Boy Met World
by OWEN ROBERTS
When I was a kid my family didn't own a TV, so my only exposure to the popular culture of my youth was TGIF, which I would watch at my best friend's house every weekend. I loved all of those shows, but it wasn't until later that I realized how much Boy Meets World resonated with me.
When my family finally did get a television I was probably fifteen, and my younger sister was obsessed with the Disney Channel, so that was basically all that was ever on. Boy Meets World reruns played when I would get home from high school, which may have been the first thing we bonded over. I soon realized that I knew every BMW episode by heart.
In college I learned that there were a lot of things I didn't know about, most of which were television shows. Especially since the 80s were becoming cool again (or maybe that was already happening), people were making references to things that I had never heard of. Besides "Steve Urkel" and the occasional episode of The Simpsons, Boy Meets World was my only frame of reference for popular culture. Which is a weird thing because I realized that most people didn't like BMW, not even in an ironic way.
I had missed out on all of the shows, and otherwise, people were into, Saved by the Bell, 90210, Punky Brewster, Doug, Beavis and Butt Head, Ren and Stimpy, Peewee Herman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, The X-Files, In Living Color, anything by Nintendo, Salute Your Shorts, Hey Dude, Saturday Night Live, Rocko's Modern Life, Ghostbusters, Transformers, Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, You Can't Do That on Television, Wild and Crazy Kids, Legends of the Hidden Temple, Double Dare, Blossom, Growing Pains, Who's The Boss, Friends. I can't count how many times I've heard, "Oh, my God, I can't believe you've never seen/heard of..."
I stand by my affinity for BMW, because the show is funny in its corny way (I think every episode has at least one legitimately good joke) and because of the way it dramatizes mediocrity.
I have always preferred fiction to nonfiction, and I think this has partly to do with the ability of fiction to be about mediocrity. Nonfiction, or my conception of it, has to be about something important that happened, or someone who has had an unusual life, or has done something extraordinary. Fiction is often about the extraordinary, but can be about the mundane — hence the oeuvre of John Updike.
The plot arc of a BMW episode is usually driven by some emotional problem, as opposed to an event or action, like a murder or adultery or winning a gold medal or something. The resolution in these conflicts often involves "talking it out" or some overt display of affection, like when Shawn won't be friends with Topanga after she and Cory break up, but after she takes care of his chicken pox, he tells her that he really values her friendship.
Cory, usually the subject or cause of the emotional breakdown, is a strange protagonist. His driving motivation, after the first season, is preventing any change in his life or the lives of the people around him. His relationships are defined by his desire to keep them the same while the supporting characters are driven toward goals or other relationships. His best friend, Shawn Hunter from the trailer park, is often distracted by his need for self-discovery, girls, his tortured relationship with his father, his delinquent tendencies, etc.
Cory's girlfriend is the typical driven, straight-A student, motivated teenager. Topanga has a need to be perfect, and as she and Cory grow older he starts to hold her back. At the end of season five, she chooses "Pennbrook University" over Yale so she can stay with Cory, who barely attempts to appear supportive of her consideration of Yale. Cory's masculinity is entirely supplanted by Topanga. She plays the stereotypically male role, proposing to Cory during their high school graduation.
Then there's Cory's brother Eric, who is usually just stupid and for a while good looking, but occasionally has a life crisis in which he decides that he and Cory's relationships is meaningless, or that he should give up life in Philadelphia and move to some town that has the world's biggest cup of yogurt.
Even Mr. Feeny, who has lived next door throughout Cory's life, and taught every class that Cory took (except for Mr. Turner's English class), makes an attempt to escape Philadelphia and retire in Wyoming, only to be dragged back by Cory.
When Shawn's latter-series serious girlfriend Angela tries to break up with Shawn, Cory tries relentlessly to get them back together, even when Shawn doesn't want it (only Cory knows that deep down they are really in love). Topanga and Cory themselves break up and get back together so often I'm reminded of Gossip Girl, and it's always Cory who forces them to get back together, through sheer metathesiophobic will, even when he's the one who screws things up.
Start this audio in a different window and then watch the following clip:
Cory isn't a neurotic homebody at the beginning of the series. In season one he's an average guy with a big personality trying to figure out how to be cool.
He never really has what it takes to be cool, because he's a nice, honest person, raised well by his overly serious father. He has that quality of an archetypal protagonist, a good heart, an almost impulsive morality. While Shawn is cutting class, putting cherry bombs in mailboxes, and talking to girls, Cory has to figure out how to be a good friend while going against his gut feeling, which is to run to his parents. Over the course of high school his do-gooderness slowly morphs into an almost solipsistic need for stasis.
Like Cory, I wanted to be cool in high school, but more than that I really just wanted to blend in, go unnoticed in the crowd, and basically not be weird. Cory's life is ruled by fear, fear of failure, losing his friends, not being loved, and never by motivation toward any personal goals or self-actualization through something, like, art, or really being good at anything.
In season six, episode five, Cory has a crisis when he realizes that he has no talent. He meets Alexandra Nechita, a real life young artist who became famous when she had her first art show at eight and appeared on Oprah and stuff, at a local art gallery after making fun of her interpretation of her own work. Cory's portentous, pseudo-intellectual interpretation of the painting is refuted by Nechita, and Cory makes fun of her because she is a little girl, before Mr. Feeny puts him in his place. Cory turns his frustration on his father, blaming his mediocre existence on Mr. Matthews' own acceptance of a mediocre life. Mr. Matthews, a grocery store manager, then takes Cory to "downtown" Philly, to the shop where his father spent his whole life sweeping the floor.
