Since the launch of the reboot of The Wonder Years this fall, people have been re-watching the original with new eyes (and ears). A slice of American nostalgia, the show is largely narrated. Based on the pilot, Daniel Stern’s narration makes up almost 60% of the spoken script.
With a list of IMDB credits two trees long, Daniel Stern is up to the task, he does a fantastic job of sounding casually invested, punching up the nostalgia, and making the viewer lean in. The show runners appeared to recognize the importance of the narration in their show, going the extra mile to make it as impactful and informed as possible.
As Daniel Stern described in an Ask-Me-Anything Reddit thread, “To be prepared for both my directing job and my narrating job, I was on the set every day of the shooting of the pilot. It gave me a chance to really bond with the cast and the crew.”
For all his “first love in film is directing,” he had a fantastic voice, richly American with humor and pathos. “The beauty of voice acting is that you can do it in your pajamas. It takes a particular acting style to focus your character just in your voice…. and I loved doing that on Dilbert, and especially The Wonder Years.” On a side note, Daniel Stern wasn’t selling or promoting anything in the AMA thread, he just did it because he wanted to, it’s practically heroic.
What Made The Wonder Years Narration so Different
The Wonder Years wasn’t just different for the time, it was revolutionary. A coming-of-age story set in the late 60s early 70’s, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1993. The story revolves around Kevin Arnold played by Fred Savage (director of the reboot) and his middle of the road, average as apple pie family, three kids, mom, and dad. It didn’t use a laugh track, was filmed with a single camera setup, and used voice over.
Daniel Stern’s narration provides an insight and humor into the show, revealing the inner conflicts teenage Kevin is experiencing with the vocabulary and wry hindsight of an adult. He’s Kevin’s cheerleader as well as his biggest critic. It was new, dynamic, and interesting. “I read the script,” explained Alley Mills, (Kevin’s mother,) “and I remember thinking, ‘I have never read anything like this.’ I didn’t understand how the narration was going to work. But I thought it was brilliant.”
The show’s co-creator, Carol Black explained, “We liked the concept that you could play with what people think and what they’re saying, or how they would like to see themselves as opposed to how the audience is seeing them.”
The show relies heavily on nostalgia, starting a trend that hasn’t gone anywhere, if anything, it’s more prevalent now (ahem, reboots.) Kevin and company’s life may appear to be almost comically idyllic, (the television equivalent of “when I was young…”) but who can blame adult Kevin for looking back on his youth through rose colored glasses, it’s not unrealistic, if anything it’s more reflective of real life.
“We just started to think that there was a lot of potential fun in that ‘cause you can really play with the contrast between the narrator’s point of view and what the characters are doing. And you can go inside their head and expose what they’re really thinking when they’re saying something different … And then we just sort of jumped from there to thinking that effect is accentuated when you have an adult narrator looking back on childhood.”
Why The Wonder Years Narration is Still Different
Shows like How I Met Your Mother, Malcolm in the Middle and My So-Called Life undoubtedly took much of their influence from The Wonder Years. And of course, the Wonder Years inspired… the Wonder Years- the reboot, now narrated by Don Cheadle. Still, the show feels different from everything that came after it.
Even Malcolm in the Middle, which could be said to be the show’s first “inspired-by” doesn’t have the same narrative style or impact. The delivery of The Wonder Years makes it one of the most immersive narrative experiences on TV, (or streaming).
It’s appropriate that the show’s lead Kevin, played by Fred Savage, was also the grandson from The Princess Bride as both stories feel like they are being told to us by a reminiscent father/grandfather. The show itself acknowledges this nostalgic notion in the finale when a little boy asks through voice over, “Hey dad, wanna play catch?” and our narrator, an adult Kevin answers, “I’ll be right there.” Interestingly, the voice of the little boy was Daniel Stern’s real-life son.
Unlike many other shows, The Wonder Years doesn’t feel as though it’s being built around what the narrator is saying, rather it feels as though the narrator is accompanying (an admittedly weird) amount of home videos, found footage, and photo slideshows. The narration might exaggerate his childhood prowess at sport, his kid-like wit, and the insanity of his family but the camera doesn’t.
It set The Wonder Years apart from other shows that use the same narrative device, and in my oh so humble opinion it’s why the show is so timeless. Of course, the footage isn’t in HD or 4K, of course, it looks grainy and old. It’s home footage, what do we expect?
The Wonder Years without Narration
Thanks to the age of YouTube and at home editing we don’t have to pontificate (wonder) what the Wonder Years would have been like without Daniel Stern Narration. The Silent Wonder Years takes the narrator out or replaces the narrator with 80’s horror synth, or horror music. It really demonstrates how narration, music, editing, all of it, sets the tone for a show. It’s creepy and tense, and oddly boring. Hats off to the actors for suffering through those long pauses.