A Path to ‘The Wonder Years’ Universe: An Interview with Creator and Showrunner Saladin K. Patterson
By Sadie Dean • May 10, 2022
'The Wonder Years' creator and showrunner Saladin K. Patterson shares with Script about taking the creative reigns of the beloved IP, his approach to finding story, especially that of Dean's journey, putting his overall creative team together, and more.
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 during the late 1960s, all through the point of view of imaginative 12-year-old Dean. With the wisdom of his adult years, Dean’s hopeful and humorous recollections of his past spotlight the ups and downs of growing up in a Black middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama, and the friendship, laughter and lessons along the way.
It's far from rare to find and see grand success in remakes, especially one based on a beloved television series that emotionally and historically resonates. Saladin K. Patterson, the creator and showrunner of the reimagined The Wonder Years, pointedly carries the essence of the original show through his astute vision and personal connection to the backbone of the new series - the Williams family.
Who knew that a logline as simple as, A man recalls his experiences growing up in Montgomery, Alabama during the late 1960s, could be a pinnacle stepping stone for story exploration, character arcs, emotional connection, satire, sadness, grief, victory and so much more. Top it off with a wonderfully rounded cast and the narration provided by Don Cheadle - what's not to love?
I had the great honor of speaking with Saladin K. Patterson about taking the creative reigns of the beloved IP, his approach to finding story, especially that of Dean's journey, putting his overall creative team together, and more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially inspired you to recreate this beloved series, and why was that important to you as a storyteller to make the show now?
Saladin K. Patterson: Lee Daniels got the right to the IP to the original Wonder Years, he probably got the rights about five years ago, if not longer, he had the foresight to know that there hadn't been a story told about the Black middle class in the context of the late 60s and the civil rights movement and stuff like that. We've had plenty of great stories about that experience, about Black Americans and Black America during the Civil Rights Movement, but it's usually from the point of view of the struggle, and things like that. And he recognized that there was a Black middle class and that's just a perspective that TV and film hadn't really explored yet. So, he got the rights to the original, but he knew he wasn't the one to actually write the story. When they approached me, honestly, I said no at first, because I was such a huge fan and am such a huge fan of the original, and also in the time of all the reboots and remakes, I was like, ‘Ah, I don't want to do stuff that is going to be considered the Black Wonder Years. I will hate to do anything that would taint the legacy of the original.’
And then when I finally sat down and spoke to Lee, I quickly realized he didn't want to do that either. He and his company, his exec Mark Velez, we started talking creatively, they also wanted to make sure we avoided those kinds of pitfalls by just approaching it in a lazy way. I realized that kind of freed me up. I'm from Alabama originally. Grew up in Montgomery. My mom and dad are of the time of the show, I was actually born in ‘72 but my family obviously, my aunts and uncles and family members were a part of that movement and time and I was like, they have some unique stories. If they'll let me loosely base it on my family and our experiences, then I can wrap my head around, not only what that show would be but how to make it distinct from the original while still borrowing or inheriting the tone, the storytelling, and the narrative device, all the things that make the original great, but still make it it’s own show.
When we approached 20th with that, the approach I took was that we can look at this just like you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars universe where there's different stories and different paths where Black Panther can be its own thing, its own mythology, its own narrative. It's part of the Avengers narrative, but its own independent thing. I was like, if we can approach it that way then I can wrap my head around how to do this show, in a way that would be something that was special and specific, and unique and to stand on its own two feet. And so that's what then got me excited about it. Not just because I can loosely base it on my family, [laughs] but because it became clear to me that this could be its own thing.
Sadie: In terms of storylines in that timeline, did you come in with a Series Bible that had historical events happening? And then the story would kind of lend from that or was it flipped where story happened, and then you would drop in historical events or moments to talk about in that episode?
