I was interviewed as a Boy Meets World superfan in a January 2013 issue of the Canadian magazine Macleans. For the last three years this has been my fun fact whenever I have to introduce myself at a company icebreaker. Apparently there is no bigger fan of Boy Meets World on the Internet.
Boy Meets World, in case you were not a TV-binging latchkey kid in the 1990s, is a sitcom about a boy named Cory who is supposed to be fairly average in every way: average student, average nuclear family with 2.5 kids (literally, he has a brother all the time and a sister only some of the time, due to standard 90s sitcom continuity problems). Notable characters in Cory’s life include Mr. Feeny, the impossibly wise history teacher, who is also his next-door neighbor; best friend Shawn, who is from the Wrong Side of the Tracks and has Tremendously Important Father Issues; and Cory’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Topanga, who started out as a comical weirdo but morphed into a standard Pretty Girl Love Interest, for which I hated her.
It’s not a particularly notable show. Starlee Kine described its comforting blandness on the This American Life episode “Reruns”: “It didn’t even matter that I didn’t watch it as a little kid. I can imagine little kids being in really comfortable, carpeted family rooms and laying with their elbows propped up and watching Boy Meets World and feeling really safe. Because it’s like the safest thing in the world.”
She’s right, but what set it apart from other 90s sitcoms, for me, was its occasional flashes of surreal humor. If it was funny all the time it would merely be good. The fact that it was bland 98% of the time and completely insane 2% of the time made it, to me, fascinating and unmissable. That, and I had a crush on Shawn.
Shawn! So cool when he committed acts of petty vandalism, yet so vulnerable when he ran away from an unloving home to live with a teacher. And he wrote poetry, so you know he was sensitive. Plus he said cool things like “Deets, man!” and was always eating an apple. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from TV, it’s that cool people are constantly eating apples. I’ve been trying to copy his hairdo ever since.
What were we talking about? Oh, right. The Macleans interview.
The subject of the interview was the then-upcoming sequel series, Girl Meets World. The author was interested to see if the cultish devotion that 90s kids had for Boy Meets World would transfer to the new show. I expressed cautious optimism.
Girl Meets World debuted in June 2014. I didn’t watch it. I didn’t go looking for it, and I didn’t click on it when it appeared in my Netflix feed two months ago. I felt apprehensive. Last night my best friend insisted that I watch so we could complain about it together. “It’s terrible!” she said gleefully.
She’s not wrong. I watched the first five episodes in rapid succession. Here are my impressions.
The writing is quite terrible
It’s hard to say, and I am trying to be fair and not see the original show, which was bad, through rose-colored glasses, but I am pretty sure the writing is legitimately worse than Boy Meets World. I’m not sure why because many of the writers seem to be the same.
Some lines are so clunky and awkward that it’s hard to tell what they even mean. Like this moment in an argument between Riley, the Girl who Meets World, and Cory, the Boy who Once Met World, and who is her dad:
What do you know about makeup?
I know it’s what you’re going to have to do with me.
It took me until well into the next scene to realize, “Oh, make UP.” Then, “Barf.”
In the episodes I’ve seen, I can tell that the Girl Meets World writers are trying for that balance of 98% comfortingly boring, 2% insane. The trouble is when they go for insane and miss. As my mom used to say, “Try to be funny and you’re silly, try to be silly and you’re random, try to be random and you’re annoying.” (In retrospect, my mom was not all that tolerant of my four-year-old absurdist humor. Sample joke: Q: What’s green? A: Purple. Q: What’s purple? A: Green.)
The show often tries for random, and it’s usually just annoying. Take this moment when Riley is sitting dreamily in her window seat with her little brother, Auggie:
Am I the type of person who always plays it safe? Is this who I’m going to be for the rest of my life? Am I ever going to take a risk that changes my destiny?
Do birds know how to smile? Why is cake always so delicious? Will my drawings ever get any better?
Are you making fun of me?
No, I think just like you because we’re twins.
I can see how it sort of works on paper, but in the show, it reads like a series of disjointed statements. Five-year-old Auggie is clearly not teenage Riley’s twin, so that just comes off as another bizarre, meaningless collection of words. With a laugh track between each line, lengthy sections of randomness like this just slow down any momentum the script had.
