Mere Anachrony: Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World

Girl Meets World, the Disney Channel’s long-awaited Boy Meets World spin-off, premiers tonight. Except it’s not Disney’s typical audience of pre-teens who are awaiting this premiere—it’s people in their 20s who have been clamoring the loudest for this show about an eleven-year-old girl. And why? Because we millennials fucking love Boy Meets World.

For those unfamiliar, Boy Meets World aired on ABC from 1993 to 2000, as part of the network’s “TGIF” lineup of family-friendly programming. The titular boy was Cory Matthews (played by Ben Savage). He was in sixth grade when the series began. His parents were happily married. He had an older brother (Eric, played by Will Friedle) and a younger sister (Morgan, played brilliantly by Lily Nicksay, then forgettably by Lindsay Ridgeway). His best friend was Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) and the object of his affections was Topanga Lawrence (Danielle Fishel). Most important, though, was his next-door neighbor and perpetual teacher, Mr. Feeny (William Daniels), who was the show’s voice of reason and guiding light.

But all that sounds pretty cookie-cutter. It doesn’t really capture the enduring appeal of Boy Meets World. So what does? What accounts for the enthusiasm for Cory and Topanga’s return?

Hmm, well, OK… There are some shows about teenagers I watched when I was younger than the characters (Saved by the Bell, Hang Time). Then there are shows about teenagers I watched when I was roughly the same age as the characters (The OC). And then there are shows about teenagers that I watched when I was older than the characters (Friday Night Lights, Freaks and Geeks). And yet Boy Meets World is possibly the only such show I watched at every stage.

Part of the reason I still watch it is that BMW walked a very fine line: It was a traditional coming-of-age style show, in which the kids learned lessons every episode, but it never (or rarely) came off as preachy or condescending. Compare that to a show like Degrassi, which is so melodramatic and self-serious it’s almost a parody. Or, even more common, compare it to shows in which there’s no attempt at all to have the young characters learn lessons. Shows like The OC and Pretty Little Liars and even Friday Night Lights are all essentially soap operas in which the adults do as many irresponsible things as the kids.

My point is not some kids-these-days complaint about the lack of values on TV, but rather that BMW was successful because it had a particular perspective: that growing up can be confusing and overwhelming even if you’re pretty sheltered and most of your decisions are not life-or-death and most of your mistakes are pretty trivial in the end.

Take, for example, the eighth episode of the series, “Teacher’s Bet.” The plot of this episode is pretty standard (and ridiculous) for shows about school: Cory switches places with his teacher for a week to learn how hard teaching really is. And it plays out more or less as you’d expect: He realizes his laid-back attitude will not work and that he has to work harder to connect with the students.

But a couple of things stand out about this episode. First, there are no unrealistically high stakes. Cory doesn’t alter the course of anyone’s academic future—the same number of students pass the test as usual. His only real impact, despite his climactic final lesson, is on himself. Also, the lesson only flows one way. There’s nothing in the episode to suggest Mr. Feeny needs to learn a little from Cory, or anything like that.

This isn’t groundbreaking or anything, but it’s a clear example of the show’s point of view, and it shows how you can relate to the show from almost any vantage. When you’re a kid, the idea of taking the teacher’s place seems like fun wish-fulfillment. When you’re older, it just seems like irresponsible teaching. But you can at least see the wiliness of Mr. Feeny, who understands that students retain more of what they teach to others.

Conversely, a show like Saved by the Bell makes Mr. Belding look absurd and unprofessional in his relationship with Zack. He’s not trying to teach him anything—he’s just a feckless authority figure to be undermined. As an adult, you can’t help but wonder why he hasn’t been fired. On the other side, a show like Freaks and Geeks is too realistic and subtle to be appreciated by many viewers BELOW a certain age.

It helps also that the lessons learned on Boy Meets World are usually pretty nuanced. Take the third episode, when Cory’s dad wakes him up to watch a no-hitter and, as a result, he falls asleep in school and fails a test. Mr. Feeny refuses to change his failing grade, but still tells Cory a story about when his own father refused to let him stay up to hear President Truman announced the end of World War II:

First of all, that Magna Carta line is just a solid joke (the Magna Carta being the perfect blend of academic importance and day-to-day irrelevance). But more importantly, this is a counterintuitive lesson for a sixth grader. Further complicating it, Cory’s dad then tells him that Mr. Feeny was right, and he shouldn’t have woken Cory up. The lesson: Life’s complicated. There’s no one right answer. Deal with it, kid.

The show also had a nice grasp of the kid’s perspective. Take the Season Two episode, “Pop Quiz.” Again, a very standard plot: A new teacher, Mr. Turner, lets Cory and Shawn think they have advanced notice about a pop quiz so that they actually study. This teacher-tricks-the-students-into-learning-against-their-will story is almost ubiquitous, but there’s a scene that actually deals with why such chicanery is necessary in the first place:

Mr. Turner: I stand in front of the class and talk, you learn. It’s called education.

Shawn: So that’s why this building exists! Some of us are students, and … some of us are teachers, and if the students listen to the teachers, then … Oh, I almost got it!

Cory: Then they get good grades.

Shawn: Yeah, but why?!

Mr. Turner: Why do you think, Shawn?

Shawn: Because … if you get good grades … it means you’ve actually learned something. Am I close?

