Boy Meets World

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

During the late ’80s and early ’90s, ABC’s TGIF lineup dominated Friday-night television. For a budding television enthusiast like myself, the arrangement couldn’t have been more perfect: a two-hour block of bright, broad comedy that drew heavily on traditional sitcoms without violating my parents’ relatively strict standards for appropriate TV viewing. (The Simpsons, for instance, was effectively banned in the Adams household, due to excessive use of the world “hell” in “Homer Vs. Lisa And The Eighth Commandment.”) If pressed to name my favorite television show in 1992—the year when Dinosaurs and Camp Wilder followed the Miller-Boyett powerhouses of Family Matters and Step By Step—my 1992 self would’ve likely replied “TGIF,” because I was 7, and 7-year-olds have notoriously shitty and non-discerning taste in television. Seven-year-olds in 1992 also loved watching Jaleel White fall down. 

However, with the 1993 debut of Boy Meets World, that personal preference was whittled down to a single show. Whereas all the TGIF shows that preceded it were seemingly written for children, this was the lineup’s first series that didn’t talk down to its target audience. I’m not about to pretend this was something I noticed at the time; initially I was hooked because the show’s protagonist, Cory Matthews (Ben Savage), was close to my age, and shared my intense passion for professional sports and utter confusion about all other aspects of life. He loved the Philadelphia Phillies, who played one of my favorite baseball teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, in that fall’s World Series. Tiny scraps of biographical information like that not only made the character feel real, but they made him seem like the type of guy with whom I could pore over my multiple binders of MLB and NHL trading cards.

It was in rewatching years of Boy Meets World reruns—and select episodes of the show’s second season for this column—that it occurred to me that the series stood out from its TGIF surroundings because it was written to, rather than for, tweens and teens. The show still missed the mark on a lot of things (the absurdly layered wardrobe of the principal cast, for one), but the daily anxieties faced by Cory felt like they were drawn from actual adolescent experiences. I was too young to appreciate some of the subtler gags about growing up in their first airings, but the show’s swiftly compiled syndication package made sure I could, say, look back on Cory’s extended lycanthropy-as-puberty nightmare and laugh.  

Today, TGIF is one of the most frequent topics of recollection in the nostalgia-sphere, the recipient of many a “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” accolades. But they do make ’em like that today—the offspring of Full House and Family Matters just moved out of the broadcast neighborhood. TBS, TV Land, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel are the last refuges for multi-camera, lesson-teaching sitcoms; the behind-the-scenes roles on the Nickelodeon and Disney shows are often occupied by veterans with at least one TGIF show on their résumés. It’s likely that such a place wouldn’t exist without the reruns of Boy Meets World that squatted on Disney’s before- and after-school territory in the late ’90s and early ’00s. But just as Boy Meets World stood out from its surroundings in the TGIF bloc—more adventurous, non-Miller-Boyett fare like Sabrina, The Teenage Witch aside—its mixture of old-school sitcom warmth and sly self-awareness makes it fundamentally different from the Disney shows it inspired. Even in its wackier, high-concept episodes, the series rarely tipped over into the shrillness that powers so much of Hannah Montana and The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody.

It’s for these reasons that Boy Meets World stirs so many fond memories. When the “golden era” TGIF shows were at the height of their syndicated rotation, I could hardly be bothered to re-watch Steve Urkel trash the Winslows’ living room—but I could watch Cory’s misadventures for hours. That’s still true today, at least as far as the show’s first three seasons go. (Coincidentally, due to slow sales, those were the only seasons commercially available on DVD until a few months ago. A season four set arrived in time for the 2010 holiday season, while season five went on sale this week.) In a sitcom world of preternaturally smart kids who consistently had one up on the grown-ups, Cory was written and portrayed in a refreshingly realistic fashion. Throughout the show’s high-school seasons, Ben Savage played the perfect television everykid: not too cool, not too bright, and just as bewildered and intrigued about the outside world as any of the show’s adolescent viewers. Guys didn’t have to aspire to be Cory; odds are good they already were Cory. And though Savage’s co-stars Rider Strong and were the show’s Tiger Beat-approved heartthrobs, I imagine there was a contingent of female Boy Meets World viewers who hoped to share their first kiss with a nice, average boy like Cory. 

