The Wonder Years is a nostalgic semi-comedic series about a boy growing up in The '60s — or, to be more accurate, a middle-aged man reminiscing about growing up in The '60s, with a voiceover narrating/voicing the boy's thoughts. The series was basically a warmhearted and vivid recollection of a specific time and (inspecific) place. Created by Neal Marens and Carol Black for New World Television, this classic series ran from 1988 to 1993.
The boy in question, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), has an abusive older brother named Wayne (Jason Hervey), a hippie older sister named Karen (Olivia d'Abo), and parents (Dan Lauria and Alley Mills) who, while still in love each other, would often fight. Kevin's best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) is a gangly geek with frequent asthma attacks, and the Girl Next Door is Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar), with whom affection is mutual but "She Is Not My Girlfriend".
The show is one of the earliest half-hour sitcoms done in single camera format — and without a laugh track, being a precursor to the shows that are considered to launch the format such as Spaced and Malcolm in the Middle. It wasn't afraid of addressing touchy subjects and was often frank about things that happen when growing up. One episode dealt with Kevin getting to touch a girl's breast for the first time.
The show aired on ABC from 1988 (when it premiered following Super Bowl XXII) to 1993; the show's continuity runs from 1968 to 1973, seventh grade through eleventh grade for Kevin and his friends. The Wonder Years was not ABC's original choice for leading out Super Bowl XXII, they wanted to premiere the pilot for China Beach after the game. But realizing that the game could run long and push the ending of China Beach after midnight as it was a 2-hour presentation, they swapped in The Wonder Years instead. Coincidentally, both series were set in the period in which The Vietnam War raged - China Beach was set primarily at a military hospital during the war, while The Wonder Years made numerous references to the war and the movement against it as the series progressed.
The Wonder Years has long been one of the most-requested shows for TV-on-DVD fans, but the music rights clearances were considered too expensive to make the set worth it — until 2014, when Time-Life announced a complete series release of the show that has 96% of the original music (285 individual clearances) left intact, including the show's famous opening theme (Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help from My Friends").
A reboot, featuring an all-black cast and taking place in 1960's Montgomery, premiered on ABC in 2021. Savage produces alongside Empire co-creator Lee Daniels and Disney themselves, via their 20th Television division; 20th was the legacy successor to original producer New World Television after News Corporation bought out New World just to get their Fox-affiliated stations.
The Wonder Years contains examples of the following tropes:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Paul Pfeiffer's little sister, Debbie, is initally this to Kevin. He warms up to her by the end of "Little Debbie".
- The Alleged Car: Kevin got his first car from his grandfather, who sold it to him for a buck. With how often it nickled and dimed him, Kevin began to wonder if his grandfather ripped him off.
- All of the Other Reindeer: Margaret Farquhar, a Cloudcuckoolander whose interests include bats, etymology, and wearing three-braided pigtails. Kevin gets paired up with her in gym class in "Square Dance", and although he winds up enjoying her company, he's overcome by peer pressure and tells her he'd only like to be friends with her in secret... which doesn't sit well with her, and effectively ends their short-lived friendship.
- Aesop Amnesia: In a couple of episodes, Wayne goes too far in how he treats Kevin. Although he and Kevin make up, Wayne soon reverts back to his usual ways.
- The B Grade: In "Math Class Square", Paul is unhappy to get a B on his math test, saying that a B grade is "like kissing your sister". Kevin, however, would be happy to get a B, since he was getting a C average in math.
- Big Eater:
- Wayne is seen indulging in food more than any other character in the series, and remains preoccupied with food even during very tense familial situations. This is lampshaded by Kevin in the episode "Dinner Out" where he tells Wayne, "It's all you can eat, butthead, not all you can carry!" upon him absolutely stacking his plate with food from a buffet.
- Kevin's 8th and 9th grade friend Doug Porter was also one, and frequently served as a Fat Comic Relief.
- Another classmate of Kevin's, Peter Armbruster, was an overweight boy whose catchphrase was "Let's eat!", and was given his own spotlight episode with "The Yearbook".
