Sunday, June 29, 2014

Girl Meets World Pilot Ponderings

Girl Meets World, the spinoff to Boy Meets World, premiered this past Friday night and I thought it’d be good to write my reaction to the pilot, but framed in terms of addressing a lot of the reactions I’ve noticed in official reviews and comments either on these review sites, places like YouTube, or talking to my friends about the show. I know that I have a different lens than most people, but I think in this case it’s given me a fuller perspective because I fall under most of the categories that would have watched the show that night:
--nostalgic 90s kid who grew up watching Boy Meets World on TGIF
--a HUGE Boy Meets World fan and thus having super high standards for Girl Meets World but also being insanely excited about it (I actually watched it last month the very day they put it up on
--someone who studied how to write entertainment education TV (aka how to write scripts that are engaging but teach you something), someone who occasionally watches kids’ TV programs just for the sake of seeing what messages are being sent to kids/to get a sense of what the popular shows are about
--and someone who currently loves Disney Channel and their shows.
Pretty much the only categories I don’t fall under are parent or babysitter watching it with a kid or actually being a kid.  

While I know that a lot of people have expressed negative opinions of the show’s pilot episode, I loved it. Yes, it had plenty of flaws: it was kind of awkward and disjointed and they could have made stronger choices in dialogue and scenes to depict some of the key moments. But it’s a pilot. Think about the pilot episodes for all of your favorite shows—chances are, they’re anywhere from “horrible” to “meh” when compared to the actual show. I think of pilots like first drafts of shows, where you get a sense of what the show will be about and who the characters are, but that’s it. The writers are still trying to figure out the world of the series and the voices of the characters, while the actors are still trying to nestle into their roles. All of this confusion and these trial and error moments come out in the pilot because if it waited to become perfect, it would never air. And if the show didn’t make that effort to film a full episode in order to see completely what works and doesn’t work, it would never have the chance to grow and reach its potential. True some planning, script revisions, rehearsing, etc are necessary and the more this is done the better it will be, but TV has tight deadlines and there is only so much you can do before it’s time to shoot. All of this is why I don’t hold those negative aspects of Girl Meets World’s pilot against it, because I know that those things will be fixed as the show grows. And based on the second episode (technically it’s the third episode called Sneak Attack, but it’s the second one they’ve released), they did fix those things. It still has some growing to do, but thinking back to the first few episodes of Boy Meets World, it’s right on par with those episodes in terms of that.

Another negative aspect that I don’t hold against Girl Meets World (not just the pilot but the show in general) is how “Disney Channel” it is. Yes, I’m biased in this aspect because being a Disney Channel fan I’m not bothered by “Disney Channel-ness.” But that’s not why I’m okay with it being too “Disney Channel.” For one thing, in order for Disney Channel to pick up the series, the pilot had to convince the execs that it would fit in well with its other shows and thus be loved by its target audience. So it needed to be something that shouts “Disney Channel.” It also had to be something that would be approved by parents. Boy Meets World was frequently rated PG, but the only recent Disney Channel shows I can think of that were rated PG aka Y-7 were Gravity Falls and Wander Over Yonder and they both were moved to Disney XD. While it’s true that Girl Meets World likely won’t be able to directly tackle many of the same subjects that the original one did, there can be clever ways for them to do so and send the same messages about those topics while keeping the Disney Channel G-rating. I won’t give any spoilers for the second (technically third) episode, but I think they’re doing exactly that because little kids would see them addressing the “sparkly-clean” version of the issue in the episode itself, and older kids would be able to see how the message is applicable to darker issues they might be facing in their lives.

I think something that people often don’t realize when they’re remembering the serious issues Boy Meets World brought up is that it took time to get there. Season 1 of Boy Meets World had relatively tame plots compared to Season 5, but  Season 1 still had some deep and real issues. I am extremely confident that Season 1 of Girl Meets World is going to do the same because they’ve already done that to an extent in the pilot and definitely in the second (third) episode. There’s also the possibility that as the show goes on, it could have its rating bumped up to Y-7 and be given a later time slot in order to allow it to address the darker issues. Not to mention, no matter how popular they are, Disney Channel live-action shows tend to only get 4 seasons max (the only exception I can think of is how Suite Life of Zack and Cody technically got 6 seasons if you count the 3 seasons of Suite Life on Deck as being the same show). That would put Riley in 11th grade for season 5 and make it perfect for ABC Family, a network where pretty much all of their shows are TV-14 and not afraid to tackle every single dark issue teens and young adults face.

