What the prospect of a new 'Wonder Years' offers America

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)I had my own "wonder years" -- and I bet most of you did, too. The emotional connections triggered by ABC's "The Wonder Years" throughout its five-year run (1988-93) were so deeply familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1960s, or even earlier, that it didn't seem to matter that it focused on a White middle-class family on Long Island when Lyndon Johnson's presidency gave way to Richard Nixon's -- even if that setting felt out of step with our lived experience in real life.

Still, as with so much else in the American mass media of the last century, nostalgia seemed to be the sole property of White America. African Americans have childhood memories just as poignant, rich and resonant as those in "Wonder Years."
Gene Seymour
But, generally speaking, our relationship with the American past has always been (let us say) more fraught with rue and bitters, and it remains to be seen how much the mainstream of America can or wants to relate to or connect with the individual pasts of people of color.
Which is why the news of the forthcoming all-Black reboot of "The Wonder Years" on the same network where it ran more than 30 years ago offers at the outset an intriguing test case for how much empathy has grown between Black and White Americans in a post-George Floyd time frame.
    No cast has yet been announced for the series, which will be set in late-1960s Alabama and is co-executive produced by Fred Savage, the actor-director who as a child played Kevin Arnold, the original series' adolescent protagonist, and Lee Daniels, director of such films as "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Precious" and creator-producer of the long-running prime-time soap opera, "Empire."
    Most reboots, to be honest, come across as desperate attempts to prime the pump of once-flourishing wells that have long since run dry.
    But this one has aroused unusual interest and excitement because, even with an older brand, it promises something different to prime-time network television beyond the traditional Black sitcom whose historic fixtures range from "Good Times" and "Family Matters" to "The Cosby Show" and "Black-ish."
    This variation on "Wonder Years" also offers the prospect of a time and place broadening the show's "coming-of-age" context. Alabama in 1968, after all, is only a few years removed from being a central location for some of the more momentous tumultuous and tragic events of the civil rights movement: the bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, the march in Selma in 1965.
    The state's governor at that time, George C. Wallace, who had stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963 to try to block integration of Alabama schools, was running in 1968 as a third-party presidential candidate galvanizing support from those opposing increased civil rights for people of color.
    Martin Luther King Jr., whose rise to global prominence as a civil rights leader began 12 years earlier as leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, was assassinated that same year.
    You get the picture, which could also take in the fact that Huntsville, Alabama, was home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which played a pivotal role in the Apollo space program that, at the close of 1968, would send human beings around the moon and back.
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    Not that I'm giving Daniels and company any ideas that they likely haven't considered already. But what's most intriguing about this new prospective "Wonder Years" isn't the rush of great events in that crowded year (as crowded, if not more so, as the one we're in now), but the zone of intimacy and personal transformation that happens to people and their children in such times.
      I remember the fear, loathing and elusive hopes I felt as a teenager in that year. But I also remember what it was like to be alone with my thoughts and to share them with others. I remember being in love and not knowing what to do about it, praying that I wouldn't fail a test or make a fool of myself at school -- and worrying about how to keep on my parents' good side without constricting my own dreams.
      So many Black children like me knew those "wonder years," too. The grownups who found communion in the original "Wonder Years" could find similar communion with this one.