- Wayne briefly dated a girl named Angela in "Growing Up", who was very gluttonous, much to the rest of the family's chagrin.
- Birthday Episode:
- "Birthday Boy" involves Kevin's birthday party conflicting with Paul's bar mitzvah.
- "Daddy's Little Girl" is about Karen's 18th birthday.
- Bittersweet Ending:
- Many of the episodes have bittersweet endings. For example, in one episode the gang fight for Harper's Wood to be saved from becoming a mall. They fail, but decide to play there for one last time.
- The Series Finale where Kevin reveals all the main characters' fates as they attend the Fourth of July parade. Paul becomes a successful lawyer, Karen gives birth to a son, Norma becomes a successful businesswoman, and Wayne stays on with the furniture company. However, Jack is revealed to have died shortly after the finale, and while Kevin eventually marries and has a son, it's not with Winnie.
- Bookends: At the beginning of "She, My Friend, and I", Kevin and Winnie briefly discuss how they've been getting a lot of history homework lately. At the end of the next episode, "St. Valentine's Day Massacre", Kevin and Winnie decide to study for their history test together.
- Break the Cutie:
- Subverted with Winnie. Considering that at the end of the first episode, her brother dies in Vietnam — and at the end of the second season, her parents get a divorce — she is still a perfectly normal teenager. Especially notable since divorce was relatively uncommon in the sixties.
- When Miss Haycock takes over the title choir in "Glee Club", she is a student teacher full of enthusiasm and ideas, determined to help the Dreadful Musicians in the class become talented singers, and truly believing they can successfully perform Sig Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein's 'Stout-Hearted Men' in the Spring Sing. The glee club members are as reluctant as they are dreadful, and most of them think she's insane; when Kevin is finally persuaded to tell Miss Haycock that they don't want to perform, she breaks down crying... which inspires the hitherto silent Warren Gander to reveal his almost angelic singing voice, restoring the self-belief of both the students and Miss Haycock. Sadly, it is short-lived; on the night of the concert, the performance spirals irreversibly downward after Warren's voice starts breaking on the very first note, and by the end of the song, Miss Haycock has fled the stage in despair. Adult Kevin says she supposedly went back to college, but wherever she went, they never saw her again.
- Call-Back: If an episode has a scene where a TV program can be seen on the Arnold's TV, it's a safe bet that there'll later be a fantasy sequence involving that show. This includes watching Star Trek and Kevin later having a dream based on the scene, or Kevin watching I Dream of Jeannie and imagining Winnie as Jeannie later.
- Catchphrase: Wayne calling people (usually Kevin) "Butt-Head".
- Chekhov's Gun: Two occur in "A Very Cutlip Christmas". First is Mr. Cutlip sneezing, which is how Kevin finds out that the mall Santa is Cutlip, and the other is Norma's desire to buy Kevin a tie that he doesn't want.
- Christmas Episode: The show had four Chrismtas episodes during it's run. "Christmas" was about Kevin wanting a color TV for Christmas and wanting to find the perfect present for Winnie, "A Very Cutlip Christmas" involved Kevin learning that Coach Cutlip secretly has a second job as a Mall Santa, "Christmas Party" involved the family's annual Christmas party, and "Let Nothing You Dismay" involved Kevin needing more money to buy Winnie the perfect gift while Jack struggles to get a loan to start his furniture business.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
- Very few of Kevin's classmates from Junior High returned after graduation (it makes sense that the teachers would stay). These include Doug Porter, Tommy Kissling, and Becky Slater. Kevin's only classmates who went to Senior High with Kevin were Paul (after a brief stint in prep school), Winnie, and Randall Mitchell.
- Carla Healy disappears after the third season, with no further mention.
- Classically-Trained Extra: Dan Lauria, who played Jack (the dad), is a Shakespearean actor who initially considered the role beneath him. This may, however, have helped him maintain his dour, beaten-down-by-life attitude on-screen.
- Clip Show: "Looking Back", which is made entirely of clips from the show with new narration, and "Broken Hearts and Burgers", in which Winnie gets mad at Kevin, leading to clips involving their relationship.
