I have been enjoying all the “Wonder Years” episodes so far, but this one in particular has been particularly enjoyable for me because of how much I related to the themes. I was not relating to it from the childhood standpoint –although there were a few elements of the episode that triggered memories about my childhood experiences- but rather from my current situation as an adult and making decisions about my career. The storyline centers on Kevin’s Dad (Jack) and how Jack’s job affects his relationship with his family. The broader theme, however, is how often times we have to sacrifice our own professional dreams because of the other personal decisions and realities we face- choosing to get married and starting a family, and having a source of income to sustain ourselves.
Jack Arnold does not enjoy his job. He comes home angry and grumpy most days, and his mood is so bad after returning from work that his children and wife make sure not to talk with him when he enters. Nor do they approach him when he is sulking after dinner in front of the television. I feel bad for Jack Arnold on two accounts; one, it must have been hard to have to go to a job that caused such misery day in and day out, and not have the option to leave the position. Having a job in the 60s was different from what it is now in many ways; sure, in both periods, people need jobs to earn money, but back in the 60s, given the economic and social conditions, it must have been harder to change jobs outside the company compared to the flexibility offered today to leave the company [barring recessionary conditions]. In addition (and I may be stretching my analysis a bit since I didn’t actually grow up in the late 60s,) my observation is that today’s emphasis is more on developing a career and being happy in one’s job, while the job prospects back in the 60s may have seemed more focused on the job position and earning the money to support the family.
Another reason I sympathize with Jack is how his job impacts his relationship with his family. It must be hard to communicate to them just how difficult his job can be when he is the primary breadwinner for the family and the ego stemming from this, (in addition being the parent of the family), does not lend itself to making it easy for him to explain his emotions.
(Side note on acting quality: I must say that Dan Lauria (as Jack Arnold) does a good job being a grumpy dad. Heck, even I was sort of intimidated as Kevin is whenever he would come into the house all moody. It is funny to compare his acting in “Wonder Years” in contrast to his guest-starring role in “Ed” (I am probably the only one who remembers and is a huge fan of this short-lived but high quality series) in which his character was more teddy bear like).
Given his father’s grumpy moods, it is but natural for Kevin to be intimidated and feel distant from him. One particular day is particularly upsetting for Kevin as his dad comes home from work early and yells at Kevin for having his bicycle out on the driveway. When Kevin talks back, Jack yells at him and send him to his room. Kevin is upset and the adult Kevin voiceover gives us insights into how he feels at that point: he didn’t understand why his dad was always hard, or why/when his dad went from the fun loving, playful personality when Kevin was a small child to the grump he was then.
Kevin realizes how little he knows about his father and how much he wants to know more about him –in particular, his job- when, on the bus with his brother and Paul, he is unable to explain to another kid just what his dad does. When he asks his mother, she is equally unclear about her husband’s duties and is unable to explain beyond the position description (Manager of distribution at product support services. It does sound confusing!) My favorite quote of the episode is when Kevin is asking the question, and adult Kevin’s voiceover states: “ My mother obviously hoped the tone of her declaration would forestall the one glaring question the substance raised- what does that mean?”
Ultimately, Kevin is able to get a first hand experience with what his dad does on a daily basis after his dad invites him to come to the office; getting to that point is difficult for Kevin as his initial questions to his dad about what he does is met with irritation, but Jack softens up after a rebuking from Kevin’s mother. It is interesting to see the differences in attitude when Jack and Kevin go to the office. Whereas Jack is not very enthusiastic, Kevin is completely blown away watching his dad take various calls, signs documents, and deal with his direct reports. Kevin is sitting at his dad’s desk, watching Jack conduct his normal duties of managing the business, and imagines himself in the same situation, where he gets to yell at people and sign documents. Kevin’s romanticism of the office life reminded me of my own when I was a bit younger than him, something I had completely forgotten about until I watched the episode. I used to pretend playing office while sitting in my big rocking chair, pushing imaginary buttons and pretending to buzz people to talk to them about decisions that I had made. Little did the child me know how tedious this type of activity was in real life, haha.
While Kevin is fantasizing about the glories of having a job like his father, his father is quickly running out of patience as he is getting multiple calls and has learned that his direct report had made an error in a customer delivery. He decides to take Kevin to the cafeteria for a coffee break. What follows is a heartfelt scene between father and son, where Kevin finally gets to learn more about his father and have a conversation with him. He asks his father when he knew he wanted to be a manager of distribution, and Jack candidly admits that never thought that would be what he would be doing. Jack tells him something he hadn’t told his own wife, which is that he had originally dreamt of being a captain of a ship. Jack has a happy face (as sharp contrast from his grumpy face throughout the episode) as he describes how he was drawn in by the prospect of navigating by the stars. My second quote of the episode (although for a less humorous reason) is Jack’s response when Kevin asks Jack why he didn’t become a captain: “You can’t do every silly thing you want in life. You have to make your choices. You have to try to be happy with them”
This quote really summed up the bittersweet fact of life –accepting the reality of not being able to follow your exact dream. It was particularly bittersweet for me because I often question my own career choices. I’m currently in school getting my MBA and specializing in marketing, and though I find the subject interesting enough, it is not exactly the dream job I had envisioned as a kid. I originally intended to pursue a career in the non-profit field, but was unable to get a job after graduation, so took one in the corporate arena. I ended up staying as I realized that my income would be much higher than if I were in the non-profit sector. The corporate world has definitely not been my passion (although I have become more interested in it than I had originally thought), but has afforded me the opportunity to pursue my interests, whereas I wonder how much happier I would have been overall if I had chosen the non-profit career that was based on my passion but with more financial strain.
Kevin and his father leave the cafeteria in a good mood, but that is soon destroyed for both of them as Kevin’s dad is chewed out by his boss upon return. This incidence helps the episode come full circle as it allows Kevin to better understand the pressures his dad deals with on daily basis, and this newfound empathy enables him to lose the fear of his dad as he suddenly becomes more humanized.
Overall, another great episode that induces reflection and highlights some of the smaller tragedies of life that we all deal with in some shape or form: disappointment. As a final note to close my analysis of the episode, I have to hand it to the producers for choosing Daniel Stern as the narrator. I finally noticed the genius of the selection as I watched this episode as I finally actively listened (instead of just passively listening) to his voice. His voice is soothing and crisp and is the type of voice that is meant for books on tape. I could have closed my eyes through the episode and Daniel’s voice would have been able to paint the image in my mind. Fantastic storytelling voice Daniel!