I know that even when they announced Disney Channel would be the channel where Girl Meets World would air there was criticism that it should have gone to ABC or ABC Family. Yet I couldn’t imagine a channel that would provide a better environment for supporting a show like Girl Meets World. The thing is, as much as all of us 90s kids want Girl Meets World to be for us, it’s not. It’s targeted at kids, just as the original was targeted at us when we were kids. ABC is not the same network that it was in the 90s. There is no TGIF lineup of programs targeted at kids and teens. There are hardly any family-friendly sitcoms on that channel. In fact, of sitcoms currently airing, I think the closest to family-friendly on there are the Middle and the Goldbergs, and the Middle often has a TV-14 rating. I enjoy watching both of those shows and they do have sweet moments between the characters, as well as life lessons. But it’s not the same deep level as Boy Meets World. And in today’s TV culture where life lessons are seen as only belonging in kids’ shows, the chances of Girl Meets World surviving more than a season on a non-cable network are very slim.

Putting Girl Meets World on a kids’ network from the start means it can have that same formula that the original did of being entertainment education, having direct words of wisdom, integrating classroom lessons with the life lessons, having heart, addressing issues kids face, and not being afraid to have those moments where you either cry or go “awwww <3” because it’s so sweet and touching. Disney Channel is the only kids’ network that currently does that and fully supports shows with messages and deeper meaning. Yes, some of their current shows are meant to just be silly, like I Didn’t Do It, but others, like Dog With a Blog, are meant to give kids entertaining lessons on the sad or scary things they face in their lives. And given that the characters on Girl Meets World are “average” aka none of them have superpowers, are celebrities, or child prodigies, I think in terms of the things they’re going to face and learn, it will be very similar to the original series and be a breath of fresh air among the rest of the shows on all the major kids’ networks. Will there be lame and cheesy dialogue, as well as goofy plots that often occur in kids’ shows? Very likely. But those were in the original series too, especially in Season 1.

I think the theme song is appropriate, as were all the mentions of it being Cory’s World vs Riley’s World, because it talks about taking on the world. Girl Meets World is taking on the world of the original show, but like the episode said, Cory already met the world and it’s Riley’s turn now. It’s not going to be Boy Meets World Season 8. It’s Girl Meets World Season 1. There are types of things kids go through today are different than things kids went through in the 90s. The types of shows kids like today are different than they were in the 90s. And the types of kids are different today than they were in the 90s. Thus, Girl Meets World is going to be as different from Boy Meets World as any 2010s show is going to be from any 90s show, just as any show from the 90s was different than any show from the 70s. Sure there will be overlap in terms of plots, but they’ll be told differently because it’s a different time. While the writers are putting in lots of references into the original show (like the general story-telling format and in the pilot when they referenced the Season 2 episode where Cory rebelled against the Grapes of Wrath test), plenty of Easter Eggs (like the paper airplane in the opening sequence that was used in the Season 1 Boy Meets World opening sequence, the middle school having almost the same name as the Boy Meets World high school, and the Mr. Feeny quote in the classroom), and having characters from the original either star or guest star in it, Girl Meets World isn’t being written just for Boy Meets World Fans—it’s written for today’s kids and teens. I think that until all of us 90s kids take off the 90s nostalgia goggles and realize that it isn’t Cory’s world or our show anymore, but rather Riley’s and the kids who are the same age we were when we started watching Boy Meets World, we’re going to be disappointed with Girl Meets World.

But if we can see that at its core it has the same things that made us love the original, then I think we’re going to get the very rare joy of seeing how the characters we grew up with handle being grown up, and how they still have some growing to do and we can keep growing up with them. One of the reasons I loved Boy Meets World as a kid was because of all the life lessons it gave that really helped me either by giving me advice for similar situations I was going through, or by showing me that I wasn’t alone in going through some of those situations. It’s one of the reasons I still love it, because there are still aspects I can relate to and lessons I can learn, even though those tend to be from the adult and young adult characters. We might not be going through the things the kids in Girl Meets World are, but we likely either are or will be going through similar situations as the adults. Many of us are parents now, or will be someday, or we will be like Mr. Feeny and not have kids but still have kids in our lives that we regularly interact with or will be mentors to. So chances are the lessons Corey and Topanga learn about raising kids in today’s culture or other aspects about life will be helpful to us. Even if we can’t relate to any of the life lessons, we can still appreciate the heart and that there are life lessons in the show for today’s kids, given in a similar style as they were for us.

