The TGIF lineup holds a particularly special place in the heart of millennials. The family based sitcom block, which dominated Friday evenings for millions of 90’s kids throughout their childhoods, was a cultural force in its heyday. Its legacy endures despite a rather swift rise and fall as a television giant, and the astonishingly low quality of virtually the entire catalogue. Seriously, have you watched a batch of episodes of, say, Full House, Step by Step, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper (just to name a few) lately? That rosy glow of nostalgia for all things from our youth can’t mask the plain fact that these cheesy, pandering, rigidly formulaic shows, which kept us glued to our television screens from 8-10p every Friday, sucked. In fact, only one of the classic TGIF shows holds up and continues to resonate in a way no Miller-Boyett production could ever match: Boy Meets World.
When Boy Meets World (henceforth referred to as BMW) premiered on ABC twenty five years ago in September 1993, the world was a simpler place. Michael Jordan was a few weeks away from retiring from the NBA for an excursion in minor league baseball purgatory. Al Gore had only recently invented the internet but had yet to implement the information superhighway. And in perhaps the greatest expression of innocence lost, we lived in a pre-9/11, pre-Columbine world, when fears of terrorism and mass shootings weren’t at the forefront of our cultural thoughts.
Life was truly different then, when kids were allowed to roam free around their neighborhoods in gigantic, brightly colored clothing, and landlines were the only way to speak with someone not in the room with you (and you were required to actually TALK with them on the phone). It was the last generation to grow up without the ubiquitous presence of the internet, an unbending reliance on technology, or a cynical feeling that something awful could very well happen at any point. There was a blissful ignorance to those children who came of age with TGIF, and one of the last prominent television characters to grow up during this period was Cory Matthews, the 11-year-old main character of BMW.
The pilot episode for BMW isn’t especially memorable, and is rather exceptional in its unexceptionable nature. In the opening scene, Cory sits in the school cafeteria with best friend/rapscallion, Shawn, and another student (Squints from The Sandlot!!! He never appears again). They discuss how late they stayed up the previous night watching David Letterman, before Cory purchases a candy bar (from a vending machine in school!). During the episode, he earns detention from Mr. Feeny for one of his typical harebrained schemes, overreacts when he gets ditched by his brother, Eric, for a Phillies game, before, in the end, realizing he was wrong because he “doesn’t understand anything about (his) entire life.” There’s a simplicity to the whole thing, an almost mundane way of rolling out a brand new show to America.
Cory, as an 11-year old boy, is dismayed to learn that, not only is his brother taking someone else to the game, not only is this a girl, but that his parents approve. His father reasonably points out that Eric bought the tickets himself and that when Cory is “older (he’ll) understand” how relationships can become so important. This does nothing to appease the young Brillo head, since taking a girl to a ballgame, especially over himself, confuses and frustrates him to no end. He refuses to accept the obvious lesson that life sometimes isn’t fair, and jumps to the only logical conclusion an 11-year old could: move out of the family home, and into his treehouse in the backyard.
A big thing that set the show apart was, unlike other sitcoms and primetime shows, BMW rooted it’s point of view and perspective in that of the pre-pubescent Cory. With a naive, spoiled, middle class kid as the main character, BMW had a leg up on it’s competition for young eyeballs, since no other show in the TGIF-verse revolved entirely around a child protagonist. Sure, he was surrounded by his friends and family, including Eric, his parents, Amy and Alan, and little sister, Morgan. His teacher/nemesis/lifelong mentor, Mr. Feeny, lived next door and provided some low stakes tension from the beginning of the series. But it always came back to Cory, Shawn, and eventually, Topanga, and how the growing children processed and reacted to the events unfolding around them.
After Cory “moves out”, he spies Mr. Feeny seemingly preparing a meal for two (“Hey, America’s Funniest Home Teacher”), before his teacher receives a call and dines alone. When he brings this up to Mr. Feeny the following day during detention, Cory projects a painful obliviousness. He’s so convinced in his conviction that love is useless, that he’s been unbearably wronged by his family, his teacher and the world at large, that the possibility Mr. Feeny would feel violated at a student watching him at night eludes him.
The episode does a wonderful job of establishing the dynamic and strength of Cory’s relationship with his family. He feels genuinely hurt at his brother’s abandoning him for a date (“the Phillies game is like our special thing”), despite the fact that his frustration isn’t so much being abandoned as not getting to attend the game. The self-centered 6th grader (there’s really no other kind) sneaks back into the house the morning after his treehouse sleepover, and is confronted by his mother (she jokingly says they’re renting his room, and holds him up with a Nintendo Duck Hunt gun!). When he continues to assert his belief that he was slighted by Eric, she reminds him of a time his father felt “abandoned” by a younger Cory. She elaborates, when he asks why it seems like he was in the wrong in her story, that “there is no bad guy…it’s natural that people grow up and priorities change.” Cory doesn’t take her words entirely to heart (and, in fact, did at times repeat his mistakes from prior episodes; growing up isn’t always a linear path), but does start to reconsider whether his anger is entirely justified. And he remains confused, which was a key character trait for the kid protagonist.
The following detention scene acts as a microcosm for the entire series. Cory, the smartass young lad who knows everything, getting schooled by Mr. Feeny in both education and the ways of life. The educator exudes a fiery passion as he lectures Cory about the value of love, the necessity of companionship, and, perhaps above all else, the fact that he’s a little kid who’s not as wise as he believes:
“Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets. The Greeks wrote tragedies and comedies. Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, the Browning’s, examined the depths of human emotion. Do you know what these playwrights, poets, and philosophers all had in common, Mr. Matthews?…Every one of them was older than eleven.”
Their exchange shakes Cory, who immediately goes home and moves back in (“this comes as a serious economic blow, but we’ll manage,” his Dad quips). He then encourages his brother to continue pursuing a relationship, and has imaginary tea with Morgan (even volunteering to put her to bed, telling her rather sweetly that no matter what, he’s “always gonna be (her) older brother”). The whole thing is more than a little neat, but this was still a situational comedy designed for families that needed to wrap up its story within 22-minutes, after all. In the end, the pilot does a wonderful job of introducing the show, its characters, and establishing the expectations of forthcoming episodes.
The lack of an illogical or high concept setting to establish (like, say, a widower inviting his brother-in-law and best friend to move in and assist with raising three young daughters after a tragic death) certainly helped ease viewers into the world of Cory Matthews and the gang. The series was simply about an 11-year-old boy, from a good family in suburban Philadelphia, navigating his way through the complex world we all live in. The setting was familiar, comfortable, and the type of place we would want to revisit, every Friday, for the next seven years.
Up Next on Friday 7/6: “On the Fence”