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Girl Meets World and the Trouble with Nostalgia Culture

Girl Meets World and the Trouble with Nostalgia Culture

Forget all the complaints about the nuked refrigerator, the monkey vine jeep chase, Mutt Williams, and the aliens, because those are all arbitrary complaints which have the same general base anyway. Here’s the real reason you hated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: You grew up. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was then made, marketed, and presented to the grown-up you, so you were incapable of applying your nostalgia goggles to it. Therefore, you saw right through the presentation and got a big load of the fact that the Indiana Jones series is, objectively, comically ridiculous. Unfortunately, you’re still not capable of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade through anything but your nostalgia goggles – or maybe unwilling – so you’re still blind to how silly those movies all are. You walked into Kingdom of the Crystal Skull thinking you still had the same mindset you did as a kid, watching Indy beat up those Nazis and Thuggies for the first time ever, and were expecting to be blown similarly away, but it didn’t happen because you’re a lot more critical in your old age. Meanwhile, you saw a movie in which absolutely nothing you complained about couldn’t also be applied to every other movie in the series.

On June 27, we saw the premiere of the Disney Channel show Girl Meets World. Girl Meets World is the very direct sequel to one of the most beloved family sitcoms of the 90’s, Boy Meets World. By that, I mean Girl Meets World focuses on Riley Matthews, the daughter of Cory and Topanga Matthews, two of the characters from the original series who met the world. Both Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel are reprising their original roles in Girl Meets World. The show’s writers, though, have backed themselves into a weird corner. The audience that still reveres Boy Meets World is now all grown up, and Girl Meets World was picked up by the Disney Channel. Judging from strictly the pilot episode of Girl Meets World, the show is now trying very, very hard to attract the nostalgic demographic of people who grew up watching its predecessor while trying to make everything acceptable to the childrens’ gatekeepers with the Almighty Mouse. Disney’s censors haven’t loosened up their clamps any. I caught the pilot of Girl Meets World myself, and while it delighted me to a point, it still felt pretty stilted. Although I’m in my 30’s, I’m no stranger to the sitcoms there; they remind me a little bit of the old Nickelodeon sitcoms I loved. I’ve taken a particular liking to Liv and Maddie, a show about twins, and Austin and Ally, a show about a duo of musicians. So I have a good idea of exactly what gets done in Disney Channel sitcoms. Strictly in that context, I was happy enough with Girl Meets World to be curious about how it develops. It’s a Disney Channel sitcom, after all, and it did everything that was asked and expected of a good Disney Channel sitcom. But if the writers don’t get the show settled in, well, let’s just say it will not end well.

We’ve been hearing so many rumors about Girl Meets World for so long that we’ve built up a very steep set of expectations, which we then went and compared to a television ancestor that ran for seven years. During the time, Boy Meets World also happened to take on a sort of exulted status. Among people of my generation, Boy Meets World is remembered with (rightful) fondness as the arguable best of a bad genre of TV show. It never talked down to its audience, and main character Cory Matthews was a fine everykid who succeeded in conveying many of the real concerns and issues faced by kids his age. The senior show, though, is also being seen through its own nostalgia lens, and that built up its own reputation to a level which it probably doesn’t deserve. What a lot of fond remembrances of Boy Meets World online tend to do is gloss over the show’s worse aspects – even the normally insightful AV Club ended up blowing its review, which is really saying something. I followed Boy Meets World through its first three seasons or so, but dropped out after being put off after the sudden shift to a dramatic format and the show’s inability to find any stability. Years later, I caught almost every other episode in reruns, and it’s amazing how many people overlook the fact that Boy Meets World switched identities more often than Mystique. Despite only running seven years, Boy Meets World underwent so many different retoolings, you would have to use both fingers and toes to count them all. Boy Meets World also got to be pretty heavy-handed in its Aesop impersonations. The show had many strong points, but its strengths rarely all surfaced at the same time, and so it just wasn’t that good.

