In the middle of lockdown, living alone and missing the family my friends and I have made together, I started tearing up when Cory Matthews, the everyboy-to-man at the centre of the Boy Meets World extended universe, shared what he believes is the secret of life: “People change people.” That is, we need each other. We make each other better.
Like a warm blanket, it’s easy to be lulled into warm and fuzzies by both the original show for kids and teens by Michael Jacobs and April Kelly that ran from 1993 to 2000, and the flashier reboot Girl Meets World produced by Disney from 2014 to 2017, also by Jacobs and Kelly, that shifts focus from Cory (Ben Savage) and the whip-smart love interest he fell for at the age of two, Topanga (Danielle Fishel), to their daughter, Riley (Rowan Blanchard). Both are streaming on Disney Plus.
In Boy Meets World, Cory faces all manner of shenanigans as he ticks off life’s milestones like starting high school, learning to drive, and getting married. While he has his faults – occasional fits of ego and pride, especially – he always comes back to the belief that we are transformed by loving others.
Maybe that’s because he had a good teacher. Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) improbably –and wonderfully – teaches Cory and his friends every single year from middle school to college. In the finale of the Boy Meets World he offers one last piece of advice: “Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good.” In Girl Meets World, those very words are printed above the blackboard in a New York classroom. The teacher? Cory.
But the best legacy Cory gives his daughter’s show is the importance of friends. Boy Meets World is nothing without Shawn Hunter (90s dreamboat Rider Strong, all curtain hair and angst). He and Savage have great chemistry. They do the stuff of regular teenagers – they try to impress each other; they get drunk while underage; one of them joins a cult – but they do it while making you care. For an old show, it sticks the landing on several of its Very Special Episodes. It’s like a hangout sitcom for your inner child.
Girl Meets World is, on balance, more earnest. The formula of slightly-naïve kid and troubled youngster repeats itself in Riley and her best friend Maya (Sabrina ‘that blonde girl’ Carpenter). This is a slighter show that doesn’t quite know how to age with its characters, and with less than half the series run of the original, it can’t provide that same depth. It helps that Carpenter, like Strong before her, grounds all that wide-eyed optimism with wry affection and a lived-in sadness that, slowly, gives way to hope.
The show’s real power, though, is in its positioning of Riley and Maya’s friendship as sacred. (It’s also, for my money, the most nakedly romantic relationship in the universe – move over, Cory and Topanga!) Over time, the show expands that view and uses it to posit that all caring human connections are life’s secret superpower.
For its three seasons, Girl Meets World is preoccupied with stories about how friends get and stay together, how people can know each other meaningfully and better. There is a great emphasis on helping others and letting others help you. It even allows its stock-standard punchline nerd to grow into a well-rounded character. There are still hijinks, but this is a show that proudly feels its feelings.
Streaming both shows in order and in close succession is a particular pleasure. With that same core team at the helm, it takes its continuity seriously. There are plenty of easter eggs that honour the series’ history, plus a staggering amount of actors from the first series appear in the new one, including, in a fourth-wall-breaking moment, both of the actors who played Cory’s younger sister Morgan. Decades-old storylines find new resolutions. You watch everyone grow up. It’s comforting to remember the process never stops.
It’s a lonely time, and sometimes you just need to feel earnestly warm about our capacity to care for others, to feel closer to your friends even while apart. This franchise more than delivers.