Saladin: There's a little bit of both but probably more the latter where we kind of want it like in the vein of the original Wonder Years, we now when I say we, me and Fred Savage who was the first person I reached out to, to come aboard as the director for the pilot, but also be a producer with me, for obvious reasons, because of this connection to the original. But in terms of that connective tissue to the original, we both wanted to make sure that we continue to, in terms of the show, was about nostalgia, it's about memory, it's about looking back from a perspective of what a character has learned and been through but also since our protagonist is 12 years old, there's a way where we all see the world like your dad's larger than life and can do no wrong, and the world's very black and white, no pun intended in terms of right and wrong, and then that 12 year old starts to mature a little bit and the reality of the world starts to bleed into your idealistic kid-like perspective. And so, we wanted to protect that, for sure. So, because of that, that's why I say it’s probably more than we want to start with the stories like what are those universally relatable coming of age stories of adolescence? Of growing up? Family? Of friends? Having your first crush? Disappointments and your victories? What are those universal things that we all look back on and kind of fondly reflect on maybe through rose-colored glasses and some of the fun and uncovering of, ‘Oh, wow, it wasn't as idyllic as I thought when I was 12.’ As an adult, I see now that, ‘Ooh, there was a message in there.’ We kind of want to start there.
And then from there, because we're now talking about a Black family during the late 60s, where unlike in the original was the irony of the fact that in the tumultuous late 60s, White Americans could create this bubble for themselves in suburbia that kind of protected them from the chaos going on. And what we want to do is flip that on its head because the Black family did not have the privilege of being able to create that bubble even though they're a middle-class family and in a middle-class environment, the same middle-class ideals of higher education, of noble professions, vacations, all those things that make the middle class, across a Black family. The Black family couldn't create a bubble around themselves. This stuff is all bleeding in so that's what we want to start in the story, because the story was universally relatable stuff - the characters, the family dynamics, the parenting, the sibling dynamic, then let the outside world feed into those stories to show that for our family, you can't have one without the other.
Sadie: With Dean's journey, we're seeing him basically evolve into a young man. And then we have the Narrator who is Dean in the future. Do you have a guidebook of who Dean is as a kid to who he will be as a man and what kind of information the Narrator will share or can share in each episode?
Saladin: Not in any detailed way, because part of it, to be quite honest, is we are discovering as the show evolves and develops and we tell more stories and we mix our own personal experiences and stories into Dean, we're kind of still discovering who Dean is as a 12-year-old and then using that to kind of say, ‘Well, if this is him as a kid, then the adult will be one these few options.’ We purposely are trying not to be too specific. I'll give you a perfect example if you saw the episode when the school had its first Black teacher, and Dean goes through those experiences of having to understand why is he embarrassed? Why does he feel uncomfortable? Just kind of figuring out himself through that. There's a line at the end, that's a joke from the Narrator of, ‘The blackest teacher he had after that was his White African American studies professor in college,’ which is a very common thing, many of us who went to college, the White professor is teaching Black classes, and they’re also woke even before woke was the term, [laughs] but at one point, that joke was, ‘His White African American studies professor at Harvard…’ and we were like, because, in our minds, Dean is someone who's going to grow up and be very successful and probably go to an Ivy League college and have different experiences there. But we pull back on being so specific this early in the show's life, and so that's like an example of how we have in our head who he will probably become. But we kind of want to leave it open a little bit just because who knows what we're going to discover or want to explore in season three or four. It's one of those things where we amongst ourselves will talk about, ‘Well yeah, adult Dean probably did this and probably does that,’ but we kind of keep it loose on purpose so that we don't feel ourselves writing in a restrictive way.
Sadie: When you were putting together your writer’s room, were you looking for something specific in a writer to bring to the show?
Saladin: With a new show, I have in my head kind of what the show is, but it immediately becomes something different because you have to discover the character in the world and everything but the one approach I took to the writing staff that is actually the same approach that we took when we were hiring our crew and our department heads, we were looking for people who had some sort of personal connection, either to the time of the show, or the material in terms of culturally or the tone of the show, and that didn't have to mean that they grew up in the 60s. It also didn't have to mean they were Black. But they had to have some sort of personal connection either through family members or through relationships they had. Like our prop master who's amazing, Tammie, she's a White woman and she didn't necessarily grow up in the 60s, but she has a group of other prop masters who do period pieces that are Black and go back to the 60s and so she had a personal connection to them in terms of resources. And our costume designer, when we met with her, and when she showed us the look book that they often use, hers were her personal family pictures. She was showing us her actual photos of her family. And so that kind of connection was what we were looking for.
