In this feature I take a look at one episode that marks a high point in a television series. It’s not necessarily the absolute best a series has to offer (that’s always debatable), but it’s an episode that remains lodged in memory long after I first watched it.
“When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything – artist, scientist, athlete, scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one.”
There will always be a special place in my childhood memories for The Wonder Years. I grew up with Kevin Arnold, faced the same adolescent challenges that he did, and when he struggled, I empathized. There are many Kevin Arnold moments I remember, but after re-watching the entire Wonder Years series a few years back, it’s “Coda” that stood out sharply. Like so many episodes of The Wonder Years, “Coda” has a tone of bittersweet nostalgia, and the episode begins and ends with a sunset representing the hobbies and passions lost along the path to adulthood.
When Kevin tries to quit his piano lessons, his teacher Mrs. Carples is not pleased. Mrs. Carples (played wonderfully by Maxine Stuart) is a chain-smoking, perceptive, honest, and supportive teacher who truly believes in Kevin’s innate musical ability. Kevin argues that he’ll never play the piano as perfectly as his robotic peer, Ronald Hirschmuller. Mrs. Carples scoffs at this, saying, “You have more talent in your little pinky than Ronald Hirschmuller has in his whole body.” More importantly, she teaches Kevin that music isn’t about competition, it’s about feeling the music and interpreting it in your own way.
So Kevin spends hours practicing for the annual piano recital, and Mrs. Carples proudly says he’s ready to play before an audience. But at the dress rehearsal Ronald plays the same song as Kevin, “Canon in D Major,” and he plays it perfectly. Kevin is up next, and he nervously begins his performance immediately after Ronald. He makes a mistake. And another. And another. Kevin’s confidence slips away, and he finally does quit the piano. He doesn’t perform in the piano recital, and he happily plays football with his friends instead.
I can’t overstate how much I love the writing on “Coda.” In simple words, the narrator – an older, wiser Kevin – speaks of regret in a profound way. Most people can immediately recall at least one opportunity or passion we abandoned for a variety of reasons, but life moves on no matter our regrets. Kevin reflects on this, and he speaks about it plainly while his younger self observes the piano recital from outside Mrs. Carples’ house as dusk falls.
“I remember the light glowing from Mrs. Carples’ window. And I remember the darkness falling as I sat out there on the street looking in. And now, more than twenty years later, I still remember every note of the music that wandered out into the still night air. The only thing is, I can’t remember how to play it anymore.”
Other Best Eps candidates: “Pilot,” “My Father’s Office,” “The Sixth Man”