Most people probably wouldn’t think to set a sitcom in Montgomery in Alabama in 1968, but when he was tasked with rebooting the “Wonder Years,” Saladin K. Patterson drew on what he knew.
He grew up in Alabama’s capital city in the 1970s and 80s and knows how to find the comedy and drama in the lives of the people who lived outside of the spotlight during the years after integration.
For this episode of The Reckon Interview, we’re talking with Saladin K. Patterson about the decision to bring back “The Wonder Years,” why stories like this need to be told, his personal connection to the material, and what it was like to work with the original Kevin Arnold himself — Fred Savage — to bring this story to life.
The Wonder Years airs on ABC on Wednesday nights at 8:30/7:30 CT.
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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
John Hammontree: Saladin K. Patterson, welcome to The Reckon Interview.
Saladin K. Patterson: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
John Hammontree: Your new show, a reimagining of “The Wonder Years,” is now out. When the original “Wonder Years” debuted in 1988, it was kind of looking back 20 years in the past. The new version is looking back on that same era. But now that’s 50, 60 years in the past. What drove the decision to set the series in that same period — time period — rather than looking back at, like, 1998?
Saladin K. Patterson: A couple of things. Lee Daniels, the producer, who I had the pleasure of working with years ago, he acquired the rights to “The Wonder Years,” the title to that IP [intellectual property], because he specifically wanted to look at the experiences of a Black middle class family during the late 60s because he accurately recognized that we haven’t really seen that perspective before, not from the Black middle class. Usually, stories about the Black experience in the late 60s focus more on the struggle, rightfully so, because that was a very important part of our past and present. As a creator, you always want to take something people are familiar with, that they think they’re familiar with, and put a new perspective on it, right? And so he thought that the way to do that would be the Black middle class perspective at the time.
When they approached me — they meaning Lee Daniels’ company and 20th TV — approached me to come up with a take on it, part one of the things we talked about was Ok, well, do we keep that original setting? And I actually, my first inclination was the same as many other people: Well, especially if I’m going to be the one writing it, since I came of age in the 80s, late 70s, 80s, should I base it on that and, Lee said, well, we have an opportunity to say something relevant to today about looking at the late 60s because of how similar things that we are dealing with a society now are to what was going on in the country, then. I thought they were right. And that helped me wrap my head around what my take on this reimagining would be. Because I was like, well, if that’s the case, then my mom and dad, who were in Alabama during that time, have a very unique perspective because of who they were as individuals, my dad and his involvement in the music scene that spawned the groups like the Commodores missed him, but spawned them. And my mom being a woman who, in the late 60s, over that, during that time period graduated top of her class, went off to Michigan to get a master’s in a year, came back to Alabama and quickly realized that the environment wasn’t necessarily ready for a Black woman who had achieved what she had achieved. And so she had to figure out how to navigate those challenges, and then just my family’s experiences during that time, I thought, will lend themselves to a very specific interesting point of view. And so that helped me embrace, okay, now I can see and wrap my head around what this reimagining can be, and why do it now and why set it then. And plus, there’s the observation the other people have made as well, and I agree with… the original “Wonder Years” looked back 20 years. If we did that now we’d be looking back to 2001, and that just feels… that doesn’t feel like it’s long enough ago, doesn’t feel like what looking back from ‘88 to ‘68 felt like then in terms of generational changes. And I know nothing’s new under the sun, things have certainly changed in the last 20 years, but in terms of being able to comment on it, and show something with a sense of nostalgia for a time, for a bygone period, but also, it’s very important to us to be able to look back and learn from a period. It felt like the late ‘60s still contributed or lent itself more to achieving that goal than just looking back to 2001. I could have talked about how big iPods were then or something like that, I mean, with the exception of 9/11. Clearly that would have been something. But we reflect on 9/11 a lot, as we should, but that wouldn’t have been necessarily new either. So it just felt like there was rich ground to mine from keeping it in the 60s, because it was just uncanny the parallels between then and now and mind you, we, we developed this in 2019. So that was even before the summer of 2020. After the George Floyd [unintelligible] death, the summer of racial awakening, if you want to call it that, this even predated that. So when those events started happening, it just reinforced more to us the similarities between what we were trying to show our family experienced and families were experiencing in the present day.
John Hammontree: It does kind of create almost like a Rashomon-type effect when you lay it next to the other “Wonder Years” series, where you’re seeing the same time period through a middle class white family’s eyes and the middle class Black family’s eyes. You grew up in Montgomery, was it your decision to set the show there, or was that something that Lee Daniels had envisioned?
