Friday, September 4, 2015

Girl Meets Course-Correction

Girl Meets World got good. What gives?

Something strange has happened in season two of Girl Meets World. After an intensely uneven first season, and four second-season episodes that ranged from incomprehensible to simply blah, the second season’s fifth episode, “Girl Meets Mr. Squirrels,” made a sudden leap in quality. Of course, “Mr. Squirrels” saw the return of Will Friedle as Eric Matthews, so perhaps that’s not surprising. But then Eric dropped out for a few episodes, and the show kept being good. Now, 13 episodes into season two, Girl Meets World has aired an unprecedented string of enjoyable episodes, and it’s become clear that “Mr. Squirrels” was not an anomaly. It was the beginning of that rare television phenomenon: the course-correction.

It’s not unusual for a show to hit its stride in season two or late season one; who among us hasn’t recommended a show with the caveat, “It takes a few episodes to get good”? Generally, though, shows like that are building on what came before. They’re not fundamentally changing; they’re just finding their voice, working out the kinks, gaining confidence.

Course-corrections are a different beast entirely. They’re sudden. They’re drastic. And they occur, not as a natural evolution, but because someone realizes that the show is broken—and then fixes it. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. realized that it could juice up its plot and spice up its characters by finally engaging with the movies that spawned it, and by really committing to a status-quo shake-up that turned its most boring character evil. The Office and Parks and Recreation realized that they could retool after their short first seasons, rethinking character dynamics and establishing the tones they would be known for over the rest of their runs. Lost realized that it could deliver a much more satisfying plot if it set an end date for the series.

So what, exactly, did Girl Meets World fix? In some ways, it’s like The Office and Parks and Rec, in that it didn’t fix one single thing. It just found a new version of itself that works better than the one that came before. Girl Meets World was always fitfully funny; now it’s consistently funny. Girl Meets World always strove for a blend of humor, pathos, and life lessons, but often struggled to create a coherent tone; now it’s found a balance of lightly absurdist comedy and character-based humor that can carry the show through its preachier moments. Somewhere between “Girl Meets Pluto” and “Mr. Squirrels,” it seems, Girl Meets World simply remembered what it was like to be Boy Meets World.

It did, however, make some clear, concrete improvements. Here are a few:

1. It fixed its worst characters.

The bane of Girl Meets World’s existence has long been Farkle Minkus. For most of first season, the show didn’t seem to know what to do with him. One week, he was a sweet, self-conscious nerd; the next, he was throwing his friends under the bus in order to increase his profits in a business they started together. Farkle’s only consistent traits were a love of academia, an exceptionally creepy obsession with Riley and Maya, and an over-the-top wackiness that aimed for, but never achieved, comedy. Suffice it to say, the best episodes tended to be the ones that downplayed his role.

In season two’s “Girl Meets Yearbook,” Riley and Farkle both reinvent themselves in response to what they consider unflattering yearbook superlatives. Riley steals everything black Topanga owns and goes wonderfully, absurdly goth. Farkle dons a black shirt and a post-Millennial beanie and becomes Donnie Barnes: Regular Guy. At the end of the episode, Riley reverts back to normal. Farkle does not.

Now, I couldn’t care less whether Farkle wears loud print shirts or outfits copied from a One Direction magazine spread. But the change in Farkle wasn’t just sartorial, and it didn’t just start in “Yearbook.” Farkle has been toned down all season. He hasn’t done a single stalker-ish thing since “Mr. Squirrels.” He hasn’t plotted world domination. He hasn’t even shouted very much. Farkle has consistently been the best version of his season one character: a sweet, slightly weird nerd. All “Yearbook” did was codify that change.

