By Cory Barker
Welcome to Television’s Best Episodes, a recurring feature where TWTV contributors discuss episodes considered great by various critics, publications, awards bodies, internet comment sections, hashtag users, and anyone else you can imagine. The goal here isn’t to discredit Emmy-winning or beloved-by-TV Guide episodes, or to express encyclopedic knowledge about a series or a time period. That might happen along the way, but we just want to talk about random episodes of good TV.
The Wonder Years
Season 3, Episode 13, “She, My Friend and I” and Episode 14, “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”
Original airdates: Feb. 6, 1990 and Feb. 13, 1990
Unlikable protagonists and antiheroes dominate certain segments of the television landscape, especially the segments we consider Great or Important. The prevailing assumption that this is a trend that began primarily with The Sopranos (as every important change in television over the past 20 years has, apparently). I’m not here to undercut those assumptions, but only to posit a minor pet theory of my own, one that isn’t exceptional or innovative in any regard. And that theory is that there were indeed unlikable protagonists on television before Tony Soprano, and one of the more notable examples is a kid. If there’s one thing that defines The Wonder Years for me, it’s not the show’s period approach, the voiceover, or just how attractive Winnie Cooper got, it’s that Kevin Arnold is an asshole. (Writer Louis Peitzman’s Tumblr, Kevin Arnold Is A Dick, sums it up perfectly and I assume Louis got too fed up with Kevin that he couldn’t even continue.)
Sure, Kevin is a teenage boy that regularly makes the kinds of decisions that a teenage boy makes–rash, selfish, and self-interested ones. Yet, what’s frustrating about Kevin’s behavior is that The Wonder Years doesn’t always make him face any consequences for being such an asshole. All is not forgiven, but much is. The framing provided by Daniel Stern’s voiceover works to support Kevin’s perspective in the moment and thus doesn’t necessarily engage with his actions as douchey in retrospect, only further waving away the problems that he causes for his family and friends. I understand that people like Tony Soprano and Walter White are problematic scums of the earth. But we shouldn’t forget that Kevin Arnold was Patient X for all of this.
One of the other notable “trends” in television over the past decade is comedies that aren’t really comedies. The Showtime comedies, Louie, Girls, Enlightened, etc. are shows that fit within the comedy-sized 30-minute block on a programming guide, but provide something a little different than a CBS multi-camera comedy (no shots at either!). Of course, while it sure seems like critics, commenters, and people on Twitter are talking about how something like Enlightened doesn’t fit a rigid definition of “comedy” (or “drama”) more now, this isn’t a brand-new development either. The Wonder Years, while part of the comedy races at awards shows, wasn’t just interested in pratfalls, or jokes at all. Winnie’s brother died in Vietnam in the pilot episode; the laughs were not easy to come by.
“She, My Friend and I” and “St. Valentine’s Day” make a great two-parter of The Wonder Years not only because they feature Winnie and Kevin outwardly admitting their feelings for one another, but also because they (mostly) embrace Kevin’s inherent asshole-ness and the series’ more dramatic tendencies.
These episodes come just a few after “Don’t You Know Anything About Women?,” another effort built around Kevin mistreating a fellow female student, both accidentally and purposefully. In that one Kevin ends up going to a dance with his lab partner Linda, who clearly has a crush on him, because he’s too much of a putz to ask out his crush Susan Fisher. When Susan ends up showing interest in Kevin, he schemes to get out of the deal with the nice and helpful Linda, only to watch her have fun with another dude while his time spent with Susan ends up as a let-down. Along the way, Kevin completely disregards Paul’s (admittedly temporary) break-up with Clara because he’s too obsessed with peering at Susan in the hallway. Paul doesn’t seem to really care because he’s so confused anyway, but the events of that episode nicely set up “She, My Friend and I,” wherein Clara dumps Paul and Kevin tries to cheer him up by finding him a new girl. Unfortunately, Paul’s idea of a rebound is Winnie, Kevin’s forever dream girl. Though Kevin and Winnie have recently called a Just Friends truce, Kevin clearly isn’t cool with Paul’s interest in her. But as these things go, Kevin pretends to be cool with it and convinces Winnie to ask Paul out.