Still, there are moments where they seem to be getting the formula right. Like this moment after Riley’s underachieving best friend, Maya, storms out of class:
Redecorating your locker?
Nope. Cleaning it out. (She holds up a small, strange paper cone) You want one? ‘Cause it’s the last one you’re gonna get.
(Riley nods. Maya sticks the paper cone into the depths of her locker; carnival music plays; she emerges with a full cone of cotton candy, which she hands to Riley.)
Maya, it’s just one F…
(The conversation continues as if the cotton candy exchange never happened.)
I’m not saying it’s the world’s best joke, but the insertion of a ridiculous throwaway premise–school troublemaker Maya has a working cotton candy machine deep in her locker–into a standard sitcom conversation is pretty classic Boy Meets World zaniness.
Oddly, I think the part Girl Meets World is missing is not the zaniness, but the normalcy. The plot needs to be somewhat grounded in reality in order for the moments of extreme zaniness to stand out. There is no sense of reality here. If a sitcom is an abstraction of life, Girl Meets World is an abstraction of an abstraction; it’s like if aliens wrote a sitcom about life on Earth and their only research was Boy Meets World.
What does that mean, it’s an abstraction of an abstraction?
Well, like… the lessons in school aren’t like lessons you might plausibly have in school. It’s just, like, the teacher stands in front of the class and states the themes of the episode.
And the plot things that happen, they don’t make sense. At one point I think they buy a bakery?
Topanga–she’s the mom in this series–she’s a lawyer, and her boss from the law firm wants the bakery owner to sign away her rights to the bakery so they can build a Pinkberry or something. So Topanga is like, “I want an advance on my salary in the exact amount that it will take to save the bakery, or I’m going to go work for the competition.” And the boss is like, “Ohhh! You drive a hard bargain!”
What? Go away. Get out of here with that.
That’s what I said!
So then they just had a bakery?
It didn’t really come up again.
For “all zany all the time” to work, the universe needs to have internal logic. Continuity. Continuity has never been this franchise’s strong suit.
Riley and Maya are Cory and Shawn
That is really all there is to it. There is no attempt to disguise this fact or make them anything other than what they are, which is the exact copies of the main characters in the original show.
Cory is enough of a non-character–Joe Protagonist–that the actor who plays Riley has some scope to make the role her own with her own brand of cuteness. She does a solid job of alternately channeling Cory and Topanga, but mostly Cory. She has his hapless, rubber-faced, bundle-of-nerves act down.
Maya is exactly, precisely, transcendently Shawn. She’s from the Wrong Side of the Tracks, and has Tremendously Important Father (and Mother) Issues. She doesn’t do her homework, but she’s personally hurt when her teacher-mentor loses faith in her. She’s secretly artsy. She wears wacky, overly layered, leather-jacket-featuring bad-girl 2010s outfits that exactly capture the spirit of Shawn’s wacky, overly layered, leather-jacket-featuring bad-boy 90s outfits. She has celebrity-like popularity at school, maintaining inexplicable, unflappable cool in spite of the consistently dorky things she does and says. When she mockingly hoedown-dances to make fun of Riley’s Texan love interest, all the kids in the hall clap time to cheer her on. “This isn’t for you!” she snaps at the extras. Then, immediately, “Okay, fine,” she relents, and dances more to amuse her public.
“As long as I can remember, it’s been Riley and Maya,” says Cory fondly, assuring his daughter that of COURSE he would never try to break off her friendship with her delinquent pal, but instead wants Riley be a good influence and help Maya get out of wacky scrapes, as is her birthright.
“How do we get into these messes?” wonders Riley, dressed as Juliet, to Maya, wearing street clothes, as they lie side by side on a plinth on a stage in front of the student body.
“You’re my best friend,” Riley and Maya tell each other constantly, and, “I love you.” They hold hands and stroke each other’s hair. As girls, they can get away with more physical affection than Cory and Shawn could, at least before it’s noticeably unusual, but they do their best to reach for that bar. It’s not so much homoerotic–nothing about this show is erotic in the slightest–but deeply, absurdly loving. The joke is how ridiculously highly they esteem each other and that’s the gentle, sweet sort joke I can get behind.
