Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the first eight installments is adolescence.
“Who’s Afraid Of Cory Wolf?” (Boy Meets World, season 2, episode 6; 10/28/1994)
In which boy cries werewolf…
Erik Adams: When the on-camera talent of a television show is composed primarily of teens and preteens, the topic of puberty must inevitably be addressed. If not for the sake of realistically portraying the transition between youth and adulthood, then to acknowledge the fact that the stars are more or less growing up on camera; while most people’s adolescences are charted in embarrassing yearbook photos and the painful parting with childish things, the stars of shows like Boy Meets World have entire 24-episode seasons marking their development, leaving behind half-hour documents of growth spurts and steadily lowering voices.
There are ways to make a TV show around these changes, of course: Aging up the characters, for instance, or swapping out actors. Between the first and second seasons of Boy Meets World, the core cast—everykid Cory Matthews, his bad-boy best friend Shawn Hunter, and Cory’s eventual romantic interest, Topanga Lawrence—found itself transported from the friendly confines of a nameless middle school to the meaner, less-forgiving halls of John Adams High. But the series directly acknowledged the growth of its stars (and its target audience, the too-young-to-drive set parked in front of ABC’s TGIF lineup on a Friday night), as well, as seen in its second-season Halloween episode, “Who’s Afraid Of Cory Wolf?”
In a post-Twilight culture, the “puberty = supernatural powers” metaphor has been bled dry, but there was still some life in the beast when poor Ben Savage was made-up as the most unfortunate-looking primetime werewolf this side of Big Wolf On Campus. But Boy Meets World’s take on the subject matter boasts something more recent versions like The Secret Circle or MTV’s Teen Wolf lack: A sense of humor. Not the greatest sense of humor, sure—even the regular TGIF crowd would groan at the sight of Cory, convinced by a number of coincidences that he’s turning lycanthropic, lapping up his dinner from a doggie dish—but one that helps leaven the often scary, more frequently confusing process of turning into a new person overnight. It just so happens that Cory thinks the person he’s turning into is part-wolf.
Cory’s general befuddlement at the world outside his bedroom is one of the hallmarks of early Boy Meets World episodes, and it’s one of the elements that makes “Who’s Afraid Of Cory Wolf?” one of my favorite TV representations of adolescence. Beyond the monster-movie plot, the episode finds thematic grounding in the fact the grownups in Cory’s life are just as confused. Here, they’re also having temporary trouble separating fact from fiction: Following some expositional talk at the Matthews family breakfast table, a running gag involving diamond rings hidden in soda cans eventually snares even the typically levelheaded Mr. Feeny. More so than Cory’s fears about turning into a werewolf (and subsequently mauling—in one way or another—Topanga), the half-hour hinges on how the power of suggestion can present convenient explanations to mysteries set on either side of the adolescent divide. When you go to sleep a kid and wake up a hairy, sweaty mess of a teen, isn’t just easier to accept the fact that the creature that bit you in the backyard was a werewolf?
I was approaching my own awkward teen years the first time I saw this episode, so I’m curious to hear if this episode resonates with those of you watching it with fresh eyes. Does it focus too narrowly on the boy who might do the mauling while giving short shrift to the girl who might be mauled? And, finally, something to ponder, since we all survived our teen years: In the end, is adolescence as frightening as we adults make it out to be?
Donna Bowman: This Roundtable started with a show I never finished, has now moved to a show I’ve never seen at all, and next week I presume will present me with a show I’ve never heard of. (I will have my revenge. Wait a few weeks.) I was already out of the house and on my own by the time ABC debuted TGIF, so all those shows that played such major roles in the maturation of my younger co-workers are complete mysteries to me. What happens when you approach an episode like this with a clean slate?
For one thing, I can perceive that the analogy of a werewolf’s changes with male puberty was fresher, and I like going back to that time when it wasn’t something everyone in the audience had seen a million times. For another, there’s a sweetness to the way this show for tweeners approaches the messy, nasty, scary idea of sexual awakening. Some might experience it as squeamishness or fuzzy romanticism, but I suspect that these jumbled, seemingly random alterations in one’s self (Cory notes that he has acquired hair on his chin, chest, “and other places where I don’t see having hair on is going to help,” and he starts wondering “how cold the water is on Baywatch”) are close to the experience of boys this age.
