"The Wonder Years" comes to Smithsonian collections

When I was in eighth grade, my government teacher gave us a homework assignment that I did not do. The next day, we were told to hand something in, even if it was a brief explanation as to why we didn't do the homework. I wrote this: "I did not do the homework last night because I was watching the series finale of The Wonder Years and, seeing as how I've grown up watching this show, I thought it was much more important for me to do that." I was given an F, but I did successfully make it out of middle school, and I still count myself as a fan of The Wonder Years.

Today, several objects from the iconic 1980s television series found a new home in our collections and, while they will not be on display right away, are still an exciting addition to the National Museum of American History. I asked our Entertainment Curator Dwight Blocker Bowers to tell me why a show about the 1960s, made in the 1980s, still resonates with people today.

New York Jets jacket from "The Wonder Years"

New York Jets jacket worn by actor Fred Savage as Kevin in The Wonder Years 

"There was something wonderfully true about the show," said Bowers, who works in the museum's Division of Culture and the Arts. "All the elements together—the performances, the costumes, the music—formed a beautiful whole."

My nine-year-old self didn't see the big picture. Every week—for one half hour—while I thought I was simply enjoying a television show about a cute boy, I was actually getting a history lesson. I was spending quality time with my parents while also witnessing what it was like for them to be my age, albeit through a Hollywood version of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s. I developed a love for the culture and an appreciation for the struggles of the era, and when it was all over I found myself nostalgic for a time period I never lived through.

For a show as specific to a period of time as The Wonder Years, the natural fit for our collections is costumes. Perhaps the most iconic article of clothing from the show is Kevin Arnold's green and white New York Jets jacket. This jacket is synonymous with the character played by Fred Savage. Though he eventually outgrew it, it is still widely recognized from the pilot episode when Kevin finds "girl-next-door" Winnie Cooper sitting in the park. He places the jacket on her shoulders and the two share their first kiss.

Along with the jacket, the museum received the two-piece dress worn by matriarch Norma Arnold during the show's opening title sequence during a family barbecue. With the obvious exception of Joe Cocker's rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends," the one thing that always stood out to me about the credits was this dress. The colorful print top and skirt with bare midriff was evocative of the time. It spoke of a generation of women beginning to reveal their identities through clothing choices and moving away from their conservative predecessors.

Two-piece dress worn by actress Alley Mills

Two-piece dress worn by actress Alley Mills

The hippie wedding dress was worn by Kevin's free-spirited sister, Karen. This too signified a rebellion of sorts within the show. Even as mother Norma was making a statement in her barbecue dress, she maintained a level of decorum common for that time period. This dress, made of unbleached muslin and embroidered with brown flowers, was yet another indication of the growing strength of youth culture.

The Wonder Years was also remarkably innovative. Single-camera comedies were rare, though much of what we see on television today is done in this format. There was no laugh track, and we were allowed to appreciate the human feelings being portrayed, both comedic and tragic.

"Where a show like Happy Days played it for laughs, The Wonder Years totally understood the era which it defined," Bowers explained to me. "Meticulous attention to the elements made [the show] work."

The voice-over narration was almost unheard of at the time and even today is an uncommon practice, except notably in the long-running comedy How I Met Your Mother. As Bowers said, "The past was playing out in front of our eyes, but also being reviewed by an adult Kevin. This allowed America to look back, question, and re-examine that time period."

Few things in life take us back to our childhoods the way television shows, movies and music can. Unfortunately, these things don't always hold up. Time and experiences force us to view the world with a new perspective, or the productions reveal themselves to be contrived and dated. To me, The Wonder Years remains as relevant and poignant as it was when it first aired. No matter my age, no matter my view of the world, just as the narrator states in the last line of the series finale that I was willing to take a failing grade for, "after all these years I still look back, with wonder."

Amelia Avalos works in the museum's Office of Communications and Marketing.