- Clique Tour: In the pilot, Kevin looks over the various cliques at his school while his older self narrates:Adult Kevin: You had your cool kids. You had your smart kids. You had your greasers. Of course, in those days, you had your hippies.
- Cool and Unusual Punishment: The one time Grandpa Arnold gets mad at Kevin and Wayne is when they fight in the car on the way to a burial site. He orders them out of the car and then drives away.
- Cool Car: This is Kevin's opinion of Brian Cooper's 1959 Chevrolet El Camino. Though it didn't run, Brian worked on it almost every day, cementing his image in the minds of the younger neighbourhood children as the definition of "cool", and after he was drafted and sent to Vietnam, the car remained on blocks in the Cooper driveway, "as kind of a reminder of who really ran things on our street."
- Cool Teacher:
- Mr. Tyler in "Walk Out". He encourages the students to take part of a walk out (which involves leaving class), even after Mr. Diperna won't allow it and threatens to put it on the permanent records of any student involved, and even encourages them to go through with it after Mr. Diperna won't accept the petitions with many signatures. However, on the day of the walk out, Mr. Tyler calls in sick, though Kevin thinks he chickened out.
- Also Miss Shaw in "Kodachrome". She refuses to teach from the state-imposed curriculum, gives Pass/Fail (and when that's frowned upon, lets the students choose their own letter grades), and emphasizes there are no wrong answers when discussing literature. Sadly, her rebel ways were not tolerated, so she quit in protest.
- Conscription: As the show takes place during the late 60s/early 70s, this is often a topic. Winnie's brother Brian was drafted and wound up getting killed in Vietnam. In a later episode, it's mentioned Wayne manages to avoid this because he has a high draft lottery number.
- Deus ex Machina: How Kevin gets out of denting the fender on Jack's car in "Ladies and Gentlemen...The Rolling Stones": On the way home from a square dance double date, Zeke pulls into the driveway too fast and bumps Jack's car. Turns out Norma was just as relieved as Kevin, as she hit the wall while backing out the day before and never told Jack about it.
- Downer Beginning: The very first episode ends with everyone learning Winnie's older brother was killed in Vietnam.
- Dreadful Musician: The title choir in "Glee Club" is an entire class of them, a dumping ground for male eighth graders who need to take a music class but don't play an instrument and are completely tone deaf. They are "led" by Apathetic Teacher Mr. Frace, who has long since given up trying to get anything resembling music out of them and now goes through the motions of leading them through singing arpeggios for the first few minutes of the hour before telling them to spend the rest of the class studying. When student teacher Miss Haycock takes over the glee club for a few weeks, she is optimistic that even they can be shaped into talented singers, but she sadly receives a very rude wake-up call when their Spring Sing performance of "Stout-Hearted Men" collapses into tuneless chaos. By the end of the episode, Mr. Frace is back, and the glee club have resigned themselves to being untrainably awful.Adult Kevin: [as the camera pans across the students singing horribly out of tune arpeggios] Randy Mitchell: baritone. Doug Porter: monotone. Paul Pfeiffer: no tone at all.
- Dream Intro: The episode "Heart of Darkness" begins with Kevin having a dream where he's in a cave but then ends up in math class wearing pajamas. It happens three times during the first ten minutes.
- Early-Installment Weirdness:
- The first episode has a scene where 12-year-old Kevin's thoughts are heard, which is redundant with the adult narrator. It also has Brian Cooper who is introduced by the narrator as the last member of the cast, and it's extremely jarring. In addition, the kitchen set is flipped with the platform and stove on opposite sides from later episodes.
- The early episodes "My Dad's Office" and "Christmas" have scenes without Kevin, who otherwise appears in every scene although the last season has a few (non-montage) scenes without Kevin. "Alice in Autoland" begins and ends with scenes at parties Kevin wasn't at, and "Eclipse" has a subplot of Chuck being left behind and finding his way to the museum. The narration in "My Dad's Office," the earliest example, makes it clear that Kevin is speculating what happened after he left the room.
