Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 19, 2016)
With Season Four of The Wonder Years, we enter the second half of the series’ six-year run. This four-DVD set includes all 23 of that season’s episodes. The plot synopses come from the studio’s website.
Growing Up (air date 9/19/90): “As summer comes to a close it’s time for Jack’s company picnic, causing him fear of bumping into Mr. ‘Deadwood’ Detweiler and Kevin bumping into his tomboy daughter.”
S4’s opening episode picks up where S3’s “Moving” left off and pushes events in a positive manner. We find a nice examination of the Arnold family and connected topics in this enjoyable, well-balanced show.
Ninth Grade Man (air date 9/26/90): “The first day of ninth grade doesn’t go as smoothly as Kevin had hoped, but ends nicely after he meets a beautiful girl who seems obsessed with him.”
That romantic element influences a lot of “Man”, especially in the way it contributes to a semi-cliffhanger finale. Most of the show opts for fairly broad comedy, though, and it entertains in a moderate way.
The Journey (air date 10/3/90): “Kevin and his friends travel across town with beers in hand to gain entrance to a tenth grader’s slumber party.”
Let me get this straight: Kevin prefers sleeping in the back yard with some boys over the possibility of negligée-clad girls? Hmm…
Homoerotic implications aside, “Journey” offers a fairly solid show. It offers a good depiction of the lack of logic enjoyed by horny teen boys and manages to give us a good comedic experience.
The Cost of Living (air date 10/10/90): “Kevin gets his first job working as a caddy at the golf club.”
Most of “Cost” works fine, even if it does take on a Caddyshack vibe for a while. That said, I think it tries too hard to make Kevin’s experiences an emotional component related to his dad, and those moments feel forced.
It's a Mad, Mad, Madeline World (air date 10/24/90): “Kevin misses his anniversary with Winnie to work on an assignment with Madeline, and then loses the new bracelet Winnie gave him.”
The “temptress” from “Man” returns here, and it stretches credulity to place Kevin in “harm’s way”. Shrimpy little Kevin always seemed like an odd target for the series’ babes, and it makes little sense that a babe like Madeleine apparently has the hots for him. The show sputters, partly due to its lack of logic.
Little Debbie (air date 11/7/90): “Kevin gets guilted into taking Paul’s sister Debbie to her cotillion.”
For once, it makes sense that Kevin’s the beloved of a Wonder Years character, as it’s logical Paul’s dorky younger sister would pine for him. The episode follows a predictable line, as we know Kevin will mostly act like a jerk and then come around by the end, but the show has its moments.
The Ties That Bind (air date 11/14/90): “Jack’s request for a raise finds him with a new position, and on the road for Thanksgiving.”
Much of “Ties” feels contrived. It seems like Jack’s promotion exists solely to create artificial melodrama. These moments leave it as a lackluster episode.
The Sixth Man(air date 11/28/90): “Kevin is surprised when Paul is picked by Coach Cutlip to be on the school’s basketball team.”
I’m with Kevin here: it really seems like a stretch that Paul would suddenly blossom into a talented athlete. Granted, I can recall a friend of mine who wasn’t bad at sports – and I wasn’t very good at them – but he almost always lost to me, so maybe some truth resides here. It still seems like a forced show, though.
A Very Cutlip Christmas (air date 12/12/90): “Kevin sees a different side of Coach Cutlip after he discovers him moonlighting as Santa Claus at the mall.”
Cutlip episodes tend toward broad comedy, and this one seems no different. Of course, it comes with a Patented Sentimental Wonder Years Ending, but it brings us reasonable amusement until then.
The Candidate (air date 1/9/91): “Kevin runs for student body president against Becky Slater.”
School elections weren’t fresh as sitcom fodder even in 1991, but that doesn’t mean “Candidate” flops. Although it doesn’t manage much that I’d call new, it entertains – and feels like a precursor to 1999’s Election.
Heartbreak (air date 1/23/91): “A joint field trip to the museum with Winnie’s new school causes elation for Kevin and fear for Winnie, who’s hiding a secret from him.”
The Kevin/Madeline/Winnie triangle continues, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me – what the heck does a babe like Madeline see in wimpy little Kevin? At least “Heartbreak” focuses less on that topic and more on the stresses school changes can have on kids. That area allows the episode to work well.
Denial (air date 1/30/91): “Kevin gets Paul to throw a party as a ploy to get back together with Winnie.”