But Erik, as you point out, I’ll never know. The show’s called Boy Meets World so maybe it’s unfair to ask for a little attention to the distaff side, but its use of the werewolf metaphor raises the bigger issue: What’s the mythological framework for female puberty? We’ve got Carrie, I guess, but without dipping pretty far back into our Brothers Grimm, could we come up with an archetype that’s readily available for use on family sitcoms? We can gently poke fun at the emergence of an uncontrollable male appetite, while relegating a girl going through her changes to the role of a sweet, virginal damsel taming the beast with a kiss; what does this look like if we go through the looking glass, and is there any folklore in our culture to help us along? It’s not a rhetorical question for me, since within the next few years I’m going to guide two kids, one of each gender, through this transition.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: Well, Donna, there is a famous issue of the Alan Moore Swamp Thing (titled, inevitably, “The Curse”) that equates lycanthropy with menstruation. But I digress.
It is a funny quirk of (accidental, I assume) timing that we’re looking at this episode following the return of Teen Wolf, a show that comes along after so many other shows have run this metaphor to ground that it goes beyond formula into a ritualistic, kabuki-like area, like the last wave of commercial Westerns that premièred back when Westerns were still a big part of the culture. As someone who thought he had cancer when he first started getting hair in places where it wasn’t going to help, I can relate to Cory’s problems, but the most interesting thing about the episode for me is contrasting his attitude with that of his girlfriend. His is expressed through a fantasy life that comes from horror movies (and from the music, fog-shrouded shots of the moon, and Phyllis Diller’s character’s name, the show is full of little references to the classic monster flicks that predate the hero’s existence by about 50 years—is the idea that he’d have soaked this stuff up, or are the writers trying to keep themselves amused?), while hers comes from fairy tales, though she feels the need to re-conceive the damsels in distress so that they’re better suited to a time when a lot of girls her age would rather identify with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. She also feels that she has the freedom to do just that, and that’s nice.
Noel Murray: I don’t know about folkloric, Donna, but the horror movie Ginger Snaps uses the werewolf myth well as a metaphor for female adolescence; and then of course there’s our beloved Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which tracks its heroines’ various coming-of-age moments via bits of supernaturalia.
Like my wife, I never watched Boy Meets World while it was airing, though I’ve seen the occasional episode at the gym in recent months, on ABC Family. (I tend to like to watch the simple little problem-plays while I’m on the treadmill, because I find that I stay on longer, just to see how everything’s going to turn out.) Most of the Boy Meets Worlds I’ve seen are from the later high school and college years, so it was interesting to see everyone looking so young here.
I have a lot of affection for these kinds of shows when they’re done well—and it’s clear to me from this episode that Boy Meets World was a lot smarter in its way than, say, Full House—because I’ve always been fascinated by TV’s version of childhood and adolescence. When I was in college, I was hooked on a Nickelodeon teen-soap called Fifteen (known as Hillside in its native Canada). I watched it with my roommates ostensibly for kitschy kicks, but as with every teen-oriented show or movie that I’ve consumed as an adult, I was also silently comparing Fifteen’s version of school and friendship and teen angst with my own experiences. So it went with Boy Meets World: I found myself noticing the Philadelphia references and the teacher-student relationships more than the puberty-as-lycanthropy.
I did find the show very snappy though: fast-paced, enjoyably un-pompous. But while I’m a staunch defender of multi-camera shows, I also grew up with Ben Savage’s older brother’s show The Wonder Years, so I did wonder how Boy Meets World would play as a single-camera sitcom. I actually think it would’ve been better: more like Malcolm In The Middle or Eerie, Indiana.
Ryan McGee: I’ll join the chorus of those watching this program for the first time, and to be frank, I wasn’t looking forward to this as anything other than an academic exercise. But lo and behold, this was a perfectly pleasant little episode. It’s one that treads in well-worn tropes but does so in a manner that pays homage to the confusion that surrounds puberty but also provides a safe domestic space for Cory to suffer such anxieties. As many of you have pointed out, as long as there are teenagers there will werewolf and vampire stories, since both key into issues surrounding uncontrollable desire and burgeoning sexuality. Those impulses only seem monstrous when they are mysterious. Afterwards… okay, they are still pretty monstrous. Good point.
