“The Wonder Years” is back on screens everywhere, and this time around, the story is hitting home for local viewers. A reimagined version of the original series that first aired 30 years ago is set in Montgomery and includes familiar scenes from the city.
“The Wonder Years” was one of the most-watched television shows in the early 1990s, and its popularity earned it a remake. But this time, the show is following a new family in a new city, the capital city. The 2021 “The Wonder Years” came from the mind of Montgomery native Saladin K. Patterson, a graduate of LAMP (Loveless Academic Magnet Program). He’s creator and an executive producer for the show that ABC describes as “a coming-of-age story set in the late 1960s that takes a nostalgic look at a black middle-class family.” The network broadcasts the show on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.
Elisha “EJ” Williams is cast as main character Dean, a 12-year-old kid dealing with the usual issues of adolescent life amid the backdrop of family, school and church. He is also witness to how issues surrounding the Civil Rights Era affect people in his life. For example, in the pilot episode, his family and community are shaken by the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s a slice of life type of series—a young black kid growing up in the ‘60s,” said Ashley Jernigan, Executive Director of Experience Montgomery, which is the Chamber’s tourism division. “This show highlights the everyday ups and downs of a preteen during the height of the civil rights movement, yet he’s still just a kid with all the same desires we can relate to.” As the show portrays the experiences a kid has with his parents, siblings, school friends, as well as teachers and coaches, it connects with viewers. “It gives you a sense of joy to laugh at some of the things that they are talking about,” Jernigan said. “But it also hits some major points.” As it touches on deep issues, it allows people to think and to process. “If a series can get you to do more than just laugh—it can get you to think, it can get you to reflect—that’s a winner. I think that’s what “The Wonder Years” has done,” Jernigan added.
The tourism official also welcomes the attention the series is giving to Montgomery. “The sense of pride it brings,” Jernigan said, “is not just the fact that the show is highlighting this city during a pivotal time but also that a production company felt it’d be important to actually come to Montgomery to film and to showcase people and places that are historically significant but some may not realize are still standing.”
Although a lot of the filming is taking place in Georgia, the production crew has also visited Montgomery for exterior shots of actual sites. “It’s not just a church that ‘appeared’ to be Dexter Avenue King Memorial. You’re actually at the church. That’s a real shot,” Jernigan said. “When I talked with the location producer, she said it herself—that it was just amazing to actually be at the location, to see history, to see where major, major, major pivotal moments happened right here in the city.”
When production comes to town, local talent is able to be involved as extras or members of the crew. “What it also did was give us as a tourism department the opportunity to use those episodes to talk about the city,” Jernigan said.
Some of these conversations have taken place as a Facebook Live show called “Montgomery Reacts,” which is an extension of the Facebook Live show called “Under the Influence” that was a collaboration with the Tourism Department. Both were hosted by Aquan Robinson, the Chamber’s Senior Manager for Destination and Convention Sales. “On the reaction show, Aquan gave a recap of the show and sourced online input, and I correlated the scenes, subject matter and locations to places to visit here in Montgomery,” Jernigan said. “This show allowed viewers nationally to see some of Montgomery’s most historic locations. It was an opportunity we could not pass up.”
The Facebook Live shows have also had guests who reacted to and talked about the program. The Live format may be adapted as new episodes air, she noted—perhaps even setting up interviews with the cast, but the conversation will definitely keep going.
Aquan Robinson, the Chamber’s Senior Manager for Destination and Convention Sales and a Montgomery native, hosted a Facebook Live series designed to create a community around “The Wonder Years” and to encourage entertaining and enlightening conversations. MBJ asked Robinson to share a little about it.
MBJ: Why did you start “Montgomery Reacts”?
AR: Montgomery Reacts was an extension of a prior project “Under the Influence,” which was born during the shutdown in 2020 as a way to tell authentic stories from the Montgomery area based around arts, culture and community. Since “The Wonder Years” revival fits the criteria, we thought it would be cool to just provide a space where the community could come together to celebrate what would be a national spotlight on our city.
MBJ: What have you heard from participants?
AR: The reactions have been wonderful since the very first episode. I remember people commenting on name references like the baseball team out east being Dalraida, where now Dalraida is more centralized due to Montgomery’s eastward expansion. Being able to connect with those Easter eggs hidden throughout episodes seemed to give local viewers a sense of pride.
MBJ: As a Montgomery native, what are your thoughts on how your hometown has been represented in the show?
AR: Being born and raised in Montgomery, I think the city is well-represented. Obviously, being a period piece, one might expect more overt signs of the Jim Crow era, however, the writers have done a masterful job of framing stories through the lens of a 12-year-old. Pre-teens are still figuring the world out, good, bad and everything in between. Being able to tap into that nostalgia is something everyone can relate to. It’s the same formula that the original series mastered. This iteration does so also, just with a Montgomery flavor. I appreciate the production team’s willingness to film segments on location to make sure the feel is authentic.
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You can watch the entire first season of “The Wonder Years” on many streaming apps and catch the Tourism Department’s reaction show on its Facebook page: Experience Montgomery.