Boy Meets Girl Meets World

Out of pure altruistism, I’ve dedicated a weekly half hour of my free time for the last month to watching Disney’s new reboot sitcom Girl Meets World. I’m doing it for my readers because I know you and this is your sweet spot; it’s literally something that happened 20 years ago and is only now happening again. Same format, same actors, same channel, same structure, even basically the same title.

Girl Meets World is an interesting show. Not because it’s particularly good, but because it’s the answer to a question we all struggle with: “What if Boy Meets World was still around?” It brings back the two stars of the original show to parent the next generation of World-meeting children and impart wholesome knowledge from the ’90s to today’s youth. When I was growing up, television was entertaining but also mandatorily wholesome. It made me laugh and then taught me about life. ’90s family television is the only reason I’m any kind of a good person today. My Moral SitCompass.

Boy Meets World, summarized in one image

Boy Meets World, summarized in one image

Cory grew into exactly the kind of adult you imaged he would. Topanga is now a lawyer (I think), but hasn’t actually been much of a character in the show so far. The main character is their daughter Riley, a naive and expressive version of Cory designed for today’s kids. Her best friend is Maya, a weird, edgeless version of Shawn (she doesn’t want to do her homework in episode 1, but by episode 4, she is traumatized by a failing grade), basically parentless and, as a result, more knowledgeable about the World that Riley hasn’t met yet.

Overall, the show is average. Ben Savage is great at still playing Cory, now a fully adult Disney child. Rowan Blanchard (who plays Riley) is good at playing a generic Disney tween. Since we’re all adults, I can finally discuss how hot Topanga is, which is a small but noteworthy consolation prize. Overall, I won’t miss GMW when I stop watching it.

The truth is that Girl Meets World isn’t Boy Meets World. It was never going to be. It’s too bad that GMW has such a natural comparison in BMW, because that’s a blatant setup for failure. The best possible way of describing the disconnect comes from the Daily Beast: “It’s a show that’s been created for a certain demographic, but it’s also a show that’s been created because of a certain, different demographic.”

It seems weirdly necessary to point out that BMW was a show created for millennials, while GMW is a show created for the children of millennials, a demographic that doesn’t exist.

All of that aside, there’s a bigger, more important difference between the shows that illustrates exactly how far expectations of tweens has come in the last 20 years. It’s not about the evolution of the boy and girl as much as is about the World they’re meeting. Call it the Participation Ribbon Effect if you want. Something has happened where televised kids just don’t have problems. Maybe the Disney gloves are getting thicker, but maybe it’s all just indicative of a larger trend where we’re eliminating the concept of insufficiency and struggle from young people.

Three generations of overlapping, simultaneously-increasing wisdom

Three generations of overlapping wisdom

In 1993 when the definitive Boy met the Definitive World, there was friction. In 2014, when his daughter (the Girl) met it, they shook hands and both parties were better because of it.

Cory’s story was about finding wisdom in confusion. Riley’s story is about instantly-overcomeable conflict.

Cory’s story was about failure and turning those experiences into understanding. Riley’s story is about bite-sized History class lessons that have a happy ending and plenty of comedic relief.

BMW was about asking questions and finding things out for yourself with the guidance of experienced, self-interested adults. GMW is a world where the entire story revolves around everyone in it teaching a lesson to the title character, which is tough because the adults are just older children.

BMW is about a weird-looking kid experiencing the internal struggles of growing up. GMW is about a super cute little thing who is already as grown up as the adult characters.

The message for today's tweens: Be anything you want, as long as it's colorful

The message for today’s tweens: Be anything you want, as long as it’s colorful

There is no bwah bwah bwah trombone sound effect or sad “oooooh” audience track in Girl Meets World.

Cory starts BMW as a little kid with little kid problems: detention, bad haircut, making his own money, wanting to be a baseball player when he grows up. He feels kind of lost and unremarkable, surrounded by things he doesn’t understand. In the first episode of GMW, Riley already has a boy who loves her as well as a second boy in whom she is interested, and he kind of likes her back. No one had to figure anything out. Boy A Likes Girl A, Girl A likes Boy B. That’s just the way it is. No one looks awkward or has a bad haircut. Acne doesn’t exist. Every child dresses well and isn’t ever nervous in this colorful little sterilized, organized world built to protect them.

Want a more concrete example of what I’m talking about? Here’s one:

In the third episode of Boy Meets World, Cory stays up too late watching a baseball game with his dad and is so tired that he falls asleep and fails a test at school the following day. Cory and his dad try to convince Feeny that Cory should be allowed to take a make-up test. It doesn’t work. Cory fails to win the argument, fails the test and learns a lesson about the value of experiences. He got to watch the game with his dad but he had to sacrifice his GPA. He couldn’t have it all. There’s also a lesson about being a father (experienced by Cory’s dad) and a lesson about being a son (experienced by Mr. Feeny).

In the most recent episode of Girl Meets World, Maya intentionally writes a bunch of ridiculous answers on a test and subsequently fails. It upsets her just like Cory was upset in the previous paragraph. Here’s the difference. Maya’s failure was so traumatizing that she stopped going to school altogether. Luckily, her friends and teachers went out of their way to rally support for her and she was given a chance to make it up again. Eventually she improved the grade and the Cory proudly told her how he “wanted her to see how easy it was to turn an F into an A.”

Who had a day in sixth grade looking like the picture on the left? And what about the one on the right?

Who had a day in sixth grade looking like the picture on the left? And what about the one on the right?

Cory’s failure was final and it was up to him to make the most out of it. Not everything turned up roses, but he made the most from what he had. Maya’s failure was impermanent and instantly correctable. She didn’t blow anything by smarting off on the test because there was a second chance that everyone was willing to offer her.

Boy Meets World was a Disney show, but it wasn’t necessarily a kids show. It was a show about change and personal growth. Girl Meets World certainly is a kids show. There are adult characters, but they don’t matter outside of their impact on the kids. Girl Meets World hasn’t had the opportunity for characters to grow – it’s only four episodes deep so far – but I have a feeling no one is going to evolve much. That’s not what the show is about. It’s not a journey, it’s a statement about children as valuable people. It’s not about you meeting the cruel realities of more information and responsibility in the World, it’s about the World meeting you back and accepting you for the beautiful little thing that you already are.

After several seasons, the strength of BMW was the evolution of the characters from season to season. Shawn went from a horny teen to a soul-patched poet who had depth. Eric kind of did the same thing without the depth. Topanga blossomed from a daughter of some hippy parents who was more or less untouchable into the primary love interest of our protagonist. The Matthews parents had their own struggles with purpose and whether to grow independently or as a family. Feeny started dating.

The characters grew as they learned more. Every experience from the early episodes turned them into the characters they were in the later episodes. Just like real people.

Nothing about the Girl Meets World characters is real. Everyone is naive but protected. Nothing is really ever serious. It’s like someone told the writers “You have 30 minutes to wear out that laugh track effect.”

For the short term, I’ll probably keep watching GMW. Here’s to hoping that the characters change a little for the better. Here’s to hoping that the adults grow up. Here’s to a stolen backpack on the subway or a new student that steals away the boy. Here’s to a little bit less iCarly and a little bit more Meeting the World.

The reason Boy Meets World was so successful was that it was entertaining while making us all grow up a little bit. Regarding the failure hyper-sensitivity so far in Girl Meets World, I’ll let George Feeny respond. When describing his decision to fail Cory on test to Mr. Matthews, he said, “What’s my excuse if somewhere down the line a child fails at something because I once abrogated my responsibility to impart knowledge?”