I want to talk about one scene from “Father Knows Less,” the third episode of the first season of Boy Meets World. It’s a scene that’s stuck in my mind since I first saw it, and has resonated each time I’ve witnessed it through the years. It serves as a sort of companion to the detention scene in the “Pilot,” showing a different but just as important dynamic of the relationship between Cory and Mr. Feeny. It also features a crucial bit of character development for one George Feeny, helping humanize him while cementing his place within the young Mr. Matthew’s life for, literally, ever.
When Cory loses his tennis ball over the fence in the evening and encounters his teacher sipping a glass of Brandy, he’s surprisingly invited to join him. Cory is shocked but thrilled, and gives himself a heavy pour from the decanter of liquid. As he eyes Mr. Feeny, a devilish grin on his face, he pours a little more, before topping off his glass with the entire remaining liquid. Cory, eyes darting between his glass and teacher, cautiously raises the glass for a sip, a mischievous look exposing the joy of a young man getting a taste of forbidden pleasures. Mr. Feeny never wavers or betrays his fully mundane thoughts, and Cory’s joyous expression fades instantly upon tasting the liquid, disgustedly remarking “this is apple juice!” (“oh, jeez, I must have left it in there too long…”)
The scene demonstrates something that I think often goes overlooked in our generation’s fond remembrance of BMW: Ben Savage was a brilliantly gifted comedic actor from a very young age. It feels like he’s always been overshadowed for the most part by his older brother, Fred (star of The Wonder Years), never quite getting as much praise as his famous sibling. But Ben Savage had some crackerjack comic timing, and was an indispensable talent in the sustained success of the show. The whole cast, in fact, was fantastic, each bringing a multidimensional believability to their characters from the start (the exception was the actress who played Morgan, but you can’t blame a 4-year for lacking depth). And the lynchpin was the overlooked talent of Ben Savage at the center.
He plays the discussion between he and Mr. Feeny perfectly, nailing the obliviousness and ignorance in their talks of the young lad. Cory has been through the emotional ringer by this point, starting the episode having a Blue Angels trip cancelled when his father is called into work. He’s woken up by Alan late at night to watch a no-hitter in progress for the Phillies, resulting in his falling asleep after completing a single answer on a test the following day. Cory begs his father to help obtain a makeup test with Mr. Feeny by proving his story was accurate (and blowing his father’s cover with Amy despite pleading during the Phillies game, “…your mother can NEVER find out about this”).
Alan speaks with Mr. Feeny in a heated conversation, where each passionately argues their stance. When George notes Alan has no idea what it’s like to be entrusted with the education of dozens of young minds, Alan retorts that his neighbor would understand if he “had a son…but you don’t.” The discussion ends in a stalemate after Feeny notes “it appears we’re on different sides of the fence, here” (literally. Ba dum CHA!). Cory consoles his father (“aw, Dad, you got Feened”), but is shocked when his father later explains that Mr. Feeny was, in fact, right.
Cory was of the unwavering belief that his father was in the wrong when he began the confab with his teacher.. It was simple in his mind, since his father told him something definitively, and that was that. But then Mr. Feeny reflects on his school days, and the impact of “the war in Europe” on his desires for buttered toast and sneakers that didn’t leave scuff marks in the gymnasium (“hey, you took gym!?” Cory amusedly asks. “They made me”). He continues with a story about the end of what Cory describes as “the European sneaker war,” and a radio address from President Truman. When the young George asked his father to stay up and listen to the address, he was shot down, because his “father didn’t want (him) hanging around.” Mr. Feeny finishes by asking Cory what he learned in school the next day (“I know this has to be a biggie, like the Magna Carta or something”), explaining he didn’t remember, too preoccupied with his father’s rejection to stay focused.
Mr. Feeny gives what one would assume is the mission statement on his life’s work and profession, with a devastating note on his lonely childhood:
“You see, Mr. Matthews, education is not about obscure facts and little test scores. Education is about the overall effect of years of slow absorption, of concepts, philosophies, approaches to problem solving. The whole process is so grand and all-encompassing that it really can’t be threatened by the occasional late night no-hitter…it is important that a boy spend time with his father.”
Cory concludes the conversation before his teacher and father resolve their differences. Alan assures George that Cory will be in bed on time and rested for each school day, to which the single teacher sadly muses that he would wake up a son if he had one for “a baseball game or the president’s address, or, for no particular reason at all…” It’s a brutal monologue that William Daniels knocks out of the park (like he always did), and again adds shades to the stodgy, sweater-vest wearing, mustachioed teacher.
The episode builds throughout towards that scene with Cory and Mr. Feeny, and finishes with his attempting to process the contradictory information given by his father and teacher. When his mother explains how sometimes two adults can have two totally different beliefs and both be right, Cory inquires rhetorically, “then how come I only think one way about things and I’m always wrong?” Amy wisely leaves this question unanswered, both because there is no real answer, and it would sort of defeat the purpose of the show to provide a response. There aren’t often painless or straightforward solutions in life as you expect as a kid, so if you can accept the reality of your own ineptitude, growing up will be that much simpler.