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 have long held a significant presence in certain television segments, especially those considered Great or Important.
It’s widely accepted that this trend gained prominence primarily with The Sopranos (as seemingly every important change in television over the past 20 years has).
I’m not looking to challenge these assumptions but rather to propose a modest personal theory, one that doesn’t offer any groundbreaking insights.
This theory posits that unlikable protagonists were indeed present on television before Tony Soprano, and one of the notable examples happens to be a teenager.
When I think of The Wonder Years, what defines it for me isn’t the show’s period-specific approach, the voiceover narration, or even how Winnie Cooper evolved into an attractive young woman.
It’s the fact that Kevin Arnold is, for lack of a better term, an unpleasant character.
There’s a Tumblr blog called “Kevin Arnold Is A Dick” by writer Louis Peitzman, which succinctly encapsulates this idea.
Perhaps Louis grew so exasperated with Kevin that he couldn’t bear to continue.
Certainly, Kevin’s behavior is typical of a teenage boy, characterized by impulsive, selfish, and self-centered decision-making.
However, what’s frustrating about Kevin’s conduct is that The Wonder Years often fails to make him face the consequences of being so obnoxious.
While not everything is forgiven, much is conveniently brushed aside.
The voiceover, provided by Daniel Stern, reinforces Kevin’s perspective at the moment, making it challenging to retrospectively examine his actions as douchey.
This narrative approach further minimizes the repercussions he inflicts on his family and friends.
It’s essential to acknowledge that characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White are irredeemable, yet we shouldn’t overlook that Kevin Arnold served as the original prototype for these complex characters.
Another noteworthy “trend” in television over the past decade is the emergence of comedies that don’t precisely fit the comedy mold.
Shows like those on Showtime, Louie, Girls, Enlightened, and more fall within the 30-minute comedy block on a programming guide, but they deliver something distinct from traditional CBS multi-camera sitcoms (without any intent to disparage either category).
Critics, commentators, and Twitter users increasingly discuss how series like Enlightened don’t neatly adhere to the conventional definitions of “comedy” or “drama.”
However, this isn’t an entirely new development. The Wonder Years, while competing in the comedy categories at awards shows, wasn’t solely focused on slapstick humor or jokes.
For example, Winnie’s brother’s death in Vietnam occurs in the pilot episode, and laughter isn’t readily found in such serious circumstances.
The two-part story comprising “She, My Friend and I” and “St. Valentine’s Day” stands out in The Wonder Years.
These episodes are significant not only because they depict Winnie and Kevin openly acknowledging their feelings for each other but also because they largely embrace Kevin’s inherent unlikable traits and the series’ more dramatic aspects.
They follow the episode “Don’t You Know Anything About Women?” where Kevin mistreats a female classmate, Linda, who has a crush on him.
In that episode, Kevin goes to a dance with Linda, a girl who clearly has feelings for him, because he lacks the courage to ask out his crush, Susan Fisher.
However, when Susan displays interest in Kevin, he schemes to break off his arrangement with the kind and helpful Linda.
He ends up watching Linda enjoy herself with another guy, while his time with Susan turns out to be a disappointment.
Kevin also ignores his best friend Paul’s (temporary) breakup with Clara because he’s too preoccupied with glimpsing Susan in the hallway.
Despite Paul’s indifference, the events of that episode set the stage for “She, My Friend and I.”
In “She, My Friend and I,” Clara breaks up with Paul, and Kevin tries to lift his spirits by finding him a new girl.
Unfortunately, Paul’s idea of a rebound is Winnie, Kevin’s lifelong crush.
Although Kevin and Winnie have recently agreed to be “just friends,” Kevin is clearly uncomfortable with Paul’s interest in her.
To maintain appearances, Kevin pretends to be fine with it and encourages Winnie to ask Paul out.
In this situation, Kevin’s initial actions are understandable.
Instead of dismissing Paul’s distress as he did a few weeks ago, he immediately seeks to help.
