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In ‘The Wonder Years’ and ‘Our Kind of People,’ Black characters grapple with their history

From left, Dulé Hill, Saycon Sengbloh, Elisha “EJ” Williams and Laura Kariuki in “The Wonder Years.” (Erika Doss/AP)
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In turbulent times, some people instinctively sense in their bones that they’re living through history. Others — often children — realize it by observing history’s effects on those around them.

Taking up the perspective of the latter was the key ingredient of the original “Wonder Years,” which ran from 1988 to 1993. Starring Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold, an unremarkable suburban teen growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the series saw its protagonist coming of age into a world that was shifting under his feet. Only through hindsight provided in voice-over narration by Daniel Stern, who interjects with 30-something Kevin’s nostalgic reflections, does the protagonist fully understand the momentousness of the era he lived through as a youth.

The Wonder Years” channeled a late boomer/early Gen X feeling of having been born just a few years too late, of being stuck in class or obsessing over a girl while boys not much older than him were dying in unnecessary wars and teenagers left home or dropped out in droves to discover new ways of being. But that doesn’t mean that the boredom of school or the jitters from seeing your crush were any less real.

Much of this winsome formula was replicated and lightly parodied by a 2000s Black family sitcom, which pointedly rejected its predecessor’s vision of White, middle-class Americana. Set in ’80s Brooklyn, “Everybody Hates Chris” was four seasons of Chris Rock proverbially grinding up a pair of rose-colored glasses under his shoe, and it offered bitter relief.

The new remake of “The Wonder Years” (ABC), produced by Lee Daniels, reverts to the gentle melancholy of the original. Closer to a half-hour drama than a traditional comedy, it, too, is Black-centric, taking place in Montgomery, Ala., amid the civil rights movement.

In the pilot, 12-year-old Dean Williams (Elisha “EJ” Williams) contemplates what it takes to become a man and whether the first time he stood up to his music professor father (Dulé Hill) was worth it. But the adult Dean (voiced by Don Cheadle, whose character would be in his mid-60s) also reflects on his years as one of the few Black kids at Jefferson Davis Junior High School; the parental debates over the safety of Black children playing baseball alongside White ones at a time of unofficial segregation; and worrying that acts of rebellion by his politically engaged older sister (Laura Kariuki) will include picking up a shotgun on behalf of the Black Panthers.

Suffice to say, Kevin Arnold never had to think about this stuff, and that’s the point. Suburbia wasn’t immune from tragedy — the 1988 pilot ends with the death of his crush Winnie Cooper’s brother in Vietnam — but there was never any doubt that the Kevin Arnolds of the world would one day inherit the earth.

Based on the first episode (directed by Savage and the only installment screened for critics), signs abound that Dean is growing up into a milieu in which the status of Black people in America is mid-renegotiation. He may care more about screwing up the courage to ask out the object of his affections (Milan Ray) or avoiding his bully (Jah’Mir Poteat), a large Black boy their teacher disfavors compared with the smaller and quieter Dean. But from the way Dean’s Jewish friend (Julian Lerner) has to constantly reassure him that any new White person who approaches their social circle isn’t “prejudiced,” we can see that it’s a matter of time before our protagonist starts to question the rules of the world he’s about to enter.

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There’s a lot of promise here; the child actors are great finds, and the adult cast — featuring Saycon Sengbloh as Dean’s mother and Allen Maldonado as his baseball coach — evince a roundedness that you hope will mean story lines dedicated to their characters, too. But the initial chapter suggests that the show’s in-flux environs are the star: Dean has trouble figuring out who he is when he has to play different roles in different contexts, while his parents are forced to consider whether the survival strategies that worked for them, like attending a historically Black college, are best for their children, who are growing up in a slowly integrating era that’s simultaneously defined by racial progress and violent backlash. One thing’s for sure: You’ll want to return to this world.

A novel setting also elevates Daniels’s other show debuting this week, the Fox prime-time soap “Our Kind of People.” Based on Lawrence Otis Graham’s nonfiction book, the series follows an aspiring Black-hair-care entrepreneur, Angela (Yaya DaCosta, best known to certain millennial women as the Season 3 runner-up on “America’s Next Top Model”), a working-class Boston native who sets out to join an old-money enclave of the Black elite on Martha’s Vineyard.

The premise, unfortunately, is as rote as they come, much of it pilfered from Daniels’s last megahit on the same network, “Empire.” Angela’s deceased mother was a maid who once spent a fateful summer on Martha’s Vineyard in service of the tony Jack and Jill set. With her teenage daughter (Alana Bright) and aunt (Debbi Morgan) in tow, Angela returns to the town of Oak Bluffs and stumbles upon an inheritance far larger than the one her mother may have intended.

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Turning up her nose at Angela almost immediately is Leah (Nadine Ellis), who’d rather scheme to take over the reins of the family company from her golden-tongued, ice-blooded father (Joe Morton, playing a version of his hyper-verbose Papa Pope on “Scandal”) than work on her troubled marriage to a fellow heir (Morris Chestnut) or deal with the revelation of her daughter’s (Rhyon Nicole Brown) queerness.

But it’s not the sociological critique that gives the show its shine — which, at least in the first two episodes, is too shallow and moralistic to take seriously anyway — but the inspirational spectacles of creative Black coiffure. A mother-daughter fashion show at a ladies’ organization, for instance, becomes a showcase not for the clothes, but Angela’s fanciful, defiantly impractical wigs.

The show imagines tony Oak Bluffs as party after gala after soiree, offering up plenty of escapist pageantry. But the characters themselves are burdened by the weight of history — all that their ancestors have built on their behalf, and the generational wealth that they must continue to create for their children, lest they suffer the brunt of what America has traditionally doled out to the unprotected.

The Wonder Years premieres Sept. 22 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC. Our Kind of People airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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