Boy Meets World was never the greatest show at illustrating socio-economic differences and struggles. More often than not, the show would simply use Shawn as an avatar to showcase how easy Cory had it– and, by extension, the majority of the viewing audience– by utilizing his trailer-park-status to teach the well off children some humility.
The fact that Shawn’s family lives just at or below the federal poverty line is never something they can overcome, because the Hunters existed solely as a blunt object to bash over middle America’s head. There may not have been any malicious intent behind the presentation of the lower class or those less financially stable, but it doesn’t change the fact that, outside of Shawn himself and the Hunter clan, the show clearly demonstrated that laughing at those less fortunate than you is perfectly acceptable.
The fourth season, Halloween-adjacent episode, ‘Janitor Dad,’ is not one I’d recommend or go out of my way to watch again (in contrast with season 2’s Halloween episode). Providing uncomfortable lessons about the power of classist beliefs and behavior, the episode aims to use Shawn’s status as a child of a lower class household to remind the world that poor people might be poor but, dammit, they are people, too.
When Shawn’s father starts a job as a custodian at his school, he is mortified, incredulous that his own flesh and blood is working in such a demeaning position. Despite the fact that his dad has obtained the job because his mother snapped at him about his lack of financial support– in front of Cory, because trailer trash always be fighting, right?– Shawn can only think of himself and how poorly his dad’s employment supposedly reflects on him.
Why, exactly, is Shawn so upset that his father is a custodian at John Adams High School? No one, not even Mr. Feeny, understands why he’s even the slightest bit unhappy that his dad finally has a job, other than some doofy dude who talks shit because his own father is a doctor. Other than clearly positing this doofy dude as an unmitigated asshole, the show never quite articulates anything resembling a logical explanation. And we’re left to assume that anyone who performs custodial work for income– or basically any type of trade or manual labor– is a lowlife loser who deserves pity and scorn.
Seriously, we’ve spent much of the series demonstrating that Chet Hunter is a capital L-LOSER. This is a man who abandoned his son to chase his fleeing wife across the country, and never seemed interested in his offspring at any point while he was gone. During a past career day, Chet showed up and lied his ass off about non-existent accomplishments in a charming manner (which horrified Shawn at the time, but would be preferable to his dad’s current job, apparently). All his father has ever had in the past was ideas, the younger Hunter once pontificated, but when he finds something concrete, it’s not good enough?
I realize that, by the end, Shawn has accepted his father’s role and it is indicated that he allegedly feels a twinge of pride that his dad has decided to be an adult and take/keep a job of any kind. But the lesson is hamfisted and, regardless of the limitations of episode length and airing time slot, it completely phones in any sort of real effort towards teaching. The final scene, with Shawn causing Cory to spill milk so he can take the mop from his father and clean the mess himself, is cringeworthy. He exclaims to his father that he knows he “doesn’t have to do this,” as in the custodial job, again illustrating how little he regards that type of employment (and how little the writer’s evidently value that working force).
The B-story, where Alan and Eric hire a grizzled mountain man as a sales associate for their outdoor equipment store, provides some saving grace as it provides some genuine laughs– even if they, too, are largely at the expense of presumed lesser folks, like ‘hick rednecks’ and ‘weak little men.’ It’s a pleasant pallet cleanser, nonetheless, given the heavy-handed nature with which the A-story makes its point (and a nice change of pace from the tension that normally dominated Alan and Eric’s relationship). But it’s far too little to overcome the wretched nature of the ballad of Shawn and Chet, and fails to elevate the show above the main plot’s drag.
I’ve noted in the past that Boy Meets World had a penchant for throwing Shawn Hunter through the ringer to make its point, and this was far from the last time they would incorporate his miserable existence to fill out a run time. The very-important-episode was the show’s calling card at times, particularly in later seasons, and this forgettable episode is a clear cut example that when BMW swung for the BIG LESSON fences, it often struck out.