The creator of 'The Wonder Years' reflects on its successful first season
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
With so many quality scripted television shows now and so many ways to watch them, remakes and reboots have become one way for Hollywood to try to grab some of those precious eyeballs. And there have been quite a few - "Will & Grace," "One Day At A Time," "Queer Eye," "The Conners." And you may have noticed that some of them have succeeded in reviving the magic of the original, and some have, well, not. But the creator of one such project achieved critical success this season by producing not so much a reboot, but a reimagining, giving a classic series its own compelling reason to exist. We're talking about Saladin K. Patterson, the creator and showrunner of ABC's "The Wonder Years," a coming-of-age comedy told from the perspective of a 12-year-old named Dean Williams.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WONDER YEARS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) One thing about being 12 that hasn't changed over the decades is that it's around 12 where you figure out what your place is in the world. But being in my family made that hard. I'd never be as popular as my sister or as athletic as my brother, as smart as my mom or as bad as my dad.
MARTIN: Dean's "Wonder Years" transports us back to the late 1960s, but this time it follows a Black middle class family living in Montgomery, Ala. Patterson says he wasn't always sold on the idea.
SALADIN K PATTERSON: I was such a huge fan of the original. I did not want to be the person who messed up the legacy of "The Wonder Years." And I also did not want to be someone who was known who just did, like, a Black version of "The Wonder Years." When they were open to me kind of loosely basing it on my own family in Alabama - because I was like, if we're going to tell the story about a Black family in the late '60s, you know, let's not run from it. Let's set it in the South. Let's set it in Alabama, where I'm from. When 20th was OK with me loosely basing it on the experiences of my family members, my mom and my dad and my aunts and uncles who were of age during that time, that freed me up creatively to kind of be able to wrap my head around it and say, OK, well, now I can see what this can be and how it can be unique and specific.
MARTIN: You know, I'm so fascinated by your story, to be honest with you. I mean, you grew up in Montgomery. You went to MIT.
MARTIN: You have a degree in - do I have this right? - electrical engineering...
PATTERSON: Yes, that's correct.
MARTIN: ...From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now you're showrunner and a writer for television. OK. I'm sure there's a book in there which I will look forward to reading. But how did all that happen? How did all that happen?
PATTERSON: You know, I'll be brief. The briefest answer I can give is it is the grace of God. I got to say that because it's one of those things where, you know, in terms of me landing in entertainment, I didn't know that much about the entertainment industry growing up. I was a math and science geek. And I tell my son that, you know, you could say geek with pride now. Back when I was growing up, that was a liability, you know.
MARTIN: Well, those were fighting words, but now it's like a T-shirt. Please.
PATTERSON: Thank you. You know, now all their heroes are geeks, which is great, which is great. But so I focused on that and leaned into that as my way out, as my way of having success.
MARTIN: So were they OK with - I mean, were they - I think in so many ways, a lot of African American first-generation professionals are like immigrants in the sense of they're immigrants in their own country, in the sense that, you know, their parents have sacrificed so much to get to a certain point. And they want their kids to be safe and well cared for. And so, you know, your mom, like, in the show, Dean's mom has a master's. And his dad is a musician, which is similar to your parents. But that's part of the tension there is, what have you given up for your art? What have you given up in order to provide for your family? And I...
MARTIN: ...If you don't mind my asking. Forgive me. I'm getting all in your business.
PATTERSON: Of course. No.
MARTIN: Did they think you were crazy, I mean, going to have MIT? You could have been like designing rockets and robots and stuff - to want to be a Hollywood - a screenwriter, scriptwriter, a showrunner. I mean, did they think, what have we done?
PATTERSON: You know, there were a series of discussions. I will say that. When I went to MIT, I think my family kind of breathed a sigh of relief, like, OK, he's going to be OK. And so when I told them all that I was going to leave electric engineering after graduating from MIT, and the first step was I told them I was going to go into psychology. So I went to grad school at Vanderbilt for clinical psychology. That was the one that was like, OK, it's good that you're going into psychology because you may be crazy because why - my dad's response was, you know, boy, you can starve as a psychologist, you know. And it was based on his experience and his frustrations with the music industry and having found himself as an adult having to reinvent himself, you know.
And my mom, on the other hand, this was the irony of it all. You know, as successful as my mom had been coming up, you know, graduating top of her class, going to get her master's, she dealt with the fact that at that time she found herself overeducated for a woman, overeducated for a Black woman specifically, and did not have opportunities that met her experience and educational level when she came back to Alabama. And so she dealt with a lot of frustration of hidden very low ceilings. So she told me, Saladin, figure out what you want to do now. And that was integral in me being able to have the courage and faith to say I was going to try other things. And so it was in grad school that I started writing. I just got really interested in how in how television worked, you know. That led to me in grad school applying to the Disney writing fellowship program, which that's what took me to LA in 1996 as I age myself.
MARTIN: Wow. So we cannot avoid the pain point, which is that Fred Savage, who was the star of the original "Wonder Years" 30 years ago, was a producer and director of the series, who was fired recently following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate conduct. Now, obviously, I'm not going to ask you to tell me about the truth or falsity of these matters.
MARTIN: But I'm sure this was a very awkward and painful thing for everybody involved. And I'm just wondering if you're worried about how this will affect the way the show is being received. Do you feel that this - I don't know - tarnishes your accomplishment in some way?
PATTERSON: You know, I don't think so, and I certainly hope not. As you mentioned, Fred was an integral part of the, you know, the season, the show - the original and of this one. And I don't want to minimize his contribution at all because Fred was so important to me and to this show. But at the same time, the show, as you already know, it's bigger than one person, it's bigger than one producer, you know. We will continue to tell, you know, great stories with these great characters. And we're just going to, you know, have to focus on that moving forward, which I know is what Fred would want us to do anyway.
MARTIN: So could you just give us any sense of what we can expect next? I mean, I know that historical documentary, you know, obviously, but that period coming forward is so fraught and so rich. And there are just so many aspects of that story, the stories of how people were affected by these larger movements around them, even as they were living their individual lives. And so many of those stories haven't been told yet. And I just wondered if there's anything - and well, maybe I'll ask it this way. Is there some particular story you're just hungering to tell?
PATTERSON: There are. And as you mentioned, you know, we're - in the show, in the world of the show, we're coming to a time period in American history that, like you said, was just full of monumental moments and changes in culture and society. And we certainly want to and intend to tap into those, you know, in Season 2 and hopefully in many seasons beyond Season 2, you know, as tumultuous as the late '60s, early '70s were, and how at the time it felt like we had problems we wouldn't overcome, we still look back and call those the wonder years. OK.
And so that means that someday 20 years from now, you know, my kids or other kids now are going to look back to the 2020s and say that these were their wonder years, as crazy as it seems right now. And as, like, insurmountable as some of these problems seem, and how wide the divide between people of different ideologies feels right now, this is going to be the wonder years for a generation of people. And if we can remember that and realize that, I do think that encourages us, as sappy as it sounds, it encourages us that we're going to get through this stuff, too.
MARTIN: That was Saladin K. Patterson, the creator and showrunner of ABC's "The Wonder Years." Saladin, thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations on the first season. And, you know, good luck.
PATTERSON: Thank you so very much. It's been my pleasure. I'm a big fan of yours. And it is such a dream come true to be able to have this conversation with you.
PATTERSON: Oh, so now you're making me feel old. But thank you.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. I'll take it. I'll receive it.
PATTERSON: There you go. There you go.
MARTIN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.