That was what really impressed me with Girl Meets World: they kept the heart that the original had and kept the format of directly integrating the classroom lesson with the life lesson. I think that’s risky given that overt educational messages are seen as a turn-off by kids and usually left in the realm of PBS-type shows. Yes, it’s Disney Channel and they kind of hit you over the head with the message. But again, remember that Disney Channel’s target audience is from 7-14 and they need to make it blunt so the younger kids will get it. I loved (and still love) learning and always had a natural tendency to take what I learned in school and see how it could be applied to everyday life. So as a kid (and teen and adult) I thought it was cool how Boy Meets World would talk about literature and history (especially when we studied the same things in class) and connect it to whatever the characters were going through. It showed that the things we learn in school aren’t just ancient things that the teachers drone on about, but rather are things relevant to our experiences because despite changing times, the human experience tends to have a lot of consistencies. That’s why even though Boy Meets World aired in the 90s, many of its lessons are still relevant today. But just as people keep creating new literature to address the new issues of the day, people keep creating new TV shows to address the new issues of the day too. That’s where Girl Meets World comes in, and based on the two episodes I’ve seen, there’s great hope that it will be as eloquent, poignant, and insightful as Boy Meets World was in doing so.

Girl Meets World is the kind of show that just makes me smile when I watch it. I’ll admit, part of that is because of the 90s kid nostalgia and the sheer excitement of seeing my second favorite show of all time get a spinoff with some of the original characters. I definitely squealed with delight during the Mr. Feeny moment since he was my favorite character. But it’s also because of the show itself—even though they’ve only released two episodes, I’m already pulled into the show and the characters. Obviously I love Cory and Topanga since I loved them in the Boy Meets World, but I really like the new characters too. While they have similar roles as characters in the original series, they have different personalities and they’re interesting and relatable enough that I want to get to know them better. I have a feeling Farkle is going to become my favorite because I already find his character awesome in terms of being quirky, funny, and really sweet (particularly in the second/third episode). Riley is adorkable and I can definitely relate to her in many ways (especially since my mom was my teacher when I was her age), but I think her struggle of trying to figure out who she is and what she believes in strongly enough to fight for is something that all of us keep coming back to at various points in our lives.

I’m also impressed with the genuine love—both family and friendship—that all of the characters have for each other. The Matthews family seems real: they snipe and make quips at each other but also truly love and respect each other. They actually spend time together and the parents are involved in the kids’ lives, giving them advice on problems, supporting them when they slightly rebel so that they can grow, but simultaneously encouraging them to not rebel too much because they want them to be their best self and not change into someone else. The family dynamic was especially strong in the second (third) episode, and it was great seeing a show where the siblings are there for each other and helping the parents with a problem their sibling is having. It was nice seeing the parents care for their kids’ friends too, especially Maya, and in both episodes reach out to help her as if she were their daughter too. I also appreciate that the parents are seen as smart and wise, since most kids’ shows either have practically non-existent parents or they’re portrayed as either goofballs or idiots. 

The friendships were also loving and supportive: Riley, Maya, Farkle, and Lucas all wanted the best for each other—even when that meant they didn’t get what they wanted—and they pushed each other to be their best selves. In both episodes, they helped each other during times of crisis and stood by each other even when it looked like they would be torn apart or when it took courage they didn’t know they had. That was another thing I loved about Boy Meets World—how the friendships were real and faced challenges but remained very strong and excellent role models for what it means to really love and be there for your friends—and I’m so happy that Girl Meets World appears to be doing the same thing. Even if the adults who grew up on Boy Meets World don’t enjoy Girl Meets World in the same way, I hope that the current generation of kids enjoy it in the same way we enjoyed Boy Meets World. And I hope that they learn as much as we did about how to take on the world and positively change it, as well as how to be a good person with a “fine mind and a good heart” (as Mr. Feeny would say) in a world that often tries to pull us away from that. 

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