Girl Meets World’s other problem character in first season was Cory. The traits that made him mostly endearing and likeable as a protagonist—his neuroses, anxieties, and morals—made him unbearable as the father of the protagonist. It seemed like every other episode of the first season of Girl Meets World centered on Cory’s inability to let Riley grow up. Girl Meets World’s heightened reality, combined with Cory’s ever-growing neuroses, led to any number of weirdly sexist and downright creepy moments—like the time Cory gave Maya a smartphone so she could keep him up to date on Riley’s actions, or the time that Cory yelled at Lucas in class for being attractive to his teenage daughter, or the time that Cory forced Maya and Farkle to go on a date so that they could chaperone Riley and Lucas. Beyond that, though, in a show whose very theme song implores the protagonist to “take on the world,” it was extremely frustrating that so much sympathetic narrative weight fell on a character whose sole aim seemed to be to keep Riley away from the world.

Season two Cory, though, is an entirely different creature. He still teaches incorrect and out-of-order history, and he still occasionally steps into Mr. Feeny’s shoes and provides Riley and her friends with perspective and/or life lessons. But the controlling, shotgun-polishing aspect of his character has been eliminated almost entirely. What’s left over is a slightly preachy but basically endearing supporting character, someone whose oddities and neuroses spice up the background, rather than driving the plot.

2. It started telling stories with stakes.

In its first season, Girl Meets World had a bad habit of undercutting its drama. Some episodes had a lesson, but a protagonist who seemed to have learned that lesson long before the story started (“Girl Meets Smackle”). Some episodes had a lesson, but the protagonist learned the lesson halfway through the episode, before anything could go wrong (“Girl Meets Brother”). Some episodes were simply incoherent (“Girl Meets Friendship”). Lessons and morals are great, but they have to be backed up by a story of how they’re learned, and Girl Meets World too often forgot to provide a story.

Starting around “Mr. Squirrels,” though, Girl Meets World suddenly woke up and kicked its narrative brain into gear. Every single episode since then has contained a lesson, but they’ve also contained the basic building blocks of a story: a conflict, and potential consequences should that conflict fail to be resolved. Sometimes those consequences are entirely internal, as in “Girl Meets the Tell-Tale Tot,” “Girl Meets Rules,” and “Yearbook,” all of which hinge on the question of whether the people the characters are becoming are the people they want to be. Sometimes they’re more concrete, as in “Girl Meets the New Teacher” and “Girl Meets Creativity,” both of which concern the danger that a beloved aspect of the kids’ school will be taken away. But they’re all real, and they all require that the characters take action to avoid them.

This may sound like damning with faint praise, but Girl Meets World is a Disney Channel family comedy. It doesn’t need a complicated narrative structure. It can, and does, experiment in other ways—with its tone, with its narrative scope, and now that Rider and Shiloh Strong are at the helm more often than not, with its visual language. Complicated plotting would probably detract from those things. It was necessary, but also sufficient, for Girl Meets World to add simple stakes to its stories.

3. It adapted to unexpected events.

When writing teachers are trying to hammer home the importance of editing, they’ll sometimes say that “writing is not a performance art.” What they mean is that it’s okay to mess up; you can always go back and fix it in a later draft.

But television writing is, in some ways, very much a performance art. If a show is serialized at all, writers have to lay groundwork in one episode for events that occur later on. And they can’t always go back and fix it. It’s not uncommon for early episodes in an arc to air well before the episodes containing the pay-off have even been written, let alone filmed.

This can play hell with storylines, when real life gets in the way of the plan. Actors leave shows. Executives force last-minute changes. Audiences fail to respond as predicted. J. Michael Straczynski famously created a “trap door” (that is, an exit storyline and replacement character) for every major character in the heavily arc-based Babylon 5, in case the actor should become unavailable.

Sometimes, though, writers’ plans go awry for much less obvious reasons than the loss of an actor. Anyone who’s ever written a story will tell you that no matter how heavily you outline, plans change in the writing. Character conceptions shift, plots head off in directions you didn’t expect, themes emerge that you didn’t see at first. This may be even more true on TV, where the final product is the work of hundreds of writers, crew, and actors. Sometimes, things just happen, and the best shows are inevitably the ones whose writers can adapt when reality gets in the way of their plans—zag, when they’d planned to zig, as it were.