This is one of those situations where Kevin’s initial actions make sense. Instead of shooing Paul’s distress away like he did just a few weeks prior, he immediately aims to help out. It’s easy to see the tough position he’s in with Paul’s interest in Winnie, even if he makes the bullheaded choice to make the connection between them despite his own feelings. And it’s even understandable that Kevin panics once Winnie and Paul’s dates go well. For too long he’s imagined that Winnie was his girl next door, not Paul’s, and suddenly being everybody’s friend isn’t so fun. In those moments, “She, My Friend and I” nails the tricky, uncomfortable feelings of middle school relationships (both platonic and romantic). Paul is on cloud nine, Winnie admits that Paul is cute, and Kevin just wants to puke. But where this two-parter moves from typical, solid episode of TWY is in the final moments and in my mind, it’s unsurprising that these scenes involve Kevin being a full-on prick.
Kevin watches from a distance as Winnie dumps Paul, then approaches his brokenhearted friend with more than a little glee in knowing that it’s over. Once Paul reveals that Winnie dumped him because she has feelings for a secret someone else, Kevin again totally disregards Paul’s state so he can badger him into the truth. Total dick move, and major violation of the bro code. But Kevin’s not done. Moments later, he pounds on Winnie’s door and more or less screams, “Winnie, just know that I know. And I think it’s great. Paul told me Winnie! “
What. An. Asshole. Thankfully, Winnie slams the door on Kevin’s face and “St. Valentine’s Day” picks up with her delivering the best description of the series’ lead character ever: “Kevin, you’re rude, insensitive, thoughtless, and smug.”
From there, Kevin is forced to consider the impact of his actions, but quickly decides that one big gesture can make it all better. Thankfully, his special valentine for Winnie gets delivered to the wrong locker (by Fred Savage’s little brother Ben!), and really the worst locker: Becky Slater’s locker. Becky Slater being the girl Kevin mistreated in season two (noticing a trend here), and also the girl that drilled him in the stomach for friendzoning her. Yet, while “Massacre” emphasizes Kevin’s dread once he realizes that he’s made a bad situation even worse (for him, and for him only of course), it also doesn’t forget that Kevin sucks. It flashes back to Becky punching him multiple times, both as a reminder of the pain Kevin felt and the pain he brought to this girl. Becky reads the valentine and decides she’s back in on the Arnold Express and kisses him, pushing Kevin to run through the cafeteria to get to Winnie with something looking like the truth before the rumors get to her. It’s a great sequence, as Kevin literally races the rumor mill, and then falls face-down in front of everyone, only for Winnie to tower over him with a “I hope you’re happy” kiss-off. This is the kind of embarrassment Kevin deserves for railroading his friends.
Unfortunately, “Massacre” eventually and partially lets Kevin off the hook, even after he mistreats Becky once again. In another great moment that stylizes the dread you feel at 13 when you’ve screwed someone over and you’re sort of waiting for the consequences to come, Becky tries to run Kevin over with her bike, only to crash, but find new love in a silly meet cute. Kevin looks on from a distance, seemingly proud as if he actually helped Becky improve her life and did not cause her to wreck her bike and possibly injure herself. And by the end, Kevin mans up and tells Winnie how he feels and gets to hold her hand as a result. I guess that when you’re a teenager, that admission is all that’s necessary; the apology doesn’t matter.
Nevertheless, these two episodes reflect the not-so-secret truth about The Wonder Years: Kevin mostly sucks. It’s a bummer that “Massacre” doesn’t keep the schadenfreude flowing, but at least there are consistent acknowledgements that he isn’t always right, or even close to it. The nature of the show kept it from really interrogating Kevin-as-tool, but it’s telling that the only clearly comic bits here are all about embarrassing him. And it’s even more telling that he didn’t end up with Winnie, which is really the ultimate consequence of being Kevin Arnold.