How did Boy Meets World manage to stay on the air for seven years? I remember watching it when I was in ninth grade, thinking it was adorable and slightly informative. But by my final year of college, I was only surprised that it lasted two years longer than its cooler, wiser predecessor, The Wonder Years.
Boy‘s longevity plainly does not depend on coherence. The second season, freshly out on DVD, has characters mysteriously switching personalities and backstories, or forgetting incidents from previous weeks. The discontinuity is rife, severely letting down a potentially good show with funny jokes and engaging characters.
This second season begins on Cory’s first day in high school. He and best friend Shawn (Rider Strong) are brimming with confidence as they slam through the doors of John Adams High (a play on co-star William Daniels’ role as the former U.S. president in 1776). Cory, especially, figures it’s gonna be a breeze just as soon as he befriends the toughest kid in school (scene-stealing Danny McNulty as Harley) and gains himself a cool reputation by association. Of course, his plan backfires and he finds himself Harley’s newest target. Thanks to a copy of The Odyssey in his pocket, and some last minute interference from his big brother, Eric (Will Friedle), he makes it out alive.
Each episode follows this pattern: Cory has a problem, enlists Shawn’s help (or Eric’s) to get out of that problem, usually through object lessons offered in books they’re studying (The Grapes of Wrath, Pygmalion, Lord of the Flies). He invariably ends up in trouble with principal, Mr. Feeny (Daniels), only to win the old man over and leave the office ready for his next adventure. The problem with Cory, though, is no matter how many lectures Feeny gives him, or how many lessons he manages to learn on his own about how best to treat people, he never quite gets it, invariably repeating his mistakes. It happens so often throughout this season that it’s hard to care for Cory — just how many times can one kid discover that cheating is bad or that we shouldn’t change ourselves to please others?
Take Cory’s serial dating. In episode 10, he ends up in the back of car with Harley’s sister, T.K. (Danielle Harris); steals Shawn’s girl, Linda (Haylie Johnson) in episode 11; and survives a short-lived romance with ugly ducking Ingrid (Natanya Ross) in episode 12. Problem is, Cory never seems to remember what he learned when dating any of these girls and ends up making the same mistakes with all of them. He learned he shouldn’t change who he is to please T.K., yet somehow thinks it’s okay for Ingrid to transform herself to get along with him. He learns pretty much the same lesson again when assisting bully Frankie (Ethan Suplee) to find love in “Cyrano.”
Maybe it’s not Cory’s fault that he never learns. Aside from the new setting and some new characters, everything around him in this season is shifting and switching perhaps making him as confused as the audience as to his place in his world. Eric, for example, goes from snotty but lovable older brother in the first part of the season to a Joey Russo-esque lunkhead after about episode 15. Initially, Eric’s role is simply to pick on Cory relentlessly, only to prove he really does love the little geek by helping out when needed (as in episode 1). Later on, though, Eric’s character becomes too much of a dope to give Cory any real grief, with the writers instead giving him his own storylines, separate from Cory, that play on his dopiness. One such storyline involves Eric studying for the SATs — “Nihilism is to optimism,” Eric reads aloud from his textbook, “as gluttony is to… Butte, Montana!?” This is not the suave Eric who only a few episodes previous was seducing women on his parents’ bed and faux-apologizing to Cory for ragging on him during “the darkest hour of [his] youth.”
On the commentary for episode “Fear Strikes Out,” producer Michael Jacobs sums up Eric’s transformation: “As Will’s hair got longer, [Eric] got dumber.” Shawn also changes abruptly: one minute he’s just as naïve as Cory, but is soon seducing hot girls as well. And while Cory often wants information about women and how to act around them, for some reason he never seeks this information out from his suddenly transformed chick-magnet best friend. The biggest switch, though, afflicts the hippie-chick Topanga (Danielle Fishel) of season one, suddenly dressing, talking, and acting like an everyday teen.
Even the producer can’t get it right, noting on the DVD commentary track (for the episode “Fear Strikes Out”), Michael Jacobs observes that the show jumped Cory from sixth to eighth grade; but this is not so: the season’s first episode, “Back 2 School,” is all about his first day as a seventh grader. In the same commentary, Jacobs discusses Cory’s hangout, Chubbie’s, as a location introduced in season three, yet Cory and Shawn hang out there for almost half the season two episodes. There should be a rule for people participating in commentaries: learn your material, guys.
Still, amid such discontinuity, the season includes glimmers of what made the show so popular. The final two episodes, for example, center on Shawn’s trailer-trash family running off and dumping him at Cory’s house indefinitely. Shawn compares his predicament to that of a stray dog, and eventually runs away, gets arrested, and ends up on Mr. Turner’s (Anthony Tyler Quinn) doorstep. The writing is exceptional here, and the actors make the transition from kiddie comedy to serious drama with ease. It’s a pity the show doesn’t have more moments like this.
As it is, the seriousness of Cory’s various issues is almost always downplayed. The jokes are mostly funny, but the whole boy-meeting-world thing tends to fall by the wayside. I shudder to think that Cory remained unchanged in seasons three or four, or after his marriage to Topanga in seven. Judging from this season, though, it wouldn’t be surprising.