A grown-up comes to terms with his nostalgia for Boy Meets World going wrong.
Yes, I’m 32 years old, and I’ve been anticipating the premiere of Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World. Admittedly more than any 32-year-old man should.
So what if my 8-year-old niece is its target demographic? With equal parts genuine interest and morbid curiosity, I’ve been looking forward to Disney’s spinoff of ABC’s now-classic, formative-for-people-my-age sitcom Boy Meets World because, well, I grew up with Ben Savage’s Cory Matthews. Boy Meets World, back in those days, was a cut above everything else on ABC and the other major networks. The writing was sharp and always funny, the performances were authentic, and the life lessons experienced by Cory, his button-pushing chum Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong), and his one true love, Topanga (Danielle Fishel) were wonderfully poignant. No, not the one where Shawn joins the cult—I’m thinking more along the lines of Shawn coping with the death of his father, Chet, or Cory telling his dad, Alan (William Russ), that he doesn’t want to be like him when he grows up, just another blue-collar, average Joe with kids. Boy Meets World struck an impressive balance between silliness and emotion, an endearing combination that can still be felt whenever its reruns air on ABC Family.
Yes, I’ll watch said Boy Meets World reruns whenever I’m able to—and, though I probably shouldn’t cop to this fact in such a public setting, I do own the entire series on DVD. It provides a nice contrast when seen alongside my Eraserhead, Suspiria, and The Beyond discs. Always a good conversation-starter whenever there’s a female in my bedroom. “Oh, so you love Boy Meets World, too? That’s so cool. So can I now introduce you to David Lynch’s bearded woman who lives in a radiator?” (Bye bye, second date.)
In Girl Meets World, I’m hoping my niece, Gianna, receives her very own Boy Meets World, especially since the 2014 show centers on a young girl, Riley (Rowan Blanchard), the daughter of Cory and Topanga. Like how I evolved as Cory did, Gianna, if Girl Meets World works as intended, could find a fellow road warrior on her teenage years’ ever-difficult road to adulthood in Riley Matthews.
Now that I’ve seen Girl Meets World’s pilot, since it’s available to view on Watch Disney a month before the show’s official June 27 premiere, I’m not so sure if it’s right for Gianna. Not because Girl Meets World first episode isn’t any good—it’s tough to pan something so aggressively sweet and well-intentioned, particularly when it’s a Disney Channel series and I’m a grown-ass man. The problem is, Girl Meets World’s debut is essentially a 22-minute (sans commercials) wink-wink-athon. Within the opening three minutes, fatherly Cory tells Riley, asserting his patriarchy, “It’s not your world yet—it’s my world.” She replies, “How long do I have to live in my father’s world?” Cory answers, “Until you make it yours—go ahead, make it yours.”
Thus begins a modernized facsimile of Boy Meets World. Riley has a best friend named Maya (Sabrina Carpenter), an edgier counterpart who’s obviously meant to be the new Shawn Hunter. There’s a smart, nasally voiced weasel in Riley and Maya’s class named Farkle (Corey Fogelmanis) who, Wikipedia informs, is Minkus’ son, which apparently gives returning series creators Michael Jacobs and April Kelly the license to make Farkle an exact replica of BMW's Minkus. Cory is now Riley’s teacher, loudly echoing how the younger Cory and Mr. Feeny shared endless classroom moments of self-realization. (And, in a stranger parallel that perhaps only I’ll recognize, Sabrina Carpenter looks eerily similar to Danielle Harris, the present-day “scream queen” extraordinaire who played Cory’s bad-girl high school love interest Theresa “TK” Keiner in the Boy Meets World episode “Sister Theresa.”)
Prepare yourselves, fellow thirty- and twenty-somethings who also religiously watched Ben Savage's O.G. show as youngsters. Despite its surface-level similarities and overt Boy Meets World references, Girl Meets World bears little resemblance to ABC’s original show. This one’s aggressively a Disney Channel program. The network’s obnoxious laugh track is heard throughout, more often than not distractingly. Save for Sabrina Carpenter’s suitably tougher disposition, all of the performances are theatrical and hammy, the most egregious of which is Ben Savage, who delivers lines like “Riley, I’ve already met the world—it’s your turn” with the subtlety of a Hallmark card.
That line is one of many times “world” is said in Girl Meets World’s pilot. Written by Michael Jacobs, the episode is one long plea from Riley to Papa Cory to let her find her own “world,” one in which she rides a laughably inaccurate-looking New York City subway with Maya, nervously flirts with new kid in school from Texas, and fights “my Civil War,” because Disney Channel viewers need allusions to Robert E. Lee in their lives. Jacobs might as well have had each character say “Remember, folks, this is a Boy Meets World spinoff" directly into the camera.
Riley’s biggest lesson learned is that she doesn’t need to be like Maya, but, rather, just be herself and help Maya become a better person through that. Indeed, it’s the entirety of Boy Meets World’s seven seasons crammed into one sequence inside a subway car. Yet rushing the evolution of Riley/Maya’s answer to the Cory/Shawn dynamic into the pilot isn’t enough for Jacobs to drive home Girl Meets World copycat ambitions. To (unintentionally, no doubt) punctuate the lack of nuance, the episode concludes with Riley and Maya walking into a subway cart as the conductor announces, “Next stops: Astor Place, 14th Street, and the world.”
Before anyone comes at me on some “It’s just a Disney Channel show, for fuck’s sake” ish, though, let’s be clear: I’m completely aware of that. Gianna, much like every other boy and girl her age, won’t pick up on any of those winks toward Boy Meets World. For them, Girl Meets World will settle nicely into the sweet spot currently occupied by shows like Good Luck, Charlie and Dog With a Blog, previously cemented by grandaddy of them all (for Gianna, at least), iCarly. It’s Boy Meets World homogenized into the cookie-cutter Disney Channel aesthetic, and because of that, Gianna and her peers will almost certainly dig it.
But there’s nothing cookie-cutter about Boy Meets World. There never was, and there still isn’t. And I wouldn’t be harping on that point right now had Girl Meets World not tried so desperately to remind viewers over the age of 20 of its Matthews family lineage. An original in every sense, Boy Meets World achieved greatness without following any precedents. If it doesn’t somehow grow into something more than a glorified Boy Meets World homage, Girl Meets World won’t win over anyone old enough to know who Mr. Turner is. (As these pics of Shawn Hunter, Harley Keiner, and Stuart Minkus' appearances in later episodes prove, it's not exactly on pace to do that.)
To paraphrase grown-man Cory, Girl Meets World needs to settle into its own world.