- Embarrassing First Name:
- On the first day of junior high in the pilot, Winnie tells Kevin and Paul to start calling her by her proper name, Gwendolyn, since Winnie sounds so immature. They never do and it's never mentioned again.
- In "Lunch Stories", Wayne makes a bet that he can find out the first name of a student known only as Maniac. It turns out his name is Florence, and he threatens to kill Wayne if he tells anyone else (producing a knife and stabbing it into the table to show he is serious).
- Episode Code Number:
- B88003 = Pilot
- B881XX = Season 1
- B885XX = Season 2
- B895XX = Season 3
- B905XX = Season 4
- 02S00591XX = Season 5
- 02S00592XX = Season 6
- Exact Words: In "Ladies and Gentlemen... The Rolling Stones", Kevin gets grounded for speeding, and when the parents go out, Jack tells Kevin that his car better not be an inch away from where it is when Jack gets back. Kevin takes his dad's car instead.
- Fat Comic Relief: Doug Porter, Kevin's 8th and 9th grade friend.
- Ricky, Kevin's senior high school friend.
- First Kiss: Kevin and Winnie in the first episode. It was apparently the first kiss for the actors as well.
- Foregone Conclusion: Any time Kevin gets a girlfriend while on vacation ("Summer Song", "The Lake"), he will eventually have to leave her when the family goes back home.
- Gasshole: Wayne burps a lot.
- George Jetson Job Security: In "When Worlds Collide", Norma worked at Kevin's school for about a week before she was fired.
- "Getting My Own Room" Plot: "Separate Rooms" is about Kevin and Wayne fighting over Karen's room once she moves out.
- Grief-Induced Split: Winnie's parents separate after their son Brian is killed in the Vietnam War.
- Ikea Erotica: This is Kevin and Paul's assessment of Mr. Cutlip's attempt at sex education (not helped by his ludicrously bad drawings of the female reproductive system - and the woman in which it resides) and especially their textbook Health and Human Sexuality in "Swingers". Mr. Cutlip's warning not to read ahead past the first two chapters is immediately ignored, but by the time they have had to look up "pre-natal" and "amniotic fluid", the boys conclude that they're about as likely to learn anything about sex from the book as they are from the instruction manual to a toaster. Then Wayne tells them about a best seller called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (* But Were Afraid to Ask)...
- Imagine Spot: Kevin frequently had these.
- Inflation Negation: Kevin does chores around the house as suggested by his dad to earn money to go out with his friends. Kevin's dad is a stickler though, and for all his effort he gets a dollar from his dad's wallet. There are sound effects of a safe opening and closing when his dad opens his wallet too.
- I Will Show You X!: When Kevin breaks up with Becky Slater in "Just Between You and Me... and Kirk and Paul and Carla and Becky" and says he hopes they can be friends, her reaction becomes one of the most frequently re-used clips in the entire series as she punches him twice in the stomach and once in the face while screaming "Friends!? I'll give you 'friends!'"
- Jeopardy! Thinking Music: Plays in "Full Moon Rising" when Kevin and friends tutor Rickey for his drivers test.
- Karma Houdini:
- Becky Slater never gets in trouble for any of the mean things she does to Kevin after their break-up. Among the things she had done to him include knocking him out, telling most of the school about the mean things Kevin said about them behind their backs when they were a couple, trying to run over Kevin with her bike (which results in her getting a new boyfriend), pouring Kevin's milk on his lap, and punching Kevin after he beats her in a race on the track field (keep in mind a teacher was there when that happened, and she got no apparent punishment).
- The cool students in charge of the yearbook in "Yearbook". They let Kevin pick funny quotes for each student, including "oink oink" for a fat student. Feeling guilty, Kevin tries to talk them into removing that quote. When Kevin points out that the principal will see it, they decide to go to fix things.... By telling him that Kevin tried to sneak that quote in, and after Kevin gets detention for it, they decide they don't need him for the yearbook anymore, and remain unpunished.
