"Our Town"

This is the one where Winnie's the star of the school play "Our Town" and all Kevin gets to do is run the spotlight. But at the end, he realizes his job is to shine the spotlight her, to let everyone know her beauty. She's the perfect one, the shining star. That's the man's job--stay in the tower and watch her. Never interact with her.


"Night Out"

Kevin and Winnie go to make-out party. Apparently this was a thing in the sixties. I guess it's a boy-girl party where you go into a closet and kiss (and maybe more?) and everyone else... waits? Are they listening in? Does everyone have their dicks out, jerkin' it to the sound of smacking? Thank god we invented the Internet. Now we just have rainbow parties. But at my impressionable age, it was as fascinating as a toilet. I think it might hold the record for biggest tension as the episode goes through several stages.

First, Kevin worries about the oncoming party. Then he gets there, and everything seems normal. Just dancing and snacks. Then the party-thrower (who is known for these kinds of mature shenanigans) turns out the lights and says the games will now begin. He rotates in place, his flashlight passing over everyone. Just when Kevin and Winnie realize get cold feet and try to leave, he shines on them. This teaches me that the nail that sticks up gets knocked back down.

Then when they're shoved into this closet, filled with nerves, as people stand just beyond, only a thin piece of wood and shag carpet between them, they stare at each other. But this is it--the first real kiss. Just as Kevin leans forward, Winnie escapes. Embarrassment and humility abound. Lesson learned? "Making out" is sacred and should be done with as little communication as possible.


"St. Valentine's Day Massacre"

Previously on "The Wonder Years", Kevin spent the last twenty-two minutes moping over his singlehood because his best friend and ex are getting together. Talk about a ratings grabber. But Paul lets slip that Winnie still has feelings for Kevin. Previously mopey Kevin bounds over to her house and confronts her with the knowledge, all joyous and happy like he won the big game. "Paul just told me -- you're crazy about me!" "Paul told you?" SLAM!

That was before. Now how to fix this? Well, he COULD talk to her about it, apologize or give her some space or reflect on what it is he actually wants from himself instead of a girlfriend. Or he could shove a cheap valentine in her locker. And then get the wrong locker. Genius. Doesn't even matter that it's the locker of Kevin's ex-girlfriend, we can stop there, that's enough.

Life lesson? Never talk to a girl. Communicate through notes. After that point? The ball's in her court. Only interact with her when you know you can do no wrong in her eyes. And if you do, that's the time NOT to confront her. Solution? Leave a note for her. And then she'll fix it herself. No need to actually interact. These things work themselves out.


"Fate"

This one was a big one for me. Kevin earns the ire of the school bully by defending Winnie's honor. But it turns out Winnie is ACTUALLY dating the school bully (I'm now getting the sense that Kevin is Forrest Gump and Winnie is Jenny. It even takes place in the same time period.)

Of course, there's a big final showdown in the parking lot. Tension, tension, tension. And Kevin throws the first punch, connecting with the bully's... shoulder. Kevin gets the crap beaten out of him, contradicting decades of romantic literature. With the help of Paul and Winnie, he limps home. What does this teach? Throw yourself in front of the train to protect the girl you love. Nothing is more noble. Especially when she's making a bad decision. And you don't even have to talk to her.


"Heartbreak" / "Denial"

Winnie's moved all the way across town. I have no idea where Kevin and Winnie are in their relationship at this point. In fact, that was a recurring problem. Since I saw them in syndication, they were always in a perpetual state of not really being together. I also have no idea why the parents bothered moving just across town. What a stupid expense and stupid way to breed tension.

Anyway, both their schools are going to the Natural History Museum. But Kevin gets jealous seeing Winnie with her friends from the other school. There's that jealousy again. Such an admirable trait, being possessive. No one should get to share your little toy.

In fact, Winnie's not just integrating with new friends, but her new boyfriend is there as well. Will Kevin nut up and move on? Will Kevin accept her decision and accept his value as a human being without a girlfriend? No! Of course not! He's going to throw a party and try and get back together with Winnie there.

But how to do it? Take her aside and tell her honestly how he feels? No! Kevin's going to go with his ex-girlfriend, Madeline (who?), the sultry temptress that ACTUALLY LIKES HIM and make Winnie jealous. (A lot of his plotting involves making Winnie jealous).

That's the other thing. Girls are always throwing themselves Kevin. I remember in the beginning of one episode Kevin, Paul, Becky*, and some nerdy girl who was Paul's girlfriend were on the couch in the basement, making out. This was an amazing thing. Kevin was supposed to be Charlie Brown -- the guy who never gets the red-haired girl. That he had actually succeeded, forget that it had nothing to do with Winnie, was mind-blowing to nine-year-old lovelorn me. He made it. Girls actually liked him. Attractive girls. I still want to kick him in the nuts to this day for not appreciating how good he had it.

*I don't think it was coincidence that Becky Slater was played by Danica McKellar's real life sister. As attractive as Winnie was (I still have a thing for brunette with bangs), Becky's personality was stronger. She was the "right Winnie" for Kevin. But some motherfuckers always gotta be ice-skating uphill.


"The Accident"

As if it wasn't creepy enough, this episode ends with Kevin staring at Winnie through her bedroom window. This is after she was in a car accident. This is after Winnie had been flirting with boys three or four grades above her. This is after she was staring at her old house in the night. And THIS is after breaking up with her boyfriend. She's acting like she's on drugs or contemplating suicide.

But being CLEARLY told by her parents that "she doesn't want to see him right now" doesn't stop Stalker Kevin. He shows up to mouth "I love you" to her. Because it's clearly all about him. It doesn't matter how she feels, Kevin has to express his undying devotion. They called this the best episode of the series.


"Summer"/"Independence Day"

The finale. I never saw how The Wonder Years ended until now, when I watched it on Netflix. But I sure as hell remember hearing about it. However, I had moved on from the show and I think something else had replaced it in the dinner time syndication time slot. It sure doesn't stray from its roots. Its creepy, rapey, stalker roots.

Kevin quits his stable job at his father's furniture factory to work at a country club because Winnie has a job there as a pool lifeguard. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. He gets a job as a waiter, but mostly just watches her. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Oh, I already said that.

Winnie kisses someone else and Kevin punches him out. They both get fired and have to hitchhike back home (after having been kicked out of a car for bickering too much). It all ends when they're stuck in a barnhouse, confess their fear of the future and its changes, and it's implied they lose their virginity to each other. I hope you all are taking notes, men.

My god, why aren't more articles written about this. Did anyone vet this show? Sure it's all cute when an eleven-year-old kid hides behind the shield of baby boomer nostalgia. Oh, he's such a puppy dog -- all awkward and stumbly, trying to find his way in the world. But some of us could have used a little more deconstruction. We could have used some female characters with more agency. They aren't puzzle boxes to figure out. 

The only good part is that the narration at the end puts a nice epilogue on the relationship. Kevin goes to college. Winnie studies art history in France. And when they see each other again, it's a decade later. Kevin is married to Not-Winnie and has an eight-month-old son. It's a shining light showing that, although we are the products of our past, we don't have to let it define us. We can change. The world we're surrounded by doesn't have to tie us down. We can open a different door.

But he should have gotten kicked in the nuts a few more times.

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