Prompted to explain conception in a classroom scene during the second-season episode “Pairing Off,” Cory humorously and succinctly sums up the appeal of the series’ early goings: “The first sperm to reach the egg wins. It gets a medal, you name him Cory, you push him out the door, and nothing makes sense for the rest of his life.” For kids used to televised peers who were more Zack Morris than Doug Funnie, the characterization of Cory was relatable and refreshing. Little did we know he was also recycled from the spare parts of Richie Cunningham and Dobie Gillis. Strong’s Shawn Hunter played the Fonzie to Cory’s Richie, a rebel type with a surprising amount of emotional depth beneath his leather jacket. (Unfortunately, this also means Shawn is the source for most of the show’s “very special” episodes; I wouldn’t recommend the one where the Matthewses save him from joining a cult.) The Cory-Shawn dynamic is another element that helps elevate Boy Meets World out of the TGIF ghetto, where best-friend characters like Full House’s Kimmy and Family Matters’ Waldo acted as decent foils to DJ and Eddie, but never provided much of an explanation as to why the main characters befriended them in the first place. Though it would eventually be supplanted by Cory’s romance with Topanga (Danielle Fishel), the unbreakable yet frequently tested bond between him and Shawn forms the show’s true emotional core.

Of course, the Cory-Topanga relationship has additional points against it due to its ties to the series’ oft-cited disregard for continuity. Despite being a new-age nuisance in the show’s first season, Topanga is later revealed to be Cory’s undisputed soulmate—with the retconned first kiss in a sandbox to prove it. And online chatter about the series rarely occurs without a mention of English teacher Mr. Turner’s unexplained disappearance or the rotating cast of high-school thugs that torment Cory and Shawn. (My personal favorite: Adam Scott as Griffin “Griff” Hawkins.) Still, no fan has been able to popularize a Boy Meets World equivalent of Chuck Klosterman’s “Tori Paradox,” the critic’s stupid/brilliant Saved By The Bell theory, which posits that a briefly seen, never-mentioned-again Elizabeth Berkley/Tiffani Thiessen surrogate was actually the series’ most believable aspect, because memory often tricks us into inflating the roles of life’s secondary players. Perhaps that’s because the series so often beat its viewers to the postmodern punch. For all its traditional sitcom trappings, Boy Meets World was surprisingly self-aware: In one of the last scenes set on the show’s familiar hallway set, Cory and Shawn run into Stuart Minkus, a nerdy overachiever unseen seen since the first season. Apparently, he was just on the side of John Adams High School that existed beyond the camera’s view—where Mr. Turner’s classroom had been conveniently relocated as well.

As a kid watching Boy Meets World, these inconsistencies were maddening. As an adult, I see evidence of showrunner Michael Jacobs and his team having fun with the constraints and inconveniences of their medium. They faced their biggest challenge when the kids graduated from John Adams, presumably leaving behind teacher/mentor George Feeny (William Daniels). Having already promoted Feeny from sixth-grade history teacher to high-school principal between seasons one and two, the writers had no problem testing the series’ shaky realism by drafting increasingly implausible reasons to keep the character around. Ridiculous though his academic ascension may be, Feeny is a crucial part of the show’s latter seasons, where his presence (and Daniels’ performance) kept the wheels from falling off completely. His farewell to his charges in the series finale even lends some poignancy (and a few winks to the audience) to the principal cast’s sitcom-mandated departure for New York City. Though it occupied a sphere of television that was frequently crass and cartoonish, Boy Meets World managed to strike a balance between humor and genuine emotion that could actually earn such a conclusion.

Returning to the series with the perspective of someone who’s lived through those teenage years as opposed to someone heading into them (and with a tip of the hat to Klosterman), those inconsistencies can also be another relatable aspect of the series. Memory is frustratingly subjective: What’s to say that two people as perfectly suited for one another as Cory and Topanga can’t have a brief period of mutual loathing that masks their attraction to one another—especially during pre-pubescence’s befuddling march of off-kilter emotion and confusing physical response? And while it’s not as conveniently arranged as the revolving door that brought Harley Keiner (original formula), Griff, New Harley, and Harley (original formula, again) in and out of Cory and Shawn’s lives, the procession of people who lace the hellish lining of our middle- and high-school experiences tend to blur together into interchangeable, larger-than-life characters after a decade or so. Although, a Griff-like, er, grifter would certainly be harder to forget if he had placed you at the center of a big-budget con that involved a professional wrestling personality, a Baywatch babe, and the velvet throat of Robert Goulet.

In light of recent technological advances, Jacobs and co. sort of lucked out with the Feeny thing: Thanks to social networking, it’s not completely out of the ordinary for the kids who grew up with Boy Meets World to stay in contact with past teachers and mentors. It’s a little more on our terms now, though—accepting a friend request from your high-school history teacher is a ways off from walking into a university lecture hall to discover him occupying a student’s seat.

But beyond all that pomo tomfoolery and theoretical apology-making, the early seasons of Boy Meets World endure due to the character at its center. It was heartening to see a kid my age failing to find the answers to the big questions in 1993; as a 26-year-old who’s barely a few steps closer to figuring things out, it’s still nice to watch a character who shares that attribute. Fixations with sports teams, awkwardness around the opposite sex, and sometimes friendships can all be outgrown. That dizzy sensation of winning the medal and being pushed out the door, however, never fully goes away. And it’s comforting that Urkel isn’t the guy on the other side of the threshold.