- Kevin, apparently, in "Back to the Lake". When driving himself and Paul to work, he decides to skip work and go to the lake to see Cara, against Paul's will. While we never see what happens when they return to work, Kevin continues to be employed at Mr. Chong's Chinese restaurant while Paul is never seen or mentioned to be working there again.
- In "Ladies and Gentlemen... The Rolling Stones", Kevin gets grounded. When the parents go out for the night, Jack tells Kevin not to drive his car, so Kevin drives Jack's car. He ends up wrecking the back of the car, and fears his parents finding out when they get back... only for the person who had driven them to accidentally bump into the car before Jack could see that it was already wrecked... and then Kevin learns Norma had already wrecked it.
- Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: Winnie Cooper is the Light Feminine to Madeline Adams' Dark Feminine. Winnie is a classic Girl Next Door with a slight air of naïvety about her. Madeline is a mysterious Vamp who is, as Kevin puts it, "dangerous", with a strong air of seductiveness which she attempts to use to get between Kevin and Winnie.
- Loud Gulp: Several times throughout the show, whenever Kevin had an Oh, Crap! moment, the narrator would simply say, "Gulp!"
- Love Triangle: "Triangle" involves Kevin having a secret romance with Wayne's latest girlfriend.
- Meaningful Echo: In "Good-bye": "You don't need to grade it. It's an F." Then at the end of the episode: "You don't need to grade it. It's an A."
- Mood Whiplash: Used quite often both for comedy and drama, but a rather subtle one is used in the intro to the season two finale, How I'm Spending my Summer Vacation. Adult Kevin reminisces about the Coopers' annual summer barbecue, over a very nostalgic flash-back of past barbecues. Then, in the flash-back, Winnie's brother Brian walks into frame. Brian, who had been killed in Vietnam in the pilot episode.
- Nostalgic Narrator: The adult Kevin, voiced by Daniel Stern. Not the Trope Maker, but almost certainly the Trope Codifier, and thus the most parodied.
- One Last Field Trip: The gang fight for Harper's Wood to be saved from becoming a mall. They fail, but decide to play there for one last time.
- Only Known By His Nickname: In "Lunch Stories", Wayne makes a bet that he can learn the real name of a student known only as "Maniac". He eventually admits to Wayne that his name is Florence, but then threatens him if he ever tells anybody.
- Pants-Pulling Prank: In the episode "Loosiers", one of the students is pantsed, leaving his tighty-whitey briefs exposed during a basketball game in gym class.
- Picked Last: An early episode had the final two kids left to pick from being Paul Pfeiffer and another student played by Dustin Diamond on numerous occasions. The episode's main focus, however, was on Paul's love for playing basketball and sheer lack of ability, which would make him one of the most undesirable players to have on a team. Kevin's protests to Coach Cutlip about how unfair the captain system is have the adverse affect of earning him a spot as a team captain. He decides use his position to pick all of the least talented kids for his team. This also led to a kid with a noticeably athletic build being the last pick, behind a nerd who was half his size.
- Pop Culture Osmosis: An entire generation now only thinks of this show when they hear Joe Cocker's cover of The Beatles "With A Little Help From My Friends".
- Present-Day Past:
- Look behind their heads out the school bus windows. Count The '80s cars.
- The pilot episode (set in 1968) has Kevin and Paul reading Karen's copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (published three years later). In the next episode, they pseudo-shoplift a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (* But Were Afraid to Ask)note a year before it was published.
- "Psycho" Strings:
- Plays whenever Kevin looks at his math papers that got D's in "Math Class".
- Also plays in "Full Moon Rising" when Kevin realizes that the people in the next car whom his friends are mooning happen to be his parents.
- Put on a Bus: Karen, after having a falling out with her father. Craig Hobson by his parents in Season 4, much to Becky's chagrin. Also all of the junior high teachers, most of whom stayed there after Kevin graduated (Coach Cutlip got transferred to a new job, but not at Kevin's new high school).