Where I tended to really lock on, however, lay in Cory’s relationship with his older brother Eric. I shouldn’t admit this, but I felt a kinship with the way Eric tormented his younger sibling. Once, I told my 4-year-old brother that sometimes Santa Claus misjudged his landings and crashed through the rooms of little boys. For the next few years, he insisted on sleeping in my bed on December 24. My mom thought it was sweet. I knew that he was saying, “If I’m going out, I’m taking you with me.”
The other thing that struck me, and something I’d love to hear others touch upon: How removed from the TGIF Era are we, culturally speaking? TGIF has been replaced in some ways by ABC Family, but that’s a network that currently has fare such as Pretty Little Liars. Is it naïve to think the demographic that might watch an episode such as this would now find its lessons quaint, as opposed to comforting? Or am I having a “get off my lawn” moment?
(By the way, according to Wikipedia, (spoiler alert ahoy), Cory eventually marries Topanga. How freakin’ long was this show on for??? Also: Who names their daughter Topanga?)
EA: Answers to Ryan’s questions, even if they were rhetorical: The show lasted seven seasons, which is two or three seasons too long. It handled the transition between high school and college better than most series, but the early John Adams years are Boy Meets World’s best. As for the Philadelphia-area parents who named their kid after a California canyon: Topanga’s dad was originally a luthier played by former Monkee Peter Tork, who was later replaced by Michael McKean, who was then succeeded by Mark Harelik. See what I mean about two or three seasons too long?
RM: That’s incredible. I will add this to the book I am currently shopping: From Topanga To “Bazinga!”: A History Of Late-Era Multi-cam Comedies.
EA: The show’s certainly an interesting point in the decline of the multi-camera sitcom. It’s the last prominent TV item on the résumé’s of a lot of behind-the-scenes people—including creator Michael Jacobs, who probably made enough syndication money from Boy Meets World and Charles In Charge to buy his own island.
However, the end of the taped-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience era had no adverse effect on the career of the woman partially responsible for casting Boy Meets World. Allison Jones currently possesses the contact information and headshots for all of your favorite funny people, thanks to her work assembling the ensembles for Freaks And Geeks, Arrested Development, the American Office, Undeclared, Parks And Recreation, and many other shows and movies. Given her connection to Boy Meets World, it shocks me that William Daniels isn’t the guiding, paternal hand of the Apatowverse.
Todd VanDerWerff: I find myself wondering if the show actually is filmed before a live studio audience. There’s a canned quality to the laughter, but that could be an effect of editing chopping the real laughs down until they sound mechanical (which is something that can happen).
Boy Meets World has been getting a critical re-evaluation of sorts in recent years, from a fairly disparate group of critics. Some of that is because who grew up with the show are now writing thinkpieces about it on the Internet, but I’ve also seen critics older than that—critics who just missed out on the show’s heyday—holding it up as a fine example of a gentle comedy about being a teenager, sort of a Leave It To Beaver for the ’90s, only aged up a touch. I was never a huge fan of the program when it was airing, but I suspect that was just that I was slightly too old for it (it debuted when I was just finishing out middle school, and though its characters are roughly contemporaneous to me—Cory’s 13, and when this episode aired, I was too—most TGIF sitcoms were aimed at a younger age group). I don’t know that I’d rave about it, but that could just be that I haven’t seen every episode multiple times, the way you often need to to get into the rhythms of a show like this.
I think what I most liked about this episode was the way the kids were still feeling out their relationships with the adults in their lives. For some reason, I had remembered that the show’s “hook” was, “Oh God, I have to live next to my teacher?!” but the relationship between Cory and Mr. Feeny grew more nuanced with time, and I like the way he’s allowed to be a trusted advice-giver here, but not to monopolize the conversation, so only his point-of-view matters. It’s in keeping with how adults gradually let the kids in their lives figure out more and more of what they want to do and who they want to be.
PDN: My two cents on the great “Is it live?” debate is that, while I was watching it, I just assumed that it was filmed classic Paul Henning/Sherwood Schwartz style: no audience, camera hopping all over the place, and then with the robo-laugher brought in and cranked up to 11. Even if there was a studio audience, I’m pretty sure there’s not a trace of an organic response anywhere in that laugh track, and, for me, it made it a little hard to make it through the episode; it’s pretty assaultive. I’m curious: Does anybody who knows the TGIF lineup better than I do know if that was a key part of their house style?
