By: Madelyn Glymour, Contributor
Boy Meets World had a long and storied history of episodes that took place “out of time.” Season five’s “No Guts, No Cory” took the characters back to World War II, where Cory lost his memories in a bombing and wound up wandering France while Shawn and Topanga got engaged in order to honor his last wish. “And Then There Was Shawn” — a season five Halloween episode that for some reason aired in February — explored Shawn’s insecurities via a slasher movie homage in which most of the main cast was killed off gruesomely. The seventh-season episode “Seven the Hard Way” imagined a future in which the gang had stopped being friends, and Eric had turned into a mountain man named “Plays With Squirrels.” Season six’s “As Time Goes By” followed Topanga into a black-and-white alternate universe where the characters were the regulars at the Casablanca-esque “Shangri-La Cafe.”
These were some of Boy Meets World‘s most memorable episodes, and this week, GIRL MEETS WORLD took its first stab at the conceit. In “Girl Meets 1961,” Cory orders his class to interview their grandparents and great-grandparents about life in the 1960s. As they do so, we flash back to an evening in 1961, when the great-grandparents of Riley, Maya, Farkle, and Lucas — played by Rowan Blanchard, Sabrina Carpenter, Corey Fogelmanis, and Peyton Meyer — all met at a cafe, briefly got to know each other, and then parted ways.
It sounds a little contrived, and of course it is, especially at the end of the episode when the characters figure out that their great-grandparents had met and use the coincidence to learn the Lesson of the Week. (Namely, don’t let the past define you; learn from it so that you can make better choices in your own life. Also, if your name is Maya, don’t succumb to your crippling insecurities.)
But the conceit lets “1961” be goofy and experimental in a way Boy Meets World often was, but Girl Meets World hasn’t so far been. Boy Meets World was a little ahead of its time in the way it played with the fourth wall and devoted entire episodes to homage, and it was often a very strange show, in a very good way. Girl Meets World, on the other hand, has by and large been a fairly conventional Disney Channel show. “1961” gave it a chance to stretch its wings and see what it could do when it tried new things, and it turns out, it was pretty successful. From the character names — Merlin, Ginsberg, and Meg Clutterbucket — to the costuming — Maya-as-Meg wore a flower crown, and Farkle-as-Ginsberg had the world’s best, ugliest fake beard — the flashback sequences are full of the kind of surreal humor and inventiveness you used to see in later seasons of Boy Meets World.
The biggest difference between “1961” and the aforementioned episodes of Boy Meets World is that, on Girl Meets World, the out-of-time sequences actually happened. On Boy Meets World, they didn’t; “No Guts, No Cory” was simply an out-of-continuity episode, while the others were dream sequences. On the one hand, the reality of this week’s episode limits its silliness and inventiveness. But on the other hand, the fact that the things we’re seeing are real lends them a kind of weight that “No Guts, No Cory” couldn’t touch.
Consider the scene where Meg Clutterbucket gets up to sing at the front of the cafe. Yes, it’s an excuse to let Sabrina Carpenter show off her singing voice. But then, her singing voice is pretty good, and the whole scene has a kind of ephemeral, melancholy feeling that’s half music and half situation: These characters are likeable enough, but we know how things ended for them. They were together for an evening, and then they drifted apart. They went on to have families and lives, but none of them ended up where they were expecting to go. Meg Clutterbucket never did make it to Topanga Canyon. And we can be sad about that, because Meg Clutterbucket — as evidenced by the episode’s surprisingly moving penultimate image of the real Meg, Rosie McGee, and Merlin — was a real person.
I guess what I’m saying is that this was a weird, tonally ambivalent little episode, but I love weird, tonally ambivalent television. I love it when shows try things, and this week, that’s what Girl Meets World finally did. Brava.
Miscellaneous Things I Liked This Week (Hosted by Lucas and Maya)
I decided I needed a section to replace “No, But Seriously, There Are Good Things About This Show” on weeks when I really like the episode. Anyway, Maya continues to be a highlight — the line of the episode for me was, “I don’t want to be a Clutterbucket.” (Humor and heavy, Shawn Hunter-style pathos? I’m there!) Also, kudos to Sabrina Carpenter for being the most successful of the four young actors at differentiating her flashback character from her normal character; the problems they’re facing may be similar, but Meg Clutterbucket is a soft-spoken flower child, which Maya most definitely is not. Lucas also continues to grow on me, and I was particularly amused by his heavy Southern accent in the flashback sequences. Oh, and Riley’s “Grape day!” line was good; I always like it when Riley says things that season-six-of-Boy-Meets-World Cory would have said.
I wasn’t initially sure whether I liked the episode’s reference to Topanga Canyon, and the implication that Topanga got her name because of that interaction between Rosie and Meg, but the scene between Riley and Topanga ultimately sold me on it; Topanga seemed so legitimately awed and touched to find out this little bit of personal history.
I also want to take a moment to talk about the direction. Ben Savage directed last week’s episode, and this week, another Boy Meets World star, Rider Strong, took the helm. Strong has done a lot of directing since Boy Meets World ended, and it shows. In “1961,” he found new angles (literally) on sets and scenes that are already, nine episodes in, falling into a slightly boring visual pattern. Pay attention during the tag — the camera gets lower and closer to the character’s faces than it generally does during classroom scenes. Fitting, for an episode about breaking with the past.
How Cory Matthews Failed As a Teacher This Week
Hardly at all! I guess it’s a little weird to start out a lecture about the 1960s with Bob Dylan, but judging by the tag, it seems like Dylan was more of a thematic jumping-off point for harder history like the civil rights movement, and that’s a perfectly valid teaching strategy. And the kids’ assignment is, for once, a completely normal and sane — one might even go so far as to say creative and inspired — thing to have seventh-graders do in history class.
I guess he did let Maya start playing the guitar in the middle of class? So there’s that.
This week’s chalkboard: “‘THE TIMES, THEY ARE A-CHANGIN.’ –BOB DYLAN”
Meanwhile, 21 Years Ago…
Season one, episode nine — “Class Preunion.” Originally aired November 26, 1993. In a weird bit of synergy, this episode also starts with a character asking their teacher why history matters. When Cory complains that history doesn’t affect him, Mr. Feeny throws out the week’s assignment and instead has the students plan their futures. But Cory is upset when Mr. Feeny tells him that the future he makes up isn’t planned out well enough. This is the first week where I think there’s an argument to be made that the Boy Meets World episode isn’t quite as good as the corresponding Girl Meets World episode. There’s nothing wrong with “Class Preunion” — it’s a better episode than the one that preceded it — but it ends with at-the-time famous baseball player Jim Abbott making a cameo to explain to Cory why he shouldn’t give up on his dreams. (The first, and least interesting, of several cameos and stunt-castings that Boy Meets World had.) The episode is just not particularly subtle, and it’s not quite weird or funny enough to make up for it. Also, I don’t understand why Cory got an incomplete for saying he would be a major league baseball player, but Topanga didn’t for saying that she would be the President of the United States, that the military would be disbanded, that everyone would wear togas, and that men would be kept underground as breeding stock. (I am not paraphrasing. Those are her exact words.)