- Real Men Hate Sugar: In "Of Mastodons and Men", Kevin dates a girl named Julie Aidem, who smothers him like a baby. Julie makes him cookies and milk, which he feigns appreciation for. Later in the episode, when Kevin breaks up with Julie, he mentions with disgust that he doesn't care for cookies.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: In "Hiroshima, Mon Frere", when one of Wayne's pranks goes too far, Kevin lets it all out.Adult Kevin: At that moment, as I looked at my brother, something snapped inside me. I didn't hate his guts. I hated him. I hated everything about him. And at that moment, I didn't care what it cost me. I didn't care about anything. I just wanted to hurt him.
Kevin: You want to know why Angela wouldn't come over!?
Wayne: Shut up.
Kevin: Because she doesn't like you, Wayne!
Wayne: Shut up!
Kevin: She doesn't! Nobody does!
Wayne: SHUT UP!
Kevin: No! You may be bigger than me, and stronger than me! But you know what, Wayne? I have friends! Nobody likes you, Wayne! You're just mean to everybody, all the time, because... nobody likes you! You're pathetic!
[Wayne's face is lit by a bright white flash and his hair is blown back; cut to Stock Footage of a nuclear explosion]
- Recruiters Always Lie: Discussed in "Private Butthead". Wayne is completely disinterested in going to college, so he wants to join the Army. His reasoning was that the Army would train him on a post-military job and pay him well. Jack counters by bluntly informing Wayne that he's going to be shipped to Vietnam if he goes through with it, and that the Army recruiters will say anything to get him to join. Despite being forbidden to join, Wayne is adamant to get his physical, and reveals after he's rejected why he wanted to join in the first place: He didn't know what else to do, as he thinks he's not good enough to get into college.
- Re-Release Soundtrack: The Wonder Years as a whole took some time to be released on DVD due to the large amounts of music that needed to be cleared. All but fifteen songs were eventually cleared.
- Satellite Love Interest:
- Paul's on-again/off-again girlfriend Carla Healy doesn't seem to have much personality beyond being as geeky as Paul.
- Winnie's boyfriend Kirk McCray.
- Pretty much any temporary love interest of Kevin's who isn't Winnie.
- Saw "Star Wars" Twenty-Seven Times: Humorously used in this scene in the episode "Eclipse" where Chuck, who is uncomfortable with the creepy man who picked him up while he was hitchhiking, tries to lighten the mood by sharing how he's reminded of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents story about a man with "a big butcher knife" who was picking up hitchhikers. Getting creeped out by the man again, Chuck decides to drop the discussion, leading to the following exchange:Chuck: Never mind, probably didn't see the episode... Did you?Creepy Guy: 27 times! [creepy stare]
- Chuck quickly leaps out of the moving pickup truck.
- Series Continuity Error:
- After he hit puberty, Fred Savage's voice was noticeably deeper than that of Daniel Stern, who narrated the show as Adult Kevin. It's not uncommon for men's voices to dip down during puberty and eventually middle out, but it stood out nonetheless.
- In "How I Spent My Summer Vacation", Paul reveals that his family will be away for the whole summer, starting the day after school ends. But in the next episode, "Summer Song", Paul is able to go on vacation with the Arnolds. There is no mention in either episode of Paul's plans being changed or canceled.
- In "Angel", the family is shown to have a color TV set. But the Christmas episode that comes a few episodes later involves the family wanting Jack to get them a color TV for Christmas.
- In "Heart of Darkness", Paul mentions that his mom once took him to try contacts, but he ended up being allergic to them. But then in the last two seasons he switched to wearing contacts. Maybe he got treatment for those allergies.
- Shaped Like Itself: From the pilot. "The jockstrap, sir, is a particular type of strap that is constructed of a strap-type material, which is utilized exclusively for the purposes...of jocks."
- She Is All Grown Up:
- Winnie Cooper goes from scrawny dork to "Fanservice for pre-teens" incarnate — all in the first episode.
- "The Pimple" has Kevin's parents expecting a visit from some old friends, the Pruitt family. The Pruitt's daughter, Gina, who adult Kevin described saying "always a scrape on her knee, loved to make mud pies", is shown in a recent photograph to have blossomed into a very pretty young woman.