I don’t know what, if anything, the Girl Meets World writers’ long-term plans were for their characters. But season one certainly indicated that certain relationships were intended to fall out in certain ways: Riley and Lucas would have a chaste, Disney Channel-appropriate romance; Maya and Shawn would develop a father/daughter relationship; Ava would continue to dominate all of Auggie’s subplots.

None of those character dynamics were particularly successful. Disney Channel romances don’t exactly need to smolder, but Riley and Lucas have zero chemistry. Sabrina Carpenter and Rider Strong are both excellent actors, and they have an enjoyable rapport, but Girl Meets World was simply unable to devote the amount of time to Maya and Shawn's relationship that it needed to make it believable. And Ava and Auggie’s scenes have never played well; the actors are fine, but the relationship tropes they’re asked to play out are tiresome in adults, and they don’t suddenly become less tiresome when they’re being played by eight-year-olds.

But in season two, something magical happened: Girl Meets World realized that some of its character dynamics weren’t working, and it changed them in response. Riley and Lucas’ romance was put on hold in “Girl Meets the New World,” and totally dissolved in “Yearbook” and “Girl Meets Semi-Formal.” (By the way, this failure of chemistry is in no way a knock against Peyton Meyer or especially Rowan Blanchard, who, in addition to being sensible and kind-hearted and possibly a super genius, has really grown into her role this season. Sometimes actors simply don’t click, chemistry-wise; it’s no one’s fault.)

Meanwhile, Ava and Auggie’s characters haven’t changed, but their subplots have been redesigned to heavily feature Topanga. Surprisingly enough, that makes all the difference. When Ava and Auggie run a scene, they’re unbearable. When Ava and Topanga run a scene, they’re practically endearing.

Girl Meets World still isn’t perfect. It’s not even the best version of itself, yet; there are places it could still improve. Structurally, for instance, most of its episodes are missing a “darkest before the dawn” moment. You know the one—that point in every movie, book, or TV episode where you wonder how the characters are going to get out of this one. “Creativity” has a scene like it; “Tell-Tale Tot” and “Yearbook” sort of do; “Semi-Formal” actually ends on this scene. As a general rule, though, Girl Meets World could stand to make things a little harder on its characters, for a little longer, before fixing things.

Or character dynamics. Of the dynamics that Girl Meets World leaned on in season one, only Maya and Shawn’s remains unchanged in season two, and it is tellingly one of the weakest areas remaining on the show. Episodes like “Girl Meets Hurricane” prove that the show still has trouble finding the right tone for Shawn and Maya’s relationship, and it may always be in danger of hitting regressive notes in its father/daughter dynamics. (Stepdads of the world take note: It is not a good idea to endear yourself to your stepdaughter by telling her you think she should dress differently. Sheesh.)

But overall, it’s an amazing overhaul—quite simply one of the largest leaps in quality I have ever seen between two seasons of a show. Girl Meets World has gone from a show that I dreaded watching to a show that I look forward to. It’s gone from a show whose characters I can’t stand to a show whose characters I’m invested in. Where did this unanticipated course correction come from? I have no idea. But here’s something I can’t imagine saying, two months ago: I’ll be tuning in every Friday night, to see how long it lasts.


  1. I disagree most people liked farkle from the beginning

    1. Well, I can't speak to what most people like. I know that I didn't like Farkle in first season, both because I didn't find him funny and because I often disliked the stories he was in. If you found him funny, or enjoyed the stories the show told about him, that's great!

      But there are problems I brought up in my review that didn't have to do with whether I liked Farkle. For instance, the way Farkle treated Riley and Maya in first season wasn't okay; he invaded their privacy, and he kept asking them out even after they told him they weren't interested. Those are not acceptable behaviors, whether you like the person who's doing them or not.