Part of this is standard “stupid character” humor, but it gets at a larger truth that, for students, school often feels like a pointless bureaucratic exercise. This lesson, like most of the ones on Boy Meets World, doesn’t feel oversimplified or superficial as you age.

What I’m saying is that Boy Meets World never feels quaint or outdated. You never look back and wonder how you took Mr. Feeny seriously, or how you related to Cory/Shawn/Topanga. It makes sense. It feels like the same show.

Which is somewhat strange because the show evolved considerably throughout its seven year run. Some of this was typical of an aging series: Eric got broader and stupider as the series went on, to the point where he seems like a barely functioning human by the end. Characters started pairing off in relationships the way they tend to on shows after a while. And the show started to become more self-aware and meta.

But, weirdly, this only makes the show seem more realistic. The series can be divided into three phases, which track the phases between childhood and adulthood. Season 1 functions as its own phase, as the series was centered on Cory and Mr. Feeny’s relationship. The teacher never really engaged with other students as much as he did with Cory (which was partially explained by the fact that they were neighbors, and not outright favoritism), and Cory’s friends and family are mostly there for color and background.

Then, from Seasons 2 through most of Season 4, the show became more of an ensemble. The cast expanded to include new teachers, school bullies, nerds, and jocks; Cory’s relationship with his peers supplanted his relationship with his parents and teacher. During this stretch, Cory and Shawn had the primary relationship on the show.

Then, with the pivotal two-part episode “A Long Walk to Pittsburgh,” the show became largely about Cory’s relationship with Topanga. In other words, as Cory grew up, the most important people in his life went from adult authority figures, to his best friend, to his girlfriend.

Of course, doing this required a ton of retconning: In the first season, the characters are clearly in sixth grade, but then, to both speed up their development and expand the world, they jumped to high school the next year. In the second season, Mr. Feeny is a new principal at John Adams High School (since he was a sixth grade teacher the year before), but then characters talk about him like he’s an institution at the school who’s been there forever. This helps Feeny keep his position as the enduring authority figure.

And of course there are all the modifications the show made to the Cory/Topanga relationship. Initially, Cory and Topanga barely know each other and she’s this weird hippie girl. In Season Two, she’s semi-normal and she and Cory are old friends. This was simply done to make her a prominent character.

But then eventually there are references to the fact that she and Cory have been dating since they were three. And her family life changes significantly. A sister disappears after one episode in Season One, and her parents go from New Age-y bohemians to these weird, repressed yuppies in the final season. These latter changes were clearly to lend gravity to her relationship with Cory.

Now comes the part where I say something most fans probably won’t agree with: The Cory/Topanga relationship kind of ruined Boy Meets World. This may sound blasphemous, since Cory and Topanga were like the Tristan and Isolde of the 1990s. It’s also a little a strong to say it “ruined” the show, since there are so many great episodes in the later seasons.

But the Cory/Topanga stuff swung the show’s pendulum too far to the side of melodrama. Take “The Long Walk to Pittsburgh,” in which Topanga finds out she’s moving. The strain on her relationship to Cory is resolved at the end of the emotionally draining episode, when her parents let her stay in Philadelphia with her aunt.

Even watching this as a kid, I knew that didn’t really make sense. What parents would let their daughter live in another city for a year and a half just so she could spend time with her high school boyfriend?* Doing this ONLY makes sense if you accept the premise that Cory and Topanga are soulmates, which is one of the few premises on BMW that are hard to relate to.

*Again, this was later quasi-explained by the fact that Topanga’s parents were having trouble in their marriage, and they thought some time alone would help. But, come on, give me a fucking break.

The fact is that most people DON’T meet their soulmate at the age of three. Most people don’t get married in college. When someone’s high school sweetheart moves away, most of the time they break up. It’s not that the relationship wasn’t realistic—because it’s at least as realistic as a teacher letting a student teach his class for a whole week*—but that it wasn’t relatable.

*Though this was, admittedly, pre-No Child Left Behind…

And, worse, the lessons learned from Cory’s relationship with Topanga were generally the kind of saccharine, oversimplified messages the show usually avoided. Tropes like “Love Conquers All” and “You Can Do Anything in the Name of Love” are hard to relate to when you’re young, and they seem hopelessly naïve as you get older.

This sort of overwrought storytelling didn’t just affect the Cory/Topanga relationship. Later years also had stories about long-lost brothers, dead fathers, absent mothers, and insufferable emotional angst about Shawn and Angela (his on/off girlfriend, played by Trina McGee-Davis, who joined the cast in Season Five). At the same time, the show’s comedy got broader and more madcap as it went on, creating episodes with some weird tonal clashes. Sometimes these were great—like the horror movie parody episode in Season Five—but too often it meant the show losing the perspective that made it different.

In the series last years (particularly its final season), it was coasting largely on the built-up affection for its characters and the occasional great episode. Often, the show handled its characters’ transition to adulthood better than other, more “adult” shows. A two-part episode in Season Seven—“The War” and “Seven the Hard Way”—explores the tenuous nature of adult friendships, and the silly ways they often wither away (although the episode wraps up a little too neatly). And just as often entire episodes were silly slapstick and ridiculous dialogue.

But at its best, the show was about Cory and Mr. Feeny. In the series finale, when Cory needs advice, he asks his old teacher for a lesson. Because at its heart, Boy Meets World understood that growing up is not about a few crucial decisions and grand romantic gestures. It’s about a million little choices that add up to something bigger. And sometimes you need someone to help you along the way.

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