- In "Growing Up", Kevin cringes when he hears that Dettweiler's daughter is at the party he's attending, as he had found her annoying when they were growing up, but then finds that the girl he and his friends once called "the stick" is now very well-endowed and attractive.
- Sex Miseducation Class: In one episode, the gym teacher delivers a sex ed lecture to the boys. He draws a (rather) inaccurate picture of uterus and ovaries on the blackboard, which boys compare to a cow's head. The boys expected something different and most of them just laugh.
- She Is Not My Girlfriend: One of Kevin's first lines about Winnie.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Wayne's friend Wart comes back from Vietnam and has trouble adjusting.
- The Show Must Go Wrong: "Glee Club" revolves around the eighth grade glee club, a dumping ground for male students who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket or sing in time with each other (including Kevin and Paul), being coached by optimistic and energetic student teacher Miss Haycock to sing Romberg and Hammerstein's "Stout-Hearted Men" at the Spring Sing (a showcase for all of the school's choirs); with the surprisingly beautiful voice of the erstwhile silent Warren Gander guiding them, the rehearsals start going very well indeed. Then, on the night of the concert, Warren's voice shows its first cracks of changing register just as the song begins... and the performance dissolves into chaos as the singers can no longer sing in tune or in time with each other, while Paul has a sneezing fit, Doug Porter keeps falling off the back of the risers, and Kevin drops his music and can't find it again. The mortified Miss Haycock leaves the stage before she can take her bow, and the glee club never see her again.
- Sibling Rivalry: Kevin and his older brother, the butt-headed smart-ass Wayne.
- Slice of Life: The show is about a teenager growing up in a suburban neighborhood during 1960's Vietnam War Era America.
- Soapbox Sadie: Karen Arnold is a Granola Girl, and a very outspoken one at that. In "My Father's Office", she rants about the military–industrial complex. Some episodes portray her as being involved in activism related to issues of the era, such as civil rights and Vietnam.
- Spiritual Successor: To Stand by Me and A Christmas Story.
- Straw Vegetarian: Karen becomes one. In "Dinner Out", she, her family, and her new boyfriend (whom she's shacking up with, much to Jack's dismay) go out to eat at a restaurant for Jack's birthday, leading to this exchange:Waitress: Our special tonight is a sixteen-ounce prime rib.Karen: Dead cow.Michael: Uh, Karen...Karen: Well, that's what prime rib is, isn't it? Cow flesh? How many innocent beasts had to be slaughtered so we could have this meal?Waitress: I don't know, honey. I just work here.
- The Talk: "The Treehouse" opens with Doug Porter lost in a Thousand-Yard Stare, which Kevin and Paul correctly deduce can only mean one thing: his father has tried to explain sex and human reproduction to him.Doug: [shell-shocked] I actually had to listen to my father say 'genitals'.
Kevin, Paul: [horrified] AHHH!
- Teacher/Student Romance: Subverted in "Our Miss White". Kevin develops a crush on his teacher throughout the episode, but at the end of the episode, he notices her kissing her husband in the stage background.
- Technician Versus Performer: In "Coda", older Kevin expresses his regret on giving up things in his life. Young Kevin takes piano lessons, and he's rather reluctant about it because Ronald Hirschmuller, who is his age and plays before him, is so much better. However, Kevin's piano teacher tries to encourage him by pointing out he has talent (she even suggests that he has more talent than Ronald) and that he just needs to practise. Kevin dedicates his time to practising and realizes he likes playing. However, his confidence suffers a blow — during a rehearsal before their recital, Kevin finds out that Ronald plays the very same piece and that he plays it perfectly. He keeps comparing their performances and then he unfortunately makes lots of mistakes during the recital. His teacher encourages him that he will play better next time, but it's revealed that Kevin gave up piano entirely.Older Kevin: And now, more than twenty years later, I still remember every note of the music that wandered out into the still night air. The only thing is... I can't remember how to play it anymore.