Saladin K. Patterson: That was my decision. Lee has been the ultimate supportive creative partner. From day one, he said, Saladin, I want you to make this yours because I know that by making it yours, you’re going to get to make it great because that’s how you tap into whatever your creative inspiration is. So, it’s still in Montgomery, because that’s where I grew up — I was born in Tuskegee, but I grew up in Montgomery — with the characters loosely based on my family members. It’s like an amalgam of people, though, loosely based on my mom and dad, but the sister and brother are based on my aunts and uncles, because I grew up an only child. The people that populate the world are mixtures of both kids and adults — they’re new — but the specific lens of the storytelling is something that certainly comes from my personal experience.
John Hammontree: And you also get a lot of the individual details and specifics to Montgomery — shopping at Parisian’s, kids are attending a school named after Jefferson Davis. What did you do to make sure you were getting those details right? Because you did grow up I guess about a decade later. You grew up in the 70s and 80s in Montgomery. Schools there are still named after Confederate generals. But what did you do in order to weave some of that in?
Saladin K. Patterson: Gosh, some of it was, I always start from a base, from a point of truth, and just real experience. So, for the Dean characters, I’m tapping so much into my own adolescent coming of age experiences, many of which are the same as where your adolescent and coming of age experiences, or the first crushes, friendships, things like that… I started there, and then, when I wanted to lean into the specificity of the time, I just kind of, you’ll see the early versions of scripts, I’ll write in what I would have known when I was 12. But then it’ll have a marker by it and just say, Ok, I need to replace this with what Dean would have known in ’68 when he was 12. You know, that’s analogous. I would start out with a truth and then figure out okay, how would that truth apply to him? Parisian’s was still around in the 60s, so that was one that still worked, and like you said, the, I mean, JD [Jefferson Davis] obviously, in real life is a high school, but I couldn’t… I had to make it a junior high for our kids.
Other things were based on my family’s experiences, or stories that they were telling me as well about where did you guys go? What did you guys do? Like I was saying, when the attitude is, when I was 12, I did this, what was your version of that? So that I benefit both from the from the experience, but also the specificity comes from the [unintelligible], I got it from them, and then, I’ll be honest, sometimes a little Google Search never hurt anybody. So I have that, I have that too in my arsenal as well.
John Hammontree: It’s interesting because the time period when the show starts is sort of the time period when we stop really seeing the newsreel footage and the TV footage from Alabama and the 1960s. I don’t want to give away too much of the pilot, but the show takes place after Martin Luther King has come and gone from Alabama. And so it is that time period where, I guess, frankly, schools in Montgomery and Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and places like that got as integrated as they would ever get before white flight started really accelerating or you started seeing the rise of all these segregation academies and things like that. What lessons do you hope the audience takes away from that time period? Because you have white students and black students interacting and playing baseball games together and things like that. I don’t necessarily want to say it’s a more hopeful period than today, but it certainly predated the resegregation that we’ve seen in the in the last 10, 15, 20 years in Alabama.
Saladin K. Patterson: I think first and foremost, I kind of want to show how the people — both Black and white — adjusted to what would have been relatively new with that. Ok, I think there’s value in representing that in a true, accurate, real way, because I know ironically enough, man, I do think a lot of the issues we still have now with the racial divide — not just the racial divide, the gender divide, sexuality issues, the divide there — I still think it boils down to not having real, one-on-one personal experiences with people that are different, Ok. Not as stark as it would have been then, when it was the first time you would be in the classroom with someone of a different race. It’s not stark as there.
But as you mentioned, though, we still self-segregate these days a lot. And social media, for as great as it is… man, it has allowed us to segregate ourselves in our own echo chambers even more. And then we’re just reinforcing those same preconceived notions and assumptions about people that are different than us. So it was a way to show in a real way how uncomfortable that was, then — because it was uncomfortable — but how, in spite of that, there was value to pushing through that discomfort, or some sort of commonality. I think we can still apply that now. Because at the end of the day, as much information as we have, and as much access as we have to people, we still separate ourselves out, and we still… it’s still so much easier to not like someone or disagree with someone because you never really known someone with that point of view. And so again, it’s just an opportunity to have an audience these something that hopefully they can relate to the plot.
John Hammontree: This is a sit-com, obviously. But that said, you, even in the pilot, you address a lot of really serious topics and things like that. Whether [it’s] Vietnam, or the Civil Rights Movement, or the Black Panthers. As a sitcom, did you feel any internal or external pressure to kind of soften some of the edges? One moment that stuck out to me from the pilot — and this could be my own ignorance — but the family received some bad news from a white couple, and the white couple seems as torn up about it as they did. And surely there were people like that in Montgomery, but was that the norm in Montgomery for white families?