And so, with the writers, I knew that at the heart the story's going to be about coming of age, nostalgia - so I just needed people who understood what it felt like to be an 'other' or an outsider when they were growing up. That could be someone who grew up as a Black person in a White environment like what our character Dean is experiencing at school - it can be where one of our staff writers is a Jewish Orthodox woman, and who impressed me because her pilot was all about the fact that when she was in high school, she made her parents send her to a regular high school where she was only Orthodox kid because she wanted that experience. I just wanted people who had a perspective that they can tap into, to be able to tell stories that can be as specific as we want them to be, but to still be relatable because they tap into some experiences that we all have when we feel like everybody else has the answers and we don't when we feel like everybody else fits in a way that we don't. So, I started there, and then from there, it was the normal things about people who had good reputations and being good in the room and on the page, things like that. You just have to start with someone who could at least tap into being an 'other' or an outsider.
Sadie: What piqued your interest as a young storyteller in wanting to get into this specific medium that is television?
Saladin: The honest answer that I have to give, it was the grace of God because I grew up in Alabama not knowing that entertainment and television writing, that feature film writing was really a viable career option. It's just not something that you think about when you don't see other people doing it and growing up in the South, you just don't see a lot of people who pursue those things. Now, music is different, we see plenty of people pursue and have success in music. My dad was a musician, which is why Bill Williams the character is one, but writing and producing and directing and things like that, you don't see that much.
I started off as an engineer, my undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering actually, but I quickly discovered afterward I wasn't going to really enjoy that. So, I kind of just explored things and bounced around. I went to grad school for psychology; writing I see it now, is all a part of God's plan because all these things contribute to the writer that I am, but at the time it felt like I was just trying to figure things out. In grad school, I kind of got really curious about TV writing and figuring out and discovering how it worked and the role of writers in TV. The fact that TV is a writer-driven medium and writer's become producers, like all those things, I kind of just learned and then really got fascinated with and fell in love with the concept that that's something that you could do as a profession. I gravitated towards comedy because I was always a class clown. That was always the other side of my double-edged sword, I was a great student but teachers always told my mom, ‘He just can't help it, he just can't be quiet.’ [laughs] So, I explored comedy writing, because of that interest. And just fell in love with it. I started writing spec scripts when I was in grad school. I loved the feedback that I was getting and I realized that I need to be in LA to be able to really have an opportunity to pursue it. And that led to me entering contests and fellowships and things like that to try to get some kind of attention. And that led to me entering the Disney Writing Fellowship Program, which is what brought me to LA for my first opportunity.
Sadie: That’s amazing and the full circle that you're kind of back at Disney, but not, in a roundabout way.
Sadie: Did you ever have a chance to speak with original creators, Neal Marlens and Carol Black about your new iteration of their original show?
Saladin: Early on in the process, Neal and I communicated mainly through email. When we reached out to them they were very supportive and said that they recognize that this perspective of a Black family during that time was a perspective that people needed to know about and see, but they also were very honest and said that they were not the ones to tell that story. He also offered support for what they experienced, and people who know the history of the show know that their creative experience with the show and with the network and things like that was also one that had some challenges. And they had to fight for some things creatively in terms of their vision. And so, he shared with me, how they overcame those challenges and what they learned and things like that. That background went a long way in helping me prepare myself to first of all make sure my vision was clear and then make sure that I stood behind it whenever there may have been obstacles to it - there's always a give and take and you can't be obstinate at all, it's my job to protect the vision. So having Neal involved early on certainly helped me in that regard. I think once Neal saw how the show was going to be its own thing, he then felt comfortable stepping back and letting me make the show what it's supposed to be.
Watch The Wonder Years on Wednesdays at 8:30pm ET on ABC and on streaming on Hulu.