Cory and Shawn had the same joke. Their Gilgamesh-style epic friendship was the most charming part of Boy Meets World, and in creating two main characters who are 100% the same as their counterparts, the writers have managed to preserve that charm. You can definitely picture Cory and Shawn doing and saying all the same things that Riley and Maya do and say.
I’d like to say I’d prefer if the writers had shown some creativity and made Riley and Maya their own people, but I’m not sure I would. As lazy as it is, by simply gender-switching the two main characters of the original show, the writers have managed to avoid most of the gender baggage and sexist clichés associated with female sitcom characters. Riley and Maya aren’t competitive with each other. They recognize that they have different strengths–Riley’s optimism and determination, Maya’s coolness–and they admire each other for their differences. They’re never catty. Even when they get mad enough to paint-fight, they listen to each other. All Maya has to do after making her big point is hand Riley a bowl of paint, and Riley pours it on herself. Their friendship is pure, and it has a sense of fairness and equality and just genuine liking each other that’s totally normal in real-life female friendships, but still pretty rare in popular fictional ones.
The tradition of boundary-trampling mentors continues
Have I mentioned that Cory is not only Riley’s dad, but the school history teacher? We all thought it was weird enough in the original show, with Mr. Feeny simultaneously serving as Cory’s history teacher/neighbor/mentor/surrogate grampa/role model/conscience/wise old owl. Girl Meets World saw that and raised us one.
Cory is the worst
This was entirely predictable based on Cory’s trajectory in Boy Meets World. Back in 1993, he was evidently cast for his eleven-year-old ability to be adorably neurotic and adultlike, sort of a tiny Woody Allen. That’s a sort of appeal that doesn’t age well. In later seasons he was hard to tolerate, always re-learning the same lessons, relying on faces and voices that weren’t cute anymore. His primary emotion was butthurt. Grown-up Cory has the worst excesses of latter season Cory, only now the show expects us to take him seriously as a Feeny figure.
I no longer hate Topanga
In a surprise move, Cory and Topanga aren’t the perfect, lovey-dovey couple that I assumed fan service would have demanded. Topanga’s open contempt for Cory is one of the most consistent and delicious running gags. At one point she locks him out of the house. It’s funny because their marriage is terrible! Grown-up Topanga is world-weary and bubbling with barely-contained rage. I love her.
Lucas is an accent with eyelashes
Riley’s ostensible heterosexual love interest, Lucas, is a complete non-character. His personality is that he is from Texas. And he’s pretty. I guess if there’s going to be a character whose personality is prettiness, it’s refreshing that it’s a boy.
Since I have nothing else to say about Lucas, let me use him as another example of how Cory is the absolute worst. Cory hates Lucas. Lucas is a nice, polite kid who has done exactly nothing to earn Cory’s wrath. His greatest crime is that Riley has a crush on him. Typical joke: Cory locks Lucas out of the classroom so Riley can’t talk to him! “Lucas, honey, why are you home from school early?” “Oh, it’s nothing, Mom. My teacher locked me out of the classroom on account of he thinks I am a threat to his daughter’s virginity. It’s fine; I’ll read.”
Sometimes I wonder if Cory is a licensed teacher at all or if he is just a guy who trapped a bunch of kids in a building.
Farkle is rape culture in a cheerful little package
I’ve always found it odd that, for many viewers, Minkus was one of the more memorable Boy Meets World characters. Picture your standard nasal, bespectacled, teacher’s-pet foil for the surpassingly mediocre Cory. He didn’t have time to develop interesting quirks, because he was only in season one. He’s such a boring, trite character that I often forget he was part of my show; he might as well have been a character from Step by Step or Family Matters or something. But present-day thirty-year-olds often cite Minkus when trying to conjure up their memories of Boy Meets World, so I understand why they put a Minkus-equivalent in Girl Meets World. His name is Farkle.
Like Minkus, Farkle seems even younger than the rest of the cast, high-voiced and constantly interrupting the teacher with know-it-all comments. And, like Minkus, he has a weird sexually aggressive streak. It was a running gag that Minkus pined for Topanga, but this never took up too much airtime, because they were both fairly plot-unimportant class nerds. Farkle is far more integrated into the main cast, so his constant Pepe Le Pew-style pursuit of both Riley and Maya is front and center. And it is super gross. I guess the idea of Minkus hitting on Shawn is kind of a cool mindfark™, but, ultimately, a twelve-year-old being all “Hello Ladies” and frequently discussing his plans to date and/or marry and/or impregnate either or both of his two female friends is creepy as hell.
