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How ‘The Wonder Years’ Authentically Recreates The Late 1960s

Inspired by the beloved, award-winning series of the same name, The Wonder Years is a new original coming-of-age comedy that tells the story of the Williams family in the late 1960s, all from the perspective of imaginative 12-year-old Dean (Elisha “EJ” Williams). Produced by 20th Television, a part of Disney Television Studios, the highly anticipated series joins ABC’s comedy night lineup on Wednesday, September 22, at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT. The cast includes Dulé Hill as Bill Williams, Saycon Sengbloh as Lillian Williams and Laura Kariuki as Kim Williams, with Don Cheadle narrating each episode as Adult Dean Williams.

With the wisdom of his adult years, Dean’s hopeful and humorous recollections spotlight the ups and downs of growing up in a Black middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama. For executive producers Lee Daniels, Saladin K. Patterson, Fred Savage and Marc Velez, it was important to balance the series’ humor with the realities of that period. “Lee Daniels and I feel that the experiences of the Black middle-class during the late ’60s have not been explored in TV and film,” says Patterson, who also serves as showrunner. “We have seen them explored for other decades, but usually the late ’60s are seen through the perspective of the ‘struggle.’ While that is a very important part of the Black experience, we feel there are other valuable perspectives that an audience would relate to.”

To ensure that The Wonder Years accurately reflected its specific location and time, production designer Aiyana Trotter immersed herself in research, studying films, magazines, photographs and much more. She discovered “rooms were a riot of color, textures and patterns.” In fact, she says, “A lot of what was fashionable then looks kitschy and odd to us now.” Not wanting to make the Williams’ home “a parody of the ’60s,” she was careful to not overdo anything. “There isn’t much documentation of real homes of Black families in the ’60s,” she says, “so we were more dependent on the work or photojournalism and private photo collections… In the end, I had to find that balance so that the Williams’ family home feels familiar to us, like memories of our grandma’s house.”

At the same time, she also wanted to ensure the Williams’ home felt specific to the family. “When we find our family in ’68, Montgomery had been a battleground in the fight for civil rights for more than a decade and was in the early years of desegregation,” she says. “The political and cultural landscape of America was shifting in Alabama and across the country.” That shift was reflected everything, including home décor and design. As such, great care went into building and decorating the sets that would come across as authentic.

“Since we were building the Williams’ home and Dean’s school on a stage, we had to source everything: the construction materials, set dressing and props,” says Trotter. Set decorator Andrea Doyle bought fabrics from the ’60s and “created window dressing, bedspreads, and upholstered furniture with it,” she adds, while the set decoration team “scoured three states to find the period furniture, lighting, kitchenware, toys, games, picture frames, etc.”

Meanwhile, costumer designer Ceci’s creative journey began with mining her own life experiences, as well as those of her family and friends. “I have a treasure trove of family photos and a library of popular magazines from the ’60s that really transported me back to that time period,” she says. “My mom and dad are really my true inspirations. They both exposed me to the rudiments of fashion, style, fabrication, construction and so much more. I give them complete credit for planting the seeds.” Clothing from that era is distinguished by “bold colors, playful prints, textured textiles and silhouettes that range from mod to sophisticated elegance,” adds Ceci. “The costumes visually tell the story of each character as intended by the producers and writers. I think they support their narratives and speak for themselves.”

Ultimately, both the series’ production design and costume design were created in service of story. And although The Wonder Years is set five decades in the past, many of its themes remain relevant as ever. “If we can look at the turbulent, divisive late ’60s as ‘wonder years,’ then one day, a future generation will look at the 2020s as their ‘wonder years,’” Patterson says. “That means we can have hope that the turbulent, divisive issues of today will be solved in our collective future—just like they were solved in our collective past.”

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