This one's for my dad, because "The Wonder Years" is the only English-language show that I remember him enjoying on a regular basis when I was a kid. I'd resisted doing one of these lists for "The Wonder Years" in the past, because I was sure I'd forgotten too much to turn out something coherent, but that turned out not to be the case. Once I started going back through the episode lists, I found myself with an excess of installments that I wanted to write about. Admittedly, my memories of the first few seasons are hazy, so this list is heavily weighed toward later ones.
So here we go. Episodes are unranked and listed below by airdate. Some minor spoilers ahead.
"My Father's Office" - Kevin gets some insight on his father after coming to work with him one day. Jack Arnold is a character I've really come to appreciate over the years, the stern authoritarian father figure who is consistently humanized over the course of the show. He never lost the vague air of paternal menace, but it was comforting to know he was a good guy underneath.
"Coda" - The misery of piano lessons was one of those experiences that no other piece of media ever captured quite as well as this did. The tedium of practice, the brief hopes of excelling, and the performance anxiety were all things I remember acutely. This was one of the first episodes of the show I remember watching, and why I immediately sympathized with Kevin Arnold.
"The Tree House" - Male bonding was a recurring theme in the show, and this episode was all about Jack and Kevin doing their best to ignore that their relationship was changing. I love the way the show avoided directly talking about sex - discussing "the talk" in hushed tones, and the way both of the Arnold men steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the issue of the sexy neighbor,
"Glee Club" - I so clearly remember the miraculous moment when Warren Butcher's perfectly pitched high note inspired the rest of the eighth grade glee club to sing a rousingly decent version of "Stout-hearted Men." It's a sentimental look back at a brief moment of musical glory, that is sadly and hilariously dashed along with the dreams of a too-ambitious student teacher.
"Good-bye" - This was the last of three episodes in the season forming "The Math Arc," with Kevin's math teacher Mr. Collins. And it's the added weight of their clashes in those earlier episodes that gives this one that much more impact. "The Wonder Years" really nails the complicated feelings that can result from a student-teacher relationship, and how much it can mean to have someone on your side.
"It's a Mad, Mad, Madeline World" - The horror of a lost bracelet and the funniest misspelling of "Kevin Arnold" ever sends lovelorn Kevin into a near-meltdown. Kevin's love life and the endless, on again, off again relationship of Kevin and Winnie Cooper were never my favorite parts of the show, but occasionally they could be mined for some great comedy. This was definitely one of those times.
"Little Debbie" - Paul's gawky little sister Debbie has a crush on Kevin, who is roped into escorting her to a cotillion. Now, Kevin could be self-centered and selfish, but he was also capable of hero moments like one at the end of this episode, which is why I kept rooting for the kid. He doesn't just grin and bear it, but is inspired to become his best self when the situation calls for it.
"Day One" - I remember lots of media chatter about how the show was going to handle Kevin growing up and maturing, and it turned out that Kevin in high school isn't all that different from Kevin in junior high. His first day of high school is an all-around disaster, with a lot of new sources of aggravation, but Kevin does scrounge up a small moment of short-lived triumph in the end.
"The Hardware Store" - Kevin's lousy summer job at a local hardware store turns into a gentle commentary on the passage of time and the inevitability of leaving some things behind. Kevin wrestles with how much loyalty and respect he owes to his employer in fairly mature terms, and I especially like Jack's small but important role in the story, putting everything in perspective.
"The Wedding" - I was too young for many of the episodes featuring Jack and Karen's clashes, but I loved the way the show said goodbye to her character. Jack and Norma meeting the hippies is priceless, along with the awkward revelation about Alaska via wedding cake. The previous episode with the proposal, "Stormy Weather," was also a close runner-up for the list.
Honorable Mentions: "Just Between Me and You and Kirk and Paul and Carla and Becky," "Whose Woods Are These?," "Night Out," "Cocoa and Sympathy," "Daddy's Little Girl," "The Ties that Bind," "A Very Cutlip Christmas," "Graduation," "Stormy Weather," "Sex and Economics"