Meredith Blake: Strangely, I also have a huge blind spot when it comes to Boy Meets World. Despite being an avid—you might say “unhealthy”—TV consumer all throughout my adolescence, this show almost entirely escaped my consciousness. The first time I can even remember thinking about it was during one summer in college: I lived with a horrible girl who, according to a rather snarky friend of mine, looked just like Topanga on Boy Meets World. (My response: “Who’s that? And what the hell kind of name is Topanga?”) I was about 13 when the show premièred, which would have made me just about the same age as the characters on the show. So why didn’t I watch it?
It occurs to me that most young television viewers gravitate to shows about people a few years older than them. As an elementary school student in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I used to hurry home and watch reruns of The Facts Of Life, which featured characters who were a good five years older than I was at the time; in middle school my favorite show was A Different World. Then there’s Beverly Hills 90210, a show about high schoolers which premièred when I was a sixth grader and stayed on the air until I was in my last year of college, and is now passionately beloved by people who are the same age as me, give or take a few years. Point being, I’d hazard a guess that most shows about adolescence, whether by design or not, are watched by people looking forward, with a mixture of excitement and dread, to puberty. (The same thing goes for magazines: I was reading Seventeen and YM and—sigh—Sassy well before anything in their pages applied to my life as a dweeby middle-schooler.)
And Donna, I love your question about the mythological framework for female adolescence. I am far from an expert in folklore but think the closest parallel to lycanthropy would be witchcraft or possession. Of course, there have been plenty of shows and movies—and at least one very famous play—about teenage witches, but has a sitcom or television show ever dared to explore the lighter side of demonic possession? I think I already know the answer to that question. It’s too bad that the views on female puberty are so extreme in either direction—either mushy “you’re a woman now” stuff or “burn her at the stake!” And while I’m on the subject, I have one last thing to point out: Notice how this episode and nearly every variation of the “teen wolf” myth is told from the point of view of the boy who looks in the mirror and sees a monster staring back at him. The whole experience is a drag, but it’s one that mostly affects the boy in question (no one else, except maybe the farmer down the road whose chickens keep disappearing overnight, seems to notice anything until the very last minute). The Exorcist, on the other hand, is told from the point of view of the people surrounding poor Regan. The takeaway: Being an adolescent boy kinda stinks, but being around an adolescent girl will majorly fuck up your life.
So I have gone wildly off-topic. About the show itself: I was pleasantly surprised by how witty the show is, and its refreshing lack of the third-act Danny Tanner “teachable moment.” I can see why so many people have a soft spot for it.
PDN: Hey! Roger Lococco’s in this!
PDN: So this kid had one of his teachers as a next-door neighbor? That’s weirder and more disturbing than anything in Twin Peaks.
EA: The Monkees (minus Mike Nesmith, of course) were to Boy Meets World what The Beach Boys were to Full House: Tork put in a pair of appearances as Jedediah Lawrence, Mickey Dolenz played an old friend of Mr. Matthews (he also directed a pair of episodes), and the late Davy Jones later popped up in a one-off guest shot as a pesky houseguest. Jones’ episode ends with The Pre-fab Three-Fourths covering “My Girl” and “Not Fade Away,” a performance that gets them “discovered” by none other than Partridge Family manager Reuben Kincaid. Sometimes, Boy Meets World behaved like a Nick At Nite programming bloc that was left out in the sun for a few hours, allowing the various tones, styles, and characters of vintage sitcoms to melt together into one show.
TV: I found myself wishing Cory’s dad’s shaking of the soda cans had been allowed to remain inexplicable, just something going on in the background of that scene.
MB: Erik, to your point about how shows have to address the changing bodies of their cast members: I still shudder when I think about how Ben Savage’s brother Fred transformed in the space of a single Wonder Years hiatus from an adorable tween to an awkward boy-man. He turned out just fine, as most of us do, but man, was that traumatizing.
TV: And we’ll have an episode of that show coming up in just a few weeks, so we can see first-hand just how cute the lil’ Fred Savage was. (That said, I’m always amazed to realize Boy Meets World ran for longer than The Wonder Years.)
Next week: Noel Murray guides us toward Mayberry for The Andy Griffith Show’s “Opie The Birdman.”
After that: Phil Dyess-Nugent gives us the adult perspective on dealing with the oddities of adolescence with The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Mary’s Delinquent.”