It’s evident that he’s in a tough spot with Paul’s attraction to Winnie, even though he makes the stubborn choice to bring them together despite his own feelings.
It’s also reasonable that Kevin panics when Winnie and Paul’s dates go well.
For too long, he has considered Winnie his girl next door, not Paul’s, and suddenly, being the friend of everyone isn’t so enjoyable.
In those moments, “She, My Friend and I” authentically captures the complex and uncomfortable emotions of middle school relationships, both platonic and romantic.
Paul is ecstatic, Winnie acknowledges Paul’s attractiveness, and Kevin feels nauseated.
However, what sets this two-parter apart from a typical, solid episode of The Wonder Years is the way it concludes, featuring Kevin displaying a full-on unlikable side.
Kevin, observing from a distance, witnesses Winnie breaking up with Paul and then approaches his heartbroken friend, showing a hint of satisfaction in the fact that it’s all over.
When Paul confides in Kevin that Winnie ended things because she has feelings for someone else, Kevin once again completely disregards Paul’s emotional state, persistently pressuring him to reveal the truth.
It’s a total jerk move and a significant breach of the bro code.
But Kevin’s insensitivity doesn’t stop there. Moments later, he forcefully knocks on Winnie’s door and essentially exclaims, “Winnie, just so you know, I’m aware. And I think it’s great. Paul told me, Winnie!”
What a jerk. Fortunately, Winnie promptly slams the door in Kevin’s face. “St. Valentine’s Day” begins with Winnie delivering one of the most accurate descriptions of the series’ lead character ever:
Kevin, you’re rude, insensitive, thoughtless, and smug.
Subsequently, Kevin is compelled to contemplate the repercussions of his actions but hastily concludes that one grand gesture can rectify everything.
Fortunately, the special valentine he intended for Winnie is delivered to the wrong locker, and to make matters worse, it ends up in the locker of Becky Slater, the girl Kevin mistreated back in season two (indicating a pattern).
Becky Slater, the same girl who punched him in the stomach for relegating her to the friend zone.
While “Massacre” highlights Kevin’s anxiety as he realizes that he has worsened an already bad situation (for himself, of course), it also doesn’t let him off the hook for being a jerk.
The episode features flashbacks of Becky repeatedly punching him, serving as a reminder of the pain he felt and the pain he caused this girl.
Becky reads the valentine, decides to give Kevin another chance, and kisses him, prompting Kevin to race through the cafeteria to reach Winnie before the rumors do.
It’s a fantastic sequence as Kevin literally races against the spreading rumors, stumbles in front of everyone, and then faces Winnie’s dismissive “I hope you’re happy” kiss-off.
This is the kind of embarrassment Kevin deserves for manipulating his friends.
Regrettably, “Massacre” eventually gives Kevin a partial reprieve, even after he mistreats Becky once more.
In another memorable moment that captures the anxiety felt at 13 when you’ve wronged someone and are anticipating the consequences, Becky tries to run Kevin over with her bike but ends up crashing.
She then experiences a meet-cute moment, seemingly moving on with her life.
Kevin watches from a distance, appearing proud, as if he genuinely helped improve Becky’s life instead of causing her to crash her bike and potentially injure herself.
By the end, Kevin finds the courage to tell Winnie how he feels and gets to hold her hand as a result.
I suppose that when you’re a teenager, such an admission is all that’s necessary; the apology doesn’t matter.
Nonetheless, these two episodes shed light on the not-so-secret truth about The Wonder Years: Kevin is often insufferable.
It’s disappointing that “Massacre” doesn’t maintain a consistent stream of schadenfreude, but at least there are continual acknowledgments that he isn’t always right, or even close to it.
The nature of the show prevented it from deeply examining Kevin’s jerkishness, but it’s noteworthy that the only truly comedic moments in these episodes revolve around embarrassing him.
Furthermore, the fact that he didn’t end up with Winnie serves as the ultimate consequence of being Kevin Arnold.
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