LOS ANGELES — World, it’s time to meet the girl.
The ’90s introduced a generation of viewers to a popcorn-haired squirt named Cory Matthews, and his tight-knit circle – bad boy bestie Shawn Hunter and quirky true love Topanga Lawrence. For seven years, as part of ABC’s popular “TGIF” prime-time programming block, the coming-of-age comedy “Boy Meets World ” was a fixture in youngster-skewing households.
Now, 14 years later, the world has a new acquaintance to make. On Friday, the Disney Channel unveiled the much talked about/tweeted about/squealed about “BMW” successor, “Girl Meets World.”
Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel, the stewards of “TGIF” royal couple Cory and Topanga, reprise their roles, only this time they are parents to the heir-apparent squirt: 11-year-old Riley Matthews (Rowan Blanchard). She is joined in her pre-teenage antics by best friend Maya Hart (Sabrina Carpenter).
“It’s a passing of the baton,” Savage said recently from the Disney Channel offices. “It’s so much more fun and interesting to now be the adult looking on at all the clowning around.”
At a time when networks are gaga for prequels, spinoffs and reboots, “Girl Meets World” presents an interesting strategy: catching up with familiar characters while also trying to land a new generation. But will twentysomethings (and older) tune in with their kids, assuming they have them? And will all the nostalgic excitement translate into decent ratings?
“It really is to be determined,” Fishel said. But 12-year-old Blanchard, who was plucked from an open casting call, just wants people to keep an open mind. “I think people are expecting Season 6 or Season 7 of ‘Boy Meets World,’ and I want them to remember back to Season 1 where it was about kids growing into who they’ll be.”
Michael Jacobs, the creator of the original series that launched in 1993 and is back at the helm, won’t speculate on what-ifs.
While shooting the series inside a downtown Los Angeles studio in late May, there were other more pressing matters.
A rehearsal for the season finale was underway and there was some disagreement over the elements of a scene. Savage was pushing for tweaks, but Jacobs was resisting the suggestions.
Acutely aware that the clock was ticking as a live audience waited to be brought in, Jacobs grumbled: “Everyone thinks they can direct.”
But like a family, it was soon resolved, shrugged off and things carried on. As cameras were re-positioned, Fishel posed for several selfies with Carpenter and Blanchard, ultimately posting one on Instagram and racking up 18,500 “likes.”
The Disney Channel, a unit of the Disney-ABC Television Group, was the force behind the new series.
“To add to our mix of comedies on our schedule, we felt the time was right to again explore new, funny yet heartfelt stories for a contemporary audience of kids and tweens.” Adam Bonnett, executive vice president of original programming for Disney Channels Worldwide. “Our teams began buzzing from the moment Michael Jacobs, who is the master at such storytelling, began talking to us about re-imagining but not redoing ABC’s classic series ‘Boy Meets World’ for a new audience.”
The original series, in its heyday, drew as many as 17 million total viewers. Even at the end of its run, it still commanded what would be a respectable average audience today – around 7.5 million viewers. (Disney Channel now averages about 3 million viewers in the 8 p.m. hour.)
A ‘continuation,’ not a sequel
Jacobs initially wasn’t very keen on the idea. This was partly because “Boy Meets World” was still in reruns for a new generation thanks to the Disney Channel, ABC Family and MTV2.
“Things were so radically different,” he said. “There were things on the air that were very young or played to particular demos, but not something that was cross-collateralizing where both children and parents, teenagers and young adults, would be able to take in as one unit. So I called Disney back.”
What Jacobs said he pitched was “not a sequel so much as a continuation” – one that the Disney Channel executives quickly embraced. While the original was set in Philadelphia, “Girl Meets World” would drop in on Cory and Topanga more than a decade later in New York, where they decided to move in the series finale of the original. As the 33-year-old parents to two children – Riley and younger brother, Auggie. Cory would have dual roles as a father and teacher, thus channeling his inner Mr. Feeny.
“If either Ben or Danielle had turned it down, I believe we would not have gone forward,” said Jacobs, who also brought back several “Boy Meets World” writers. “The great thing about ‘Boy Meets World’ is Cory and Topanga are one. And I think having one without the other, there is no series.”
After “BMW” ended, Savage attended Stanford University and had guest roles in various TV shows including “Chuck” and “Without a Trace.” He also appeared in several “National Lampoon” films, and later hosted the pop culture satire show “The Dish” for the Style Network.
“I think there was a little hesitation on my part taking on the role of Cory again,” Savage said. “It had been a long time. I didn’t know if I would remember how to be him. But once we started going – it’s interesting. It was like the writers were re-learning Cory as well and also adapting to the new Cory and Topanga.”
Brief consideration was given to having a boy at the center of the story, but “then I thought to myself, ‘been there, done that,” Jacobs said. Additionally, the initial plan had Riley’s sibling being an older brother – an idea Fishel strongly opposed.
“I feel way more connected to ‘Girl Meets World’ than I ever did to ‘Boy Meets World,” said Fishel, who has a memoir, “Normally, This Would be Cause for Concern: Tales of Calamity and Unrelenting Awkwardness,” coming out in the fall. “I was not around for the conception of ‘Boy Meets World,’ I was added later. And it wasn’t my show. It was a show about a young boy. This is a show about a young girl, of which I was one. I’m just very protective of what we’re putting out there for young girls.”
One thing everyone agrees on is that the world has changed a lot for kids between the time of the two shows. It’s much faster-paced and at times more scary.
“The world that Riley Matthews meets, I think, is a tougher world than the one Cory Matthews met,” he said. ” Technology alone – the differences in how kids live their lives tied to devices, and the accessibility to all things on a screen – be it a telephone screen, a movie screen or a computer screen. Their access to knowledge is so different and so vast as compared to Cory. It’s that access to everything that makes Riley more confused and makes this a tougher world to get to know.”
Blanchard, for one, is ready to wander down the road we call life: “Bring. It. On. World.”