For a segment of Girl Meets World’s audience, the new sitcom must necessarily compete with its predecessor. A gentle, slyly savvy show that was the introduction to multi-camera sitcoms for plenty of viewers born in the ’80s and ’90s—and based on recent TV comedy trends, possibly the last show in that format any of those viewers ever watched—Boy Meets World doesn’t set the highest of bars for its Disney Channel follow-up. The coming-of-age comedy is easy; it’s nailing the warmth and the heart between the jokes that’s difficult. That latter quality isn’t a staple of Disney’s recent live-action efforts, in which the girls and boys don’t meet the world, but rather have the world thrust upon them via immense levels of wealth and fame. To return to the genuine slice-of-life feel of Boy Meets World is the first of many small achievements for the Girl Meets World pilot.
Centering on the daughter of Cory (Ben Savage) and Topanga Matthews (Danielle Fishel), the first look at Girl Meets World is a chip off the old sitcom. But like young Riley Matthews (Rowan Blanchard) herself, the series must learn to make its own path. That’s the through-line of Girl Meets World’s first episode, which contains 22 minutes of Riley asserting her independence by following the example of her edgy best friend, Maya (Sabrina Carpenter). With a script by Boy Meets World vet David Kendall—who’s been overseeing the other spawn of TGIF on ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey—the premiere builds a solid foundation for the series, and boasts an admirable lack of gimmickry for a 2014 Disney Channel sitcom. For the most part, that balances out alienating characteristics, like the overly glossy (adolescent characters who look like they just sprinted through Sephora) and unnecessarily shrill (a character’s name is practically willed into a catchphrase through sheer repetition).
Although Riley’s the focus, she has to share the stage with her dad more than he ever did with his own parents. Cory is in a bizarre TV purgatory, because he feels what his daughter is going through so acutely: As seen in 158 episodes of Boy Meets World, Cory too had trouble establishing an identity, wasn’t the most accomplished student, and was best friends with a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. The refrain of the pilot script is even “Mr. Matthews,” the sobriquet given to Cory by his mentor, William Daniels’ Mr. Feeny—one that plays into a touching Boy Meets World wink in the pilot’s tag. But this isn’t his show. That tension is mitigated by the script, with its multiple mentions of characters seeing reflections of themselves in one another. The casting of Blanchard is an inspired choice in that regard: She shares the young Savage’s knack for pulling faces, a recurring gag that receives plenty of multi-cam boosts in the pilot. (Typical Girl Meets World laugh: Riley and another character in a two-shot; cut to another angle, another character; cut back to Blanchard, co-star, and Blanchard’s huge, expressive reaction.)
The challenge is in the treatment of Girl Meets World’s shifted perspective. The show is dealing with more than a different era of adolescent angst—it’s the adolescent angst of a different sex, one that contemporary pop culture doesn’t always treat with the most grace. When Maya tells her best friend, “Don’t save me,” it’s a more loaded, damsel-in-distress-busting comment than any of the times Shawn Hunter refused Cory’s assistance. The complicating factor is Cory, whose all-day presence in his daughter’s life muddies his daughter’s quest for independence. The Cory-Riley relationship matters a great deal to Girl Meets World, but it’s Riley and Maya’s friendship that will be the bedrock of the program, a genuine, deeply felt devotion that, at its best, is a middle-school parallel to the platonic commitment that winningly played out across the first season of USA’s Playing House.
That bond emulates the friendship at the center of Boy Meets World without simply presenting viewers with distaff versions of Cory and Shawn. Replicating the beats of that previous show isn’t as important to Girl Meets World’s potential for success as reviving the spirit of its inspiration. It’s there in measured doses in the pilot, bolstering the broader jokes, staged performances from child actors, and requisite feints toward classroom puppy love. The pilot’s no straight-A student, but it spells positive things to come for Miss Matthews and her father.