- That Nostalgia Show: Every season was set exactly 20 years before the year it first aired.
- ˇThree Amigos!: Kevin, Paul, and Winnie. Kevin is the everyman, Paul his nerdy best friend, and Winnie is his best female friend and his main love interest throughout the series.
- Title Drop: Adult Kevin utters the phrase "the wonder years" in the very first episode.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl:
- Karen and Norma are a mother/daughter variant with Karen as the Tomboy to Norma's Girly Girl. Norma is a maternal housewife with traditional views, whereas Karen, while a caring Granola Girl, is a bull-headed rebel who hates dresses and has very (by the standards of the time) untraditional views.
- "Don't You Know Anything About Women?" features two of Kevin's female classmates who play a role in the plot: Tomboy Linda Sloan and Girly Girl Susan Fisher. Linda, who's Kevin's friend, is forthright, dons a Tomboyish Ponytail, and likes to go sailing with her father. Susan, Kevin's Satellite Love Interest of the episode, is a sophisticated Southern Belle with Regal Ringlets.
- Town Girls: The three female characters in Kevin's life—his mother, Norma, is the maternal, traditional Femme, his sister, Karen, is the rebellious, combative Butch, and his on-again/off-again girlfriend Winnie is the average, everyday Girl Next Door (literally) Neither.
- Truth in Television: Winnie's brother gets killed in Vietnam in the pilot, and her parents get a divorce at the end of the second season. The death of a child is a major factor in leading to divorce in Real Life.
- Visual Innuendo: In "The Lake", Kevin and Paul are set on finding some girls at a lake spot they're camping at with their families, and Paul's excited to try to use a condom that he managed to get. They meet a girl named Cara whom Kevin likes and agrees to go on a date with. Paul, feeling left out, wants to make it a double-date, to which Cara says she can make happen since she has an available friend. Upon seeing the friend, Paul decides not to go. Kevin takes off with Cara, leaving Paul standing there, alone...with a hotdog in hand...
- Wham Episode: The very first episode. It appears to be a fairly standard comedy/drama show, but at the very end of the episode, the audience finds out that the neighbors' son was killed in Vietnam.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: In universe example: In "Summer Song" Kevin goes on vacation and meets a girl he really likes, she promises to write back after he leaves but she only writes one letter and then he never hears from her again.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The series finale, "Independence Day", ended with one of these.Older Kevin: Karen's son was born in that September. I gotta say, I think he looks like me. Poor kid. Mom, she did well: business woman, board chairman, grandmother...cooker of mashed potatoes. Wayne stayed on in furniture. Wood seemed to suit him. In fact he took over the factory two years later, when Dad passed away. Winnie left the next summer to study art history in Paris. Still we never forgot our promise. We wrote to each other once a week for the next eight years. I was there to meet her, when she came home, with my wife and my first son, eight months old.
- Where No Parody Has Gone Before: The show had a parody of Star Trek: The Original Series where Kevin and three other boys dressed as Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty deal with girls that manipulate them with their wrist controls, as the narrator's way of explaining that he didn't understand girls.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The exact location of the show's suburban setting is never explicitly spelled out, although it's presumably somewhere in California. (In one episode, we see a closeup of a letter Wayne's holding, and it shows the Arnolds' address as being in California, while in another episode Kevin is shown to have a California driver's license, and in many episodes cars have California license plates.) However, other episodes contradict this by hinting at a possible East Coast setting (Kevin wears a Jets jacket, and in one episode the family drives to Ocean City, Maryland on vacation). According to the IMDB, the producers deliberately kept things vague in order to preserve the Everytown, America feel of the series.
- Wild Teen Party: Kevin throws one in "The Lost Weekend", but Wayne is Misblamed for it. Kevin makes up for it by washing Wayne's car.
- Will They or Won't They?: Kevin and Winnie run an on-again, off-again relationship for almost the show's entire run. They spend about as much time apart as they do together. In the end, it's revealed that Kevin ends up marrying another woman, but he and Winnie remain friends through the years.