Arts & Culture, Featured, Spotlight

“Girl Meets World” and the 90’s Nostalgia Trap

Nostalgia is a dangerous trap. We’d like to think that the past is some kind of idyllic world that we should aspire to revert back to, wouldn’t we? When times get tough, we think back to an easier time and wish to go there. For instance, you’re a college student, drowning in banal coursework and challenging social strata and cheap alcoholic beverages, and sometimes all you want to do is go back to the ‘90s, when times were easier and everything was just better.

girl-meets-world-posterFortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the folks over at Disney know just how nostalgia works—and thus Girl Meets World was born. For the first thirty seconds of the pilot episode, GMW looks just like any other modern Disney Channel original series: bright colors, a bubbly laugh track, a charming preteen protagonist making her way in the world. But then Mom and Dad appear: Cory Matthews comes crawling out a window, and Topanga appears in the doorway with a motherly word of advice.

No, Girl Meets World isn’t your average tween sitcom. It’s a spinoff of Boy Meets World, which aired on ABC from 1993 to 2000 and later in syndication on the Disney Channel and ABC Family. Over its seven-year span, the show depicted the coming-of-age of young Cory Matthews, his family, his best friend Shawn, and love interest Topanga, all under the watchful eye of neighbor and schoolteacher Mr. Feeny.

Even those too young to have watched it while it was still on the air—myself included—were enthralled by Cory’s saga, and Boy Meets World has a rightful place of honor in the lexicon of 1990’s pop culture. But can Girl Meets World—the tale of Cory and Topanga’s 12-year-old daughter, Riley—achieve the same success and cultural impact of its predecessor?

Boy Meets World existed in a different time for TV, and those differences are more than apparent in the GMW pilot episode. Programming was simpler; we were content to see the average home life of some average characters. After the era of Lizzie McGuire, Disney Channel characters needed something special, be it magic powers (Wizards of Waverly Place), a shot at fame (Sonny with a Chance), or unspecified gifts and talents (A.N.T. Farm). Girl Meets World is more down-to-earth—no magic, no pop stardom—but even the relocation of the Matthews family from suburban Pennsylvania to a stylish New York City brownstone gives the show an edgy appeal that Boy Meets World lacked, or perhaps never needed.

Rowan Blanchard—who stars as Riley, the girl who meets the world—has a lovable, realistic charm about her. But like many before her, such as Selena Gomez, The Jonas Brothers, and their ilk, she’s poised to become a triple-threat teenage sensation, which as we’ve seen in the past year (Exhibit A: the Miley Cyrus meltdown) can lead to some devastation. Just the fact that she and her child co-star sing the theme 1399050867_girl-meets-world-zoomsong, another manufactured pop ditty, is an indication of the changes of the past fifteen years. Take a look at Danielle Fishel–she starred as Topanga for seven years and now lives happily outside of the public eye, relatively unscathed by child stardom.

It’s also important to bear in mind that Boy Meets World originated on ABC, not Disney Channel, which appeals to an entirely different demographic. While Boy Meets World was lauded for its sensitive handling of coming-of-age issues—troubled homes, dating and sex, temptations of teenage life—many of them were edited out when the show aired in syndication on Disney Channel, deemed inappropriate for the preteen audience. Should Girl Meets World achieve the longevity of Boy Meets World, would we ever see Riley and friends faced with similar real-world challenges, or is the modern audience too sensitive for “very special episodes”? I don’t think they’d dare, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if they did.

As an homage to its predecessor, Girl Meets World does well. Cory, both father and high school teacher, clearly carries many of the lessons of his youth with him into adulthood, spouting advice that could have come from Feeny himself and challenging Riley to make a world of her own. The influence of Shawn Hunter is apparent as well—when rebellious Maya reveals that she has nobody at home to help her, Cory is moved to open his heart to his daughter’s friend much like he did for Shawn as a young adult.

However, a viewer who has never seen Boy Meets World may not understand the implications of Cory’s kindness; to the kids who don’t yet know the depths of his friendship with Shawn (who is set to appear in a later episode), Cory’s just a nice dad doing the right thing. Those kids also don’t understand the reference to Minkus, a Boy Meets World character whose son makes an appearance in Riley and Maya’sScreen Shot 2014-07-01 at 2.43.04 PM class; the flirtatious, precocious young Minkus falls in line with the annoying-geek trope along with Gibby of iCarly and Rico from Hannah Montana. And when Mr. Feeny makes an eleventh-hour appearance at the Bleecker Street subway station—mysteriously saying “Well done, Mr. Matthews” before disappearing—young viewers will certainly be confused as to who that weird old man was.

So what’s the consensus? Overall, Girl Meets World isn’t bad—it has all the same charm as any Disney Channel series that I’ve been forced to watch while babysitting, and its messages of friendship, independence and making good choices are sound. It’s nice to see Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel reprising their roles (though the latter is highly underutilized), and I’d hope to see them influencing the show in a positive direction rather than just evoking the nostalgia trap to boost ratings—maybe even rekindling some viewership of the old series. Though GMW will never be the sensation that its predecessor once was, I’d be pleased to see a new generation get to know Mr. Feeny. “I love you all. Now class dismissed.”

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