Saladin K. Patterson: I certainly look into that, because like I say, at the end of the day these things have to ring true or the audience will not embrace it and accept it. And that particular moment that you’re talking about — I’ll speak to the comedy of it all after that — but that particular moment was important to me, because that white couple did represent, I think, a percentage of America that often is not shown in that moment and moments like that. It was important for me to show, I’ll say good and bad, although it doesn’t have to be those extremes. Because there were certainly white people in the pilot that represented what you would have expected white people from a point of view of to, you know… I didn’t want to over emphasize either of those sides. But that — again, the moment that you’re referencing — I think, speaks more to our human condition that you hear a lot. It usually, unfortunately, it usually takes moments like that to cut through some of the things that that divide us. And so that felt real, especially considering the setting of that scene and what had just happened. But with what Dean’s goal was and everything. So it felt appropriate. It would have been inappropriate if everyone there had reacted that way. I don’t think that would have been accurate. But, we certainly wanted to show that aspect of it, as well.
And, speaking to the fact that we are a half-hour comedy — but we’re a half-hour comedy that’s trying to tackle real moments, grounded moments, serious moments — the decision we made early on was to always start with truth. And if we start with truth, then we have a strong foundation to stand on and to push back on when necessary. And to be honest, ABC was and still is very, I shouldn’t say very, but they were very concerned about it not being funny. So, because as groundbreaking as “The Wonder Years” was when it came out, and as much as shows start to emulate it, we kind of moved away from that balance of comedy and drama on broadcast TV, specifically. Cable TV has embraced it a lot more, to great success actually, and broadcast TV is trying to catch up.
So, ABC was just worried, like, where’s it gonna fit? Because they don’t have anything like it on the air right now. And my response, my reaction was, you’re welcome. It’s good that you don’t have anything like it on there right now, that’s what’s gonna make us stand out because an audience move will see it as something that’s interesting and unique and refreshing. Now, mind you, it can’t be a drama, it does have to have humor. But I went out of my way — and my creative partner, Fred Savage, with the rest of the pilot being on as the director as well — we went out of our way to make sure that this did not feel like typical broadcast sitcom. In terms of, there’s no mandatory joke count per page, I really policed it all myself with the pilot, and I police my writers room with this: the jokes can’t sound written. The jokes can’t sound like the character would have to forget he’s a real person to actually say it. So the humor has to come from what the humor and our memories come from. Real moments that surprised us in a funny way. And that’s challenging, and I break those rules as much as anybody. Sometimes it’s a joke I love, like, ‘Oh, that’s, you know, you wouldn’t have really said that,’ because he’s only saying it because I put the words in his mouth. A real person would not have said it, or he wouldn’t have said it in that way unless he was trying to make a joke. And he’s not trying to make a joke.
So it’s something that is challenging, and as ABC, I think, as they’ve seen the audience embrace it, as they have come around themselves to understanding that this isn’t something that they need to fear, bringing an audience way back. Saying that they thought would be a liability is probably, my prayer, is gonna be an asset to the show, and the audience will find it refreshing, and we will earn those funny moments by showing the real, grounded moments around it.
John Hammontree: I imagine executives were confused when you said you wanted to set a sitcom in 1968 in Montgomery, Alabama. Even in the pilot, these moments of dramatic tension also create moments of dramatic irony, which can lead to comedy, particularly the narration from Don Cheadle serving that same role that — I guess that was Daniel Stern — did in the original, I think, I can’t remember. But you mentioned that the original Kevin Arnold — I guess your character is not named Kevin Arnold — but the original Kevin Arnold, Fred Savage, is involved with the show. What was it like having him work with you to bring this back to life?
Saladin K. Patterson: So Fred and I, I had the privilege the privilege of working with Fred, the pleasure of working with Fred on another pilot for ABC about three years ago starring Leslie Odom Jr. that we produced with Kerry Washington. We shot the pilot and they ended up not picking up the series, but it was still a will received pilot, and Fred and I had a very good time working together. So, when I was approached to come up with my own take on this or the reimagining of “The Wonder Years,” the first thing I asked 20th and ABC, was the first thing, first thing I asked 20th was, ‘Can I do this with Fred Savage?’
And there’s the obvious connection Fred has to the original. And he has certainly been invaluable to me, and to us, in terms of the protector of tone, the connective tissue we have to what the original did so well in terms of establishing a very unique feel and look and sound for the show at that time. And we want to do the same for this show, at this time. And, Fred also, having lived it, he’s had to navigate some of those waters, with the networks and studios in terms of they were doing something different at the time, and we are as well.