Everyone on the show just kind of laughs it off, like, “Oh, that Farkle!” Even Cory, whose fear and hatred of the unfailingly respectful Lucas is so all-consuming that it prevents him from doing his job. Meanwhile Farkle actually makes unwanted advances on Riley, and Cory just smiles indulgently. What is the lesson here, Teach?!
Here’s the thing, though. As repugnant as I find the core of his character, I have to admit it: I like Farkle a little.
If you ignore everything he says about girls and romance, he has an over-the-top, infectious energy that’s deeply entertaining. And that is why I choose to believe that he is gay.
I know, I know–not every high-energy, campy, larger-than-life boy is necessarily gay. But, look, don’t take this away from me, okay? I need this. I need to believe that (1) Farkle’s entire personality is a façade built on hiding his lack of interest in girls and (2) Riley, Maya, Lucas, and Cory all know and (3) they are all gently waiting for him to come out and that’s the reason they don’t scream at him every minute of every day. Please let me have this, it is the only thing that allows me to sleep at night.
Writers, the only thing I ask of you is that you not rule this out. I know it will never be confirmed, because this show exists in the Disney time-warp where “family programming” means it’s okay to make jokes about Cory and Shawn being boyfriends because that is simply absurd, and it is definitely okay to show a boy kissing a girl against her will because that’s wholesome entertainment for all ages, but you can never, never acknowledge that real gay people actually exist.
The perfect nuclear family fantasy no longer works
Speaking of time warps, many of the givens of the show feel antiquated, probably because it’s a reboot of a show which, even in its heyday, already had an old-fashioned feel to it. The convention that feels most anachronistic to me, and grinds my gears the most, is that Topanga apparently does all the housework and cooking. I don’t even remember seeing Cory’s mom do all that much homemaking, and as far as I recall, her job was homemaker. Topanga’s a lawyer. She must be the primary breadwinner, because Cory is a public school teacher, and the family lives in a cavernous Brooklyn brownstone knee-deep in iPads. I’m not saying the lower earner needs to do the chores. I’m just pointing out: we see Topanga make her family three square meals a day; we never see Cory lift a finger. When Cory complains about Topanga’s chicken, she never once suggests, “Why don’t you make it yourself, then?” Why? Why? Why?
Related question: Who takes care of Auggie during the day? In a show about a New York City family with two working parents and a child in kindergarten, the nanny should really be a visible and important member of the household.
In a part of the Macleans interview that didn’t make it into the article, I explained that the show would have to nod to its past while developing its own original characters and modern voice, the way Degrassi: The Next Generation and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic did. I think I can say that, as of the first five episodes, anyway, Girl Meets World has failed.
Not only are the main characters carbon copies of the previous show’s main characters, but the plots are often recycled too: Maya and Riley try to lead a homework strike; Riley flips out when she’s invited to a party and Maya isn’t. Cory never mentions that the exact same things happened to him and Shawn.
The fifth episode even features footage from the old show, and the studio audience has never “Whooo!”ed louder than when Topanga dressed up as her eleven-year-old self. Her “real” self. Because you are never more authentic than when you are eleven, and every development to your personality or goals that happens after that is meaningless trash.
Says the thirty-year-old whose taste in TV has clearly not progressed in twenty years.
I’m going to whine, complain, bash, rail, and watch the whole damn series.
That’s something it definitely has in common with the original: the fine line between hate-watching and love-watching. Because while I kind of hate everything that happens and everything everyone says, I don’t hate everyone. There’s still a kernel–a grain–of what I love, buried in there somewhere.
Laura Hughes is a software developer, writer, tree-hugger, and internationally recognized authority on Boy Meets World. Her first gay & lesbian young adult novel, Don’t Ask, was released from Prizm Books in 2013. Sixth Grade Detective, an interactive mystery adventure from Choice of Games, is coming soon. She blogs about personal finance and simple living at FrugalBagel.com.