Here's an impossible mission: Find something, anything, not included in the new complete series DVD box of the beloved coming-of-age series "The Wonder Years." (Now shipping from TimeLife.com at $250; Season 1 in stores at $20.)
The box set's 26 discs are slid into the pages of two vintage-design "binders," each with its own fact-packed "composition book" detailing the Vietnam-era episodes, then-current events and musical selections. There's also a hardcover replica yearbook with behind-the-scenes photos, call sheets and even (printed) cast signatures. It's all packed inside a foot-tall metal school locker (with magnets to affix as you see fit).
Of course, the main attraction is all 115 episodes of ABC's 1988-1994 half-hour hit, depicting a group of baby-boom kids, with the parents and teachers who guided them. The unspecified suburban setting? Well, series co-creator Neal Marlens grew up in Huntington, New York.
This set so delves into the show's background and impact that on-disc extras add up to nearly 24 hours. The entire cast talks, in a dozen themed featurettes and in raw interview footage, from onetime child star Fred Savage to guests Ben Stein, Seth Green and David Schwimmer. Also recalling the show: Marlens and his co-creator/ wife, Carol Black; producers; directors; composers... everyone, right down to the key grip. (Even co-star Danica McKellar's mother is there.)
Because those reflections come 20 years later, Marlens says, "you do have a whole new perspective on it." And it was this perspective — distilled in the grown-up narration by Daniel Stern — that lent "The Wonder Years" insight into its convulsive era. The episodes and extras together feel even more potent.
Marlens marveled by phone last week at the DVD team's "phenomenal" diligence in "tracking down everyone involved, as well as doing their homework on putting the set together from a technical standpoint, and also getting all the original music."
What would "The Wonder Years" be without those sonic touchstones? Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help From My Friends" ran over the open, while dozens more songs struck emotional chords for adolescent Kevin Arnold and his running buddies. The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the Temptations, Linda Ronstadt, Iron Butterfly, James Brown, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, The Grateful Dead, Steely Dan — 285 songs (almost all of the series' music) were cleared for DVD release. (Wondering why the show took so long to hit disc? There's your answer.)
Though episodes ran a half-hour, "The Wonder Years" was no sitcom, like the creators' previous credit, Long Island-set "Growing Pains." Marlens recalls that he and Black had always aimed to write about life as "a mix of comedy and drama and everything in between." In the late '80s, "a door opened when the networks realized cable was making inroads. For a while, their response was actually surprisingly insightful — to try to compete with quality." And so "The Wonder Years" was allowed to mix comedy with drama, to shoot single camera rather than live audience, to narrate from the heart, to make the music matter. "We got to reflect life, more or less, as it is, slightly clarified."