The great thing about Boy Meets World was that it grew up along with its audience over the course of its seven year run: it started in sixth grade, skipped straight to high school, and continued to follow its protagonists well into college. With that much air time, any series will show exponential growth, especially one that hinges on a team of quite literally growing actors. Girl Meets World, in a way, puts us back in the mindset of that first sixth-grade season (although Riley and her pals are in seventh grade), and it is important that we allow it to be the freshman that it is (sorry, I’ll stop with the grade-levels). That means that it is goofy, clunky, and often veers on the cloying side of sweet. In short, it’s a show for kids. And if we true fans of the Matthews clan want to be supportive of this series–and we better well be, since it’s our incessant Buzzfeed-style nostalgia-baiting that birthed it–we need to accept that its target audience isn’t us.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty of fun stuff for the 90s crew in Girl Meets World, too. First and foremost, we are treated to the return of Ben Savage to the small screen, who, as far as I’m concerned, is the best comic actor of his generation. I have no idea if he can do any shtick other than the crotchety-kid-grandpa style of Cory Matthews, but I couldn’t care less, because it is still hilarious. In a smart bid to allow Savage as much screen time as possible, Cory is a teacher at his daughter’s school, effectively filling the role that Mr. Feeny occupied in the original series. Feeny isn’t forgotten, however–a sign in Mr. Matthew’s classroom reads “DO GOOD,” the last words of advice Feeny gives his protegés in the Boy Meets World series finale, and actor William Daniels also makes a brief and effective cameo in the pilot episode. Cory’s classroom is the structure around which the episodes build their inevitable life lessons (explaining, perhaps, why in three episodes the curriculum has jumped from the Civil War to the perils of technology to Pearl Harbor.) Topanga (Danielle Fishel) is still beautiful and has amazing hair, but takes a supporting role behind Cory. The two also have a very precious five-year-old named Auggie (August Maturo).But onto the heart of Girl Meets World, which isn’t about Cory or Topanga at all: it’s about Riley, their 13-year-old daughter, played by an impossibly cute Rowan Blanchard. In a lot of ways, Riley plays Cory 2.0: naive, curious, and straight-laced, with her own bad-influence best friend Maya (Sabrina Carpenter) to replace Shawn Hunter. But the similarities are there for structural purposes–why waste an enormously successful TV formula? The friendship of the two girls is the lynchpin of the show, as is evidenced by the opening credits, which sweetly references its roots (paper airplane!) while providing a fun, catchy girl-empowering song that is perfectly on point. Carpenter is clearly the more seasoned of the two actresses, and is surprisingly grounded in her portrayal of the wry, rebellious Maya. Blanchard is obviously less at ease on camera, but she has an irrepressible sweetness and a willingness to be goofy that promises great things. Her sense of comedy is part of what makes Girl Meets World special: on a network that has made a brand out of over-the-top, slip-on-a-banana-peel comic roles for girls (see: Hannah Montana), Riley is funny because she’s actually a funny kid, a girl who enjoys being the class clown once in a while. Both girls are also eminently fashionable, as is the right of any new Disney starlet. Riley is also, of course, preoccupied with boys, and so far the series’ treatment of middle school dating promises to follow in the footsteps of its parent show, which offered a refreshingly straightforward treatment of puberty, dating, sex, and love. The Disney Channel has always been a little more conservative than ABC was about such things, but Girl Meets World seems to be having some fun testing its boundaries. One extensive joke that is never deliberately spelled out involves one young character accidentally hitting another in the breast, and the all-consuming mortification everyone experiences thereafter–funny, but also completely relatable to a middle-school audience. The girls’ friends and sometimes crushes include Lucas (Peyton Meyer), a Disney recyclable hunk who totally looks like Joffrey from Game of Thrones, and Farkle (Corey Fogelmanis), a Minkus redux and mini Casanova.
The character of Maya offers a little more complexity to the show’s drama, as we learn that she has a yet-undefined bad home life. “I have no one to help me with my homework,” she confesses to Cory after getting in trouble for taking a no-homework rebellion too far. Okay, so it’s the same storyline as Shawn’s, but it’s not any less affective or important. If anything, it’s interesting to see a female protagonist on the Disney Channel who characterized by difficult roots–whereas Shawn’s womanizing, leather-jacket wearing ways seemed cool and enticing, Maya’s heavy makeup and world-weary attitude toward boys is a little more obviously worrisome. If the series lasts long enough to follow the girls through high school, it will be very interesting to see how they develop Maya’s character. (By the way, Rider Strong once wrote an incredibly moving piece about his iconic bad boy. When he returns for his cameo later this season, it will be worth noting what kind of man the network decided he’s grown up to be.)Co-creators and writers Michael Jacobs and April Kelly hit family entertainment gold with Boy Meets World, and this new show comes with built-in expectations that won’t be easy to live up to. Girl Meets World is rocky in its first few episodes at sea, but all the elements are there for a coming-of-age sitcom that actually has something to say, and says it directly to the young people it hopes to reach. So if you’re a 90s kid, watch it for the nostalgia factor, sure, and to help boost its ratings, but also put it on for the tweens you babysit. They’re the ones who deserve a World of their own.
Girl Meets World airs Fridays at 8:30 PST.