My generation probably isn’t the first to be obsessed with childhood nostalgia, but with mass communication and the internet, we’re probably the first generation that can put forth a reasonable effort to keep its childhood alive. Let’s be honest: We brought all the reboots, remakes, and rereleases on ourselves. It’s one of those great laws of economics: If you demand it, they will produce. Well, we started saying someone should begin rebooting all those stored memories of childhood pop culture, and now here we are. We’re seeing mass translations like never before, and in some cases, it’s pretty difficult to argue those in the nostalgia industry aren’t doing their jobs. Everything getting made is getting made by people our own age, trying to pitch the wares at the kids we’re having, and somehow we think we’ve earned the right to be upset at remakes of things we loved as kids when they’re being released for kids with a different understanding what a kickass cartoon is. On the off chance something is released to the adults, it’s inevitably going to be set in a more adult context. There’s the contradiction: Either get let down by a version marketed to kids because the quality of the original wasn’t quite as good as we thought, or get let down by a version marketed at adults because it lacks the sense of fun and amusement. There’s not much of an in-between here.

The pilot episode of Girl Meets World turned out odd because it nailed the contradiction of the nostalgia industry. It’s trying actively to have it both ways. Cory is being set up to be in the role that Feeny played for him in Boy Meets World, the influential teacher, except in this case he’s the father of the main character instead of the neighbor. Main characters Riley and Maya are clearly avatars of Cory and Shawn. Lucas is bland, but he seems set on a path which will make him Riley’s own Topanga. Auggie is coming off a lot like Morgan. Topanga herself may end up an avatar of Cory’s mother. The show even has an imitation of Minkus with Farkle, who – if the previews of future episodes are to be believed – is incidentally the son of Stuart Minkus himself. Feeny had a touching cameo in the pilot, and other rumored cameos are down the line (including a scene with the original Minkus, seen right in the series trailer). This was all clearly set to nab the nostalgia demographic, which was pining to see more of one of the most beloved TV couplings of the 90’s. According to the data released by the Girl Meets World website, some 1.6 million people in the 30-plus demographic tuned in to play catch-up.

For Girl Meets World to find any real footing, though, both the show’s creators and those 1.6 million people who watched the pilot are going to have to come to grips with the reality that this show isn’t about Cory and Topanga and the trials of their marriage and child-rearing. Despite the nostalgia trip, it’s meant to introduce the children of those 1.6 million people to a relatable character of their own who meets world on her own terms, and the pilot wasted no time or dialogue establishing that. Seriously, I could have made a drinking game out of how many times I heard references about Riley meeting the world.

The only things Girl Meets World could possibly be are two things which will be violently rejected by the Millennial watchers of the original Boy Meets World. If the show tried to revolve around Cory and Topanga and their lives as a married couple, we would reject it outright because the dynamic of the original show everyone still loves and reveres would be ruined. Yeah, everyone was all “aww!” when the couple finally made their overdue trip to the altar, but since they’re married and parents now, their concerns about their lives are a lot different, and I don’t think any Boy Meets World fan would want to spend a half hour a week watching them fight over finances, parenting methods, and the rank of the Philadelphia Phillies on Cory’s priorities list. Thus, everybody hates it. The other direction is to make it revolve around Cory and Topanga’s kids, which isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. One of the appeals of Boy Meets World was that it never talked down at its audience, and that was because the characters were all relatable enough to be effective. Kids, though, aren’t going to understand problems in the adult world, so we can’t very well expect Riley and Auggie to pick up that slack themselves and become vessels for adult ideas. Think of how absurd that would be. While the kids are kids, there are certain problems and issues which tend to have limited cultural relevance, and so we can’t expect them to spew our old kiddie problems from our childhoods right back at us again. They’re going to be presented as children for the kids we’re having and raising ourselves, so it’s pretty stupid to think we’re going to have any real emotional stake in Girl Meets World the same way we did with its ancestor.

I’m hoping the best for Girl Meets World. As for all the adults who have any stakes in it, I leave you with the advice that Girl Meets World will work best if you’re able to recognize it for what it is: Not yours.


About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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