But also just Fred just understands the challenges that they had to overcome in terms of a show…. how you produce a show where the 12-year-old character is in every scene, but can only work a fixed number of hours a day? That’s a production challenge that we face every day. Fred has been invaluable in helping us though that because he lived it, knows what that’s like. And other shows don’t have this same strain. But that’s the obvious reasons, but even if this weren’t “The Wonder Years,” I would have reached out to Fred to write this pilot and work with him again because he has established and he has established himself as an excellent director in his own right. Fred’s sensibilities are very similar to mine, we are usually if not always on the same page. And if we’re not, we quickly get to the same page from talking things through. That’s a great asset to have creatively. So, I couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else.
John Hammontree: I know the majority of the filming is taking place in Atlanta, I believe. Set in Montgomery, but it looks like some filming is going to take place in Montgomery, if not currently, but here soon. What does that mean to you to be able to film in your hometown, and bring the film presence there?
Saladin K. Patterson: It was something that I made a priority earlier on. We explored the possibility of filming the whole series in Montgomery, but, whereas for a movie, you can kind of build a temporary infrastructure where you need it, shoot kind of wherever you want… for TV it’s not as simple as that. TV needs a locale that has, logistically, a built-in infrastructure to source things — source material, source space, source crew, things like that — that Montgomery doesn’t have yet. Atlanta just has a head start on that. So it made more sense to the Disney Company et al., dollars and cents wise, to shoot it in Atlanta, but they were supportive of me creatively wanting to be able to shoot something in Montgomery and we were able to carve out a production week where we go to Montgomery and shoot some things that are exterior, so we can really benefit from the unique look and feel, but also wanting to do something that could hopefully create a professional business partnership with Montgomery, help Montgomery establish some of that foundation infrastructure — whether it be crew, locations, things like that — that could then help Montgomery eventually become a destination that you can go to for more production and things like that.
John Hammontree: When you were growing up in Montgomery, I mean, I know you went to MIT to study engineering. Was it on your radar that working in Hollywood and writing for a living was something that you could do? When did when did that become a reality for you, where you realized that you could do that instead of engineering?
Saladin K. Patterson: I didn’t discover writing — I say, I discovered, not that it was unknown, but it was unknown to me — until I was in grad school. Growing up in Montgomery, at least for me, I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of the industry side of entertainment. I wasn’t the type that was looking at the credits to figure out who did what and things like that, which is usually how you start discovering that this is whole ecosystem of people that helped to bring stuff on to the screen. So it wasn’t until I was at Vanderbilt that I got interested in learning about television and how it works. And that’s when I quickly learned about the role of writers on TV, and writers as producers, things like that. So that’s what opened my eyes to the industry as a potential career. Because again, unless you know someone or see someone who does it, it’s not really something that you’re aware of, unless you have a specific interest. So, thankfully, I was able to really just kind of dive in in grad school and learn as much as I could, that kind of helped me understand what the next steps would be if I were to pursue entertainment as a career. And for me, that meant applying to fellowship programs and applying to — ironically enough, things coming full circle — the Disney writing Fellowship Program. And that’s what brought me to LA in the mid ‘90s.
John Hammontree: You have worked on a number of TV shows. I’m curious about how your [growing up in] the South and particularly your life as a Black Southerner has shaped your writing sensibility, whether on “The Wonder Years” or elsewhere in your career.
Saladin K. Patterson: I mean, I think it’s probably more obvious how it shaped it in terms of “The Wonder Years,” but, as I’ve grown as a writer, you know, the old adage is certainly true, you write what you know, and I’ve had experiences — both as a person, as a dad, as a husband — all those things contribute to my creative point of view. But, growing up, there aren’t many of us who grew up in the South who have made or migrated out to Hollywood, per se. So that gives me a unique perspective that I think makes me a more interesting writer, a more interesting person to collaborate with. Because I have personal experiences that are different from the people around me. And so, so much of what we do is based on taking our own experiences and channeling them through other characters and things like that. So it certainly helps me in that I have something to offer that you can’t necessarily get from somewhere else just because of my experiences growing up in the South and growing up Black in the South.
John Hammontree: Great. Well, thank you so much. And people can check out “The Wonder Years” on ABC right now.
Saladin K. Patterson: Thank you, John.
John Hammontree: And that’s our show, folks. Thank you to Saladin K. Patterson for taking the time to speak with us today. You can catch new episodes of “The Wonder Years” on Wednesday nights on ABC at 8:30/7:30 Central, and on demand on Hulu on the next day.