Mr. Matthews wins Grocer of the Year in S4E1, precipitating a small midlife crisis
From his grandfather's perspective, Cory learns, "average" looked great; "average" was something to aspire to. Cory, of course, feels guilty for offending his father, but he learns the lesson that being happy, having a fulfilling life, is necessarily about having a body of work or being a great artist, but finding meaning outside of your work, in your family and the people you care about.
In a typical BMW ending, Cory and Allen have a heart to heart at the end of the show, and Alexandra Nechita, having overheard their conversation, finishes Alan's sentence (a favored device of the show):
Alan: You know when I knew my life had meaning?
Alexandra: When I held you in my arms.
What gives my life meaning? My own sense of self-worth has been derived, though not so self-consciously, from various "passions" over the years, and then, you know, family and friends and girls. For a while it was playing soccer, and then music, and then reading books, with a fair amount of overlap, all things that can be done well or not well. But I have often questioned, like Cory, whether I have any talent, the kind of talent that would justify doing those kinds of things in a way that would make other people notice or even give me money.
Cory, devoid of talent, is outrageously invested in his relationships. He has probably contributed to my own unrealistic ideas about friendship and romance. Topanga and Cory, as their relationship is rewritten when Topanga becomes a permanent cast member after the first season, first met when they were two, and fell in love when they were six.
And despite logical understanding, life experience, and so many other evidences to the contrary, I still believe in that model of romantic love. Cory's concept of friendship as well, to a certain extent, which is basically, once you find a friend, have an insanely exclusive relationship with that friend and never bother meeting anyone else.
No matter how corny or depressing, or plainly disgusting, Boy Meets World can be, I still find it very comforting to watch. Although Cory can inspire Willy Lomanesque feelings of paranoia and hopelessness, he is still the main character of a sitcom, and he is capable of that because he is actually really entertaining and endearing.
In college, while writing a thesis and papers and creating all sorts of other mind-numbing things on computers in computer labs full of other students creating virtually identical works of art and scholarship, I relied on the Internet, like everyone else, to keep me sane.
Senior year, I discovered "fan fiction" (why didn't I know about this before? I don't know), and, lacking knowledge of most other TV shows, I started reading BMW fan fiction almost every day on fanfiction.net. It's a completely ridiculous and astonishing thing to exist in the world, if you think about it. My favorite fanfic was called, I think, "Two Friends, One Liver." The plot (from memory): Shawn and Topanga both need liver transplants (for some reason) and Cory has to choose between the two, because he is going to donate his liver to save one of their lives. Resolution: Cory donates both of his livers, sacrificing his own life. I can't even talk about that.
The BMW based fan fiction also reveals some of the stranger motifs of the show, like the homoeroticism. There's a lot of homophobic jokes in BMW, more so in the later seasons. It's never really that offensive, but then you read fan fics about Shawn and Cory being lovers that are downright scary. Most of the jokes are about Cory and Shawn's perhaps too-close friendship, and the rivalry between Shawn and Topanga.
But BMW is only marginally politically correct, and only when it has to be. The show's values in general are difficult to nail down. In one epsiode, Shawn joins a cult. Everyone else tries to rescue him and at one point Alan Matthews asks Shawn if he believes in God, as though it was this really big deal, though I don't think anyone even says the word God in any other episode. Oh, except the prayer Cory says at the end of season six, episode fourteen, when he blesses everyone. That episode also emphasizes the importance of abstinence.
Cory: You know what the best part of being a virgin is?
Shawn: No, what?
Cory: I don't know, I was asking you.
(It's also crazy that Shawn is supposed to be a virgin throughout the entire series).
The creators of the show don't appear to have any overarching political standpoint, but once in a while will be kind of naively moralistic, possibly to satisfy the greater American public, though I don't think anyone was asking for it. Very occasionally the show will do something edgy enough to surprise me, usually jokes concerning death. The jokes about homosexuals and sex usually come off flat because they're not really going all out, but the death jokes usually cut straight to the hearts of the characters, reminding us of the meaninglessness of their lives.
Boy Meets World references other TV shows (usually popular, contemporaneous shows) and flirts with parody, though in a way that makes it seem like they don't really know what they're doing. I read this David Foster Wallace essay on TV and American fiction (pdf) recently, so I'm really keen on thinking about this, the idea that TV has become ironic about itself, and parodies itself in a way that fiction (novels) can't.
That's not really important, but it's interesting because BMW does parody itself, in obvious and less obvious ways, but I really don't get the sense that the creators get it, it's comes across as an apology for rehashing the same plots over and over, being melodramatic or just being generally not great TV. At a certain point, BMW is all parody, and no substance or originality, and Cory is a reflection of that lack.
As David Foster Wallace wrote, "What TV is extremely good at — and realize that this is 'all it does' — is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it."
I guess what I'm trying to do is figure out how all of this relates to my own life. I mean, the show is called Boy Meets World, there's nothing else that can really be said, and it seems that every sentence I've written so far is just an abstraction of that one sentence.
The only conclusion I can really draw is that my own life is a parody, of BMW and everything else, which continues to rehash things other people have said. BMW sort of makes you decide whether you are a Cory or a Shawn, but this doesn't work for "real" people. In high school I was more of a Shawn than a Cory, mainly because my best friend was such a Cory that I couldn't even compete. The device is ingenious really, how could you not see yourself in Cory or Shawn? (Assuming "you" are a boy. If you're a girl, you're Topanga.)
The real question about Cory, though, is whether his good will and honesty is driven by courage or fear. This ambiguity is possibly the most compelling aspect of the show, leaving the viewer wondering, is life shit, or, maybe, is it wonderful?
Owen Roberts is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. You can find more of his writing here.
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Florence and the Machine website