IN "THE WONDER Years," Kevin Arnold, in voice-over, looks back on adolescence from the wry skepticism of middle age. In the new ABC series "My Life and Times," Ben Miller looks back on his life from the misty-eyed wisdom of 85 years of age. Both series seek the perspective that the passing of time brings without the distance that can accompany a period piece.
"The Wonder Years" does this by trying to find universal coming-of-age themes in Kevin's travails during the Sixties, achingly familiar years to the baby-boomers, a period of intense curiosity to their children and certainly well-remembered by their parents.
While "My Life and Times" seeks to sound similarly universal notes, it has its own gimmick to close the distance between the viewer and its subject: Ben Miller was born in 1950. When he speaks as an 85-year-old, it is in the year 2035. So the stories he recalls are the life and times of a baby boomer.
The pilot, which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) tomorrow night at 9:30, focuses on the junction between the birth of Miller's first son and a historical event, the San Francisco earthquake in October 1989.
Some of the other stories in this batch of seven that will run on Wednesday nights will be purely personal -- a poignant story about a brief affair, a comedy about Miller's wedding -- others will use this technique of historic juxtaposition -- a crime thriller set against the stock market crash of 1987 -- and others will be set in the near future -- an economic collapse in 1998, the celebration of the millennium on New Year's Eve in 1999.
All will share the exemplary skills of Tom Irwin, the veteran of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company who plays Miller, and the production talents of Ron Koslow, who last made a prime-time splash with "Beauty and the Beast."
"My Life and Times" shows its familial relationship with "Beauty and the Beast." As was that show, it is superbly produced, nicely written, beautifully filmed -- the noted British director Michael Apted directed the first two -- and espouses a lush, Romantic, cue-the-violins vision of the world.
Consider tomorrow night's opener. We meet the 85-year-old Miller at his retirement home when a teen-age grandson pays a visit, bringing him the chocolates that his more health-conscious friends used to tell him to avoid. The boy is all depressed because he didn't get into Princeton.
But Miller tells him not to be upset, that life can take strange and unpredictable turns, that what seems like defeat can really be a victory. And he launches into the story of the earthquake.
With his first baby on the way, the 39-year-old Miller had given up his dream of being a writer and taken a job in an advertising agency. He despised the work but seemed content to know he would be providing for his new child.
When the call comes that it's time for the baby to arrive -- Helen Hunt plays his wife -- Miller's panicked departure from the office is interrupted by his yuppie boss who wants a ride to his car repair shop that's on the way to the hospital. The earthquake hits on their drive and the wisdom discovered in the face of tragedy changes Miller's life forever. The inevitable scene with the new baby goes for the heartstrings.
Despite the inclusion of disappointment and tragedy, these episodes of "My Life and Times" still seem too relentlessly optimistic. They lack a certain edge; while they include elements designed to make you sad, they never admit the possibility of genuine despair.
This might be due to the essential subtext that all the episodes project, whether melodrama, comedy or thriller -- a vision of the future that is vastly different from the urban blight of "Max Headroom" or the environmental doom foreseen by a variety of PBS documentaries or the political or military apocalypse predicted by many novelists.
No, in "My Life and Times," the ozone layer seems intact, the globe doesn't seem to have warmed too much, and people with grandchildren who apply to Princeton live in nice retirement homes.
Just as "The Wonder Years" reassures the baby boomers that their adolescent pains were shared, so "My Life and Times" provides a comforting picture for those who, like Miller, would have just turned 40 in 1990.
It tells us that life will have its ups and downs but ultimately will continue pretty much as it is now; that somehow, mankind's wisdom has prevailed over his folly and he has managed not to wipe himself off the face of the Earth.
"My Life and Times" has its off-camera futuristic side as well. It may represent the shape of things to come in network television. For one, it's produced by ABC's production company. More and more shows will be made this way under the new FCC regulations that allow the networks to own and syndicate up to 40 percent of their prime-time schedule.
And it's also a half-hour drama, a form that used to be common on television, then disappeared, but is now making a comeback for economic reasons.
So maybe in one episode, Miller can recall for one of his grandchildren the days when "Kojak" was an hour, back when there were three networks, before the Time-Warner-GE-Paramount-Cap Cities merger of 2002 brought all 156 cable channels under the control of one company. Those were the days, he'll say, but these are fine, too. Hand me the remote control.
"My Life and Times"
*** An 85-year-old man looks back at his life from the year 2035 in this half-hour drama from the creator of "Beauty and the Beast."
CAST: Tom Irwin, Helen Hunt
TIME: Wednesdays at 9:30
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)