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Remakes Put A Fresh Spin On 'The Wonder Years' And 'Scenes From A Marriage'


This is FRESH AIR. When television networks and producers decide to remake an old TV show for a new era and generation, sometimes the results are bland and predictable. But other times, the new versions are approached in imaginative ways that make them feel very much their own. Our TV critic David Bianculli has seen two new remakes that he says are valuable on their own merits because of some very significant major changes. One, which premiered September 12, is HBO's "Scenes From A Marriage," a new version of the 1970s Swedish miniseries. The other is ABC's remake of its classic nostalgic sitcom about the '60s, "The Wonder Years," which premieres Wednesday. Here's David's review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In 1988, ABC had so much faith in its new comedy series "The Wonder Years" that it premiered it right after that year's Super Bowl. It was an instant hit and deservedly so. A young actor named Fred Savage played Kevin Arnold, a suburban white kid entering junior high school in the year 1968. Daniel Stern narrated the series as an adult Kevin looking back on that formative part of his youth. It was a great show from start to finish. And now more than 30 years later, ABC has decided to remake it. And Fred Savage is back with the show, only this time as the show's director.

This new version of "The Wonder Years" is still set in 1968, but this time in Montgomery, Ala., focusing on a Black family at that same point in the '60s. The 12-year-old boy, now named Dean, is played by Elisha Williams. And the narrator this time, as the adult Dean providing play-by-play of his own childhood, is Don Cheadle. If you doubt whether a new "Wonder Years" can work, as I did before seeing the pilot episode, drop the skepticism. It's wonderful. And Cheadle, providing narration and perspective, hits the perfect tone, just as Daniel Stern did in the original.


DON CHEADLE: (As Narrator) One thing about being 12 that hasn't changed over the decades is that it's around 12 where you figure out what your place is in the world. But being in my family made that hard. I'd never be as popular as my sister or as athletic as my brother, as smart as my mom or as bad as my dad. That's the problem with being the youngest. By the time you're born, all the good parts have been handed out.

BIANCULLI: Another terrific asset to this new "Wonder Years" series is the actor playing Dean's father. He's played by Dule Hill from "The West Wing" and "Psych." He manages to be very funny and very authoritative here, like the dad Terry Crews played in Chris Rock's nostalgic TV sitcom memoir "Everybody Hates Chris." This new "Wonder Years" resembles that show a bit, too, but it's also got the sensibility and sensitivity of the original "Wonder Years." Executive producers Lee Daniels and Saladin K. Patterson are exploring, rather than avoiding, the racial divide of 1968 and find their own perspective and touchstones like Otis Redding singing "A Change Is Gonna Come." But the show, at its core, still is about family and growing up and unexpected triumphs and tragedies and how everything at that age seems so, so crucial and confusing - because it is.

Another new remake of an old TV series is vastly different but, once again, takes a new approach and ends up being surprisingly compelling. It's HBO's new "Scenes From A Marriage," based on the 1970s Swedish miniseries written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. That TV drama starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson was edited down into an international movie version, one that many film critics, including Roger Ebert, called the best film of the year. But the superior, unedited miniseries version eventually was imported to the States by PBS, which televised it in 1977 in its original Swedish with subtitles.

For HBO, this new "Scenes From A Marriage" stars Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac as the married couple whose lives are visited at certain points. It's written and directed by Hagai Levi, who created "The Affair" and the original Israeli series on which another HBO show, "In Treatment," was based. He's very faithful in concept to the original "Scenes From A Marriage," which, before diving into the intense, lengthy scenes between husband and wife, also began with a married couple describing themselves to a therapist or, in this case, a researcher gathering data on seemingly successful married couples.


OSCAR ISAAC: (As Jonathan) I'm a father to Ava who is 4 years old, as you know. I'm an academic. I should have said that first, actually. It's a big part of my self-definition. I teach in the philosophy department at Tufts. What else? I'm 41. I'm a Democrat.


ISAAC: (As Jonathan) I'm an asthmatic.

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Whoa. You feel your asthma defines you?

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) Yeah.

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Really?

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) Yeah. Well, if you go through your whole life threatened with the possibility of suffocating, then yeah, it, you know, becomes part of your self-definition.


ISAAC: (As Jonathan) What? Is it...

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) No, nothing, babe.

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) What?

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Babe, it's interesting. Really.

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) Is it?

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Yes (laughter).

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) OK. Cool.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And Mira, how would you...

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Right. I - OK. Me, I am a woman. I'm married.

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) Correct.

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) I am a mother. I am 40. Wait - not quite, but that's definitely my self-definition, 40. I'm in tech. I'm VP of product management at Horizon. I know that doesn't mean much to most people but, you know...

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) Yes. She's a big shot. Trust me.

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Yeah. OK, what else? I'm a mother, obviously.

ISAAC: (As Jonathan) You said that. Don't worry.

CHASTAIN: (As Mira) Oh, good.

BIANCULLI: The first "Scenes From A Marriage" arrived on television when reality TV, with shows like "An American Family," was in its infancy. It was, at the time, an amazingly raw drama. And this new incarnation captures that with scenes that build so slowly and naturally, most of them in unbroken chunks of real time, that they're almost devastating to watch. And the one key alteration made for this new version - and it's a hugely significant one - is that this time it's the woman, not the man, whose actions most affect the marriage. Both "Scenes From A Marriage" and "The Wonder Years" are faithful enough to be familiar yet different enough to be fresh.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television history at Rowan University in New Jersey. On tomorrow's show, Terry talks with B.J. Novak, who became famous for his role on "The Office" as Ryan who had an on-again, off-again relationship with Mindy Kaling's character, Kelly Kapoor. Novak was also a writer and executive producer of the series. He's created the new topical anthology series "The Premise." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA J. WILLIAMS' "MACK THE KNIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.