“Denial” acts as a continuation of “Heartbreak”, and I still can’t get Madeline’s fascination with Kevin. It probably doesn’t help that the series cast an actress who was 20 years old to play 14 – Julie Condra seemed younger than her actual age, but she still gave off a vibe that made her appear much more sophisticated than the others. “Denial” has its moments but I still find it tough to suspend disbelief.
Who’s Aunt Rose? (air date 2/6/91): “Grandpa Arnold comes to town for the funeral of a relative no one could stand.”
That synopsis doesn’t really fit, as the show looks at a relative the Arnolds didn’t know, not one they disliked. Whatever the case, “Rose” opts for fairly broad comedy after the melodrama of “Denial”. The show gets goofy at times but it’s mostly amusing.
Courage (air date 2/13/91): “Kevin fears looking like a fool in front of the new dental hygienist when he discovers he has a cavity that needs drilling.”
With the easy target of the dental chair on display, “Courage” offers comedy even broader comedy than “Rose”, and it tosses in standard teen horniness as well. “Courage” feels somewhat stale, like we’ve seen much of the show already.
Buster (air date 2/27/91): “Kevin’s dog, Buster, is in line for neutering to end his constant barking.”
Did people make such a big deal out of neutering in the early 1970s – or the early 1990s, when “Buster” aired? The show seems awfully primitive in its discussion of the issue, especially since it plays the subject for cheap testicle-based gags. This becomes one of the series’ rare real misfires.
Road Trip (air date 3/6/91): “Kevin and his father go on an ill-fated shopping trip together to get a new suit for Kevin.”
Like “Buster”, “Road Trip” embraces clichés, mainly about the stubborn father. Still, it comes with amusement, predictable as it might be, especially when Kevin and his dad flirt with the same waitress. This doesn’t offer a great show, but it’s entertaining.
When Worlds Collide (air date 3/20/91): “Norma’s new job at Kevin’s school causes him embarrassment.”
For a third show in a row, Wonder Years embraces a fairly trite subject: dealing with a parent in front of one’s peers. The episode doesn’t tread new ground, but it gets to the heart of teen embarrassment pretty well and throws in a few laughs as well.
Separate Rooms (air date 4/3/91): “Kevin and Wayne fight over who will move into Karen’s room now that she’s in college.”
I grew up with two brothers, but we were so discrepant in age that we only lived in the same house for six months. I stayed in the same room my entire time there – I could’ve taken “the big bedroom” from my older brother, but I was fine where I was.
Though I never shared a room, I can kind of understand the territoriality that Kevin and Wayne feel. This becomes another mostly comedic show, but I like the way it touches on the family and home dynamics.
The Yearbook (air date 4/10/91): “Kevin’s job on the school yearbook committee has him trying to find a perfect caption, without embarrassing a fat kid.”
Though a bit more stylish, “Yearbook” reminds me an awful lot of Season Two’s “Nemesis”. Both focus on the ramifications of bad-mouthing peers behind their backs, and both lecture the audience more than usual. “Yearbook” works better than “Nemesis” but it still seems like a moderate misfire.
The Accident (air date 4/24/91): “Kevin tries desperately to talk with Winnie after she is involved in a serious car accident.”
I’m not sure a show like “Accident” would be produced today, as it makes Kevin look an awful lot like a stalker. The episode goes down a much more dramatic path than usual, as it keeps comedy to a minimum. The creepy stalking overtones aside, this becomes a rich program.
The House That Jack Built (air date 5/1/91): “Jack and Karen argue after he discovers her roommate is a man.”
After the serious tone of “Accident”, the series probably should’ve opted for something a bit lighter, but “House” follows another dramatic path. It does fine in that regard, though it seems less substantial than the program that precedes it. I do enjoy the glimpse of a pre-fame David Schwimmer as Karen’s boyfriend.
Graduation (air date 5/8/91): “Kevin is graduating from junior high and that brings changes, including finding out that Paul is going off to a private school next year.”
“Graduation” offers a decent valediction for the series’ junior high years, but it feels a little rehashed. Didn’t we just deal with Winnie’s departure and now we have Paul about to split? I’m glad the kids finally get to move to high school, but “Graduation” feels a bit forced. (It also feels like a potential series finale, which makes me wonder if the show was on the chopping block at the time.)
The Wonder Years (air date 5/15/91): “Highlights of the first four seasons are presented in a compilation of clips.”
That’s right: Season Four’s year-ending episode offers nothing more than a “clip show”. This supports my belief that those involved may have feared Wonder Years wouldn’t come back for a fifth season, as it otherwise seems odd to complete S4 with a retrospective. It’s a weak finale.