Dulé Hill, Saycon Sengbloh, Laura Kariuki and Elisha Williams as the Williams family of The Wonder Years, now set in Birmingham, Alabama
Saladin K. Patterson
When ABC first approached Saladin K. Patterson to reimagine its seminal dramedy The Wonder Years, he turned the offer down flat.
The veteran writer-producer (Dave, The Big Bang Theory, Psych) was a big fan of the show and thought a revival would be sacrilege.
"The original was so special, I didn't think you could do another version," he says during a break from the writers' room. "I didn't want to be the person who did 'The Black Wonder Years .'"
But the network wouldn't take no for an answer. Not with an opportunity to revive a beloved title that still evokes respect nearly 30 years after its 1993 finale. "When we talked about it further," Patterson recalls, "I expressed to them the sort of story I did want to tell, and they expressed an openness to [the show] being its own separate story and not a reboot or a remake."
Like the original, the new show revolves around an adolescent boy and his family. But its stories are inspired by Patterson's own middle-class Black family in Birmingham, Alabama, in the late 1960s. Based on the experiences of his parents and aunts and uncles during a time of change and upheaval, it is neither a remake nor a reboot, but it is timely.
"What is going on now in society, in American culture — politically and culturally, racially and socially — is still so very similar to the struggles we were trying to address in the late '60s," Patterson says. "One day, people will look back to this time as the 'wonder years.' So if we can use the past to look to the future to look to now, it may help us have a different perspective on where we are."
The new series, debuting September 22, will have a mix of comedy and drama, like its predecessor. "The network kept telling us to 'make it funnier,'" Patterson recalls, "but we held the line and said, 'We're gonna give you something you don't have.'"
Elisha "EJ" Williams stars as precocious 12-year-old Dean, Dulé Hill and Saycon Sengbloh as his parents and Laura Kariuki as his big sister. Joining Patterson on the executive-producing team are Lee Daniels and Marc Velez of Lee Daniels Entertainment, as well as the star of the original series, Fred Savage.
Now a sought-after TV director, Savage helmed the pilot and brings continuity.
But the biggest name attached to the project is undoubtedly 10-time Emmy nominee Don Cheadle, who narrates the show as the adult Dean, thus defining the series without ever showing his face — as Daniel Stern did with the original.
"Fred's involvement to me was something that was God's will, because I couldn't imagine doing it without him," Patterson says. "The same applies to Don Cheadle. That voice, it opens the world to you."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021