When Boy Meets World launched in September 1993, ABC’s TGIF lineup of Friday-night comedies was at the height of its popularity. The weekend starter was birthed by a desire to hook a younger audience for a whole night of programming, rather than just one show, and it worked. Growing up on Nickelodeon, TGIF was a natural progression and left me feeling more mature, watching a network the adults were watching. And in the fall of ’93, sandwiched in between established hits Family Matters and Step By Step, was a new show that spoke right to the grade-school boy I was at the time: Boy Meets World centered on 11-year-old sixth grader Cory Matthews and his very 11-year-old, sixth grader problems.
In the series’ opening scene, Cory (Ben Savage) starts his school day boasting to his best friend Shawn (Rider Strong) about how late he got to stay up the night before and lamenting that lunchtime is so far away. These subjects were certainly not as hormone-induced as the problems facing the teens at the center of the other TGIF shows.
But over Boy Meets World’s seven seasons, the juvenile, Disney Channel-friendly humor faded away. Puberty arrived, along with the hard lessons of adulthood. Cory and his friends navigated broken hearts, broken dreams, and even death. By the series finale, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, Cory—thanks to some continuity errors in early seasons—is a sophomore in college, married to his childhood sweetheart Topanga (Danielle Fishel), and embarking on a new life in New York City. This kind of character growth is not unusual for a long-running network show with adolescent characters, but BMW is one of few series focused on characters who started off as tweens and remained targeted toward younger viewers. Even The Wonder Years (which starred Ben Savage’s brother, Fred) was a period piece targeting the adult viewers looking back at their childhood as much as, if not more than, the kids sitting on the couch next to them.
And there’s a reason most series don’t successfully mature with their audience. It’s hard, especially with younger fans, to evolve at the right pace and not alienate those developing into adults later or earlier than the characters. Yet BMW navigated that journey slowly, aside from the way it advanced the main characters two grade levels at some point in between the beginning of season two and the end of season four. In the pilot, Cory—eventually a horndog—thinks girls are gross and hides out in his tree house when his brother won’t take him to a baseball game. Much of the early episodes are focused on baseball. We don’t even meet Topanga until episode four, and even then she remains a background character. Her evolution from “the weird girl in my class” to romantic endgame happened gradually as BMW matured over multiple seasons; as Cory traded time with his biological family for time with his chosen family.
That arc is distilled in the evolution of the show’s opening titles, which begins with the whimsical synths and boyhood iconography—paper airplanes, skateboards, baseball (again)—of season one and ends with the final seasons’ backlot hangouts, whose hijinks and power-pop backing echo the ’90s sitcom that would’ve seemed like the pinnacle of maturity and sophistication to the TGIF crowd: Friends. In between, the faces showcased in these sequences changed dramatically, the full, minute-long Matthews family roll call first giving way to season two’s brief intro, in which an animated, solo Cory is squashed by a globe. A year later, he’s back in live-action and still too cool for mom and dad, instead clowning around with his brother Eric (Will Friedle) and buddy Shawn at their local haunt, Chubbie’s; in season four, which picks up at the end of a Matthews boys road trip, the core BMW quartet—Cory, Shawn, Topanga, and Eric—hop into a red Mustang convertible, relegating the parents, kid sister Morgan (Lindsay Ridgeway), and perennial mentor Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) to the figurative and literal rear-view mirror.
Leaving the family behind was a natural progression for the series, and further exemplifies the unique position BMW has in teen sitcom history. Saved By the Bell didn’t explore its characters’ home lives deeply, and the Facts Of Life girls began their series already living away from home, but BMW made the active decision to have its characters distance themselves from their parents as they aged. Hell, in season five Topanga even runs away after her mom and dad move to Pittsburgh, eventually moving in with her aunt so she can stay in Philadelphia with her friends for senior year.
When Boy Meets World finally ended on May 5, 2000, the series came as full-circle as it could without giving Cory a kid of his own (though he did think Topanga was pregnant earlier in the season). In “Brave New World: Part 2,” Cory is off to New York City, where Topanga will start an internship at a law firm. As he says goodbye to his little brother, Cory imparts some knowledge on the new baby boy of the family:
“When you’re not a little boy anymore, when the world taught you how to be this man, you know you’re still gonna make mistakes. But your family and your friends that you made along the way are gonna help you, okay? Even though it’ll seem like the world is going out of its way to teach you these hard lessons, you’re gonna realize that, you know, it’s the same world that’s given you your family and your friends, you know? And you’re going to come to believe that the world’s gonna protect you too.”
I still vividly remember sitting alone in front of our tiny living-room TV, embarrassingly wiping away the flood of tears streaming down my cheeks as these characters I’d grown up with went their separate ways, heading in directions where I and the rest of the audience couldn’t follow them. It was a touching way to send off not just the show but TGIF as a whole—the end of Boy Meets World also marked the end of the the original TGIF era. (Other Friday-night lineups have aired under the TGIF banner since, but none for longer than two seasons.) From its launch in 1989 with Full House, Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, and Just The Ten Of Us, to its final bow with BMW, The Hughleys, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and Making The Band, the Friday-night block of television raised a generation. Well, it at least helped raise me. And the night of the Boy Meets World finale, it sent us out into the world with a message from our favorite teacher, neighbor, and one-time college classmate, Mr. Feeny:
“Believe in yourselves,” he tells Cory, Topanga, Shawn, and Eric when they come to their old classroom to say goodbye. “Dream, try, do good.”
Boy Meets World and its sequel series Girl Meets World are available on Disney+.