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The public first caught wind of a modern-day update of ’90s comedy Boy Meets World in November 2012 when the project, from original creators Michael Jacobs and April Kelly, was merely in development. Not surprisingly, Twitter reached a fever pitch. After all, it struck a nostalgia chord, so much so that rumors swirled about which original castmembers would return. (Quite a few, it would turn out, including Rider Strong, William Russ and Betsy Randle.) More than a year later, Disney Channel officially greenlighted Girl Meets World to series, this time centered on Cory and Topanga’s teen daughter, Riley Matthews (played by 12-year-old Rowan Blanchard), as she navigated life, school, friendships (with the “new Shawn,” Maya, played by 15-year-old Sabrina Carpenter) and romance in New York City. Her dad, Cory, would be her Mr. Feeny — literally — teaching history and serving as a wisdom-giver at John Quincy Adams Middle School.
There will be slight changes between Girl Meets World and Boy Meets World, the most obvious being the shift in protagonist, Cory and Topanga’s adult roles and a prime focus on technology. Storylines were clearly less tech-driven in the 1993-2000 sitcom; the arc of the second episode of Girl Meets World is driven entirely by cellphones and teens’ (and adults’) reliance on them.
For star Ben Savage (Cory), he believes now was the time for Girl Meets World, though he was aware of the risks of revisiting a universe so beloved to a certain generation. “Is it the right time? I don’t know,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter during a break in his dressing room on the downtown L.A. stages. “If it had been two years earlier, would it have been a bad thing? Who knows.”
But Savage, who also made his directing debut during the first season of the new show, posits that the 14-year gap was the right amount of time — not too far removed and not too soon. “It was good timing in everyone’s lives. A lot of kids who grew up with Boy Meets World are parents now,” he says. “Some of the most meaningful, special emails or messages or tweets that I’ve gotten have been from people saying, ‘I grew up with Boy Meets World and I can’t wait to watch this show with my own kids.’ It feels great to hear that.”
Why has Boy Meets World transcended?
Ben Savage: I think Boy Meets World tapped into something for a lot of young kids and a lot of teens at the time that it aired. It spoke to them and touched on important issues: family, love, relationships, going through awkward phases in high school. They grew up with us. They’ve stayed loyal to us, and we’ve tried to stayed loyal to them. We have great fans who have stuck with us this whole time, and I think they’re really excited to see what we’re up to now.
Danielle Fishel: We certainly weren’t the only show that managed to be funny and engaging and relatable but never talk down to the audience. There have only been a handful of those that I can think of that aren’t super-cheesy or sappy or way too kid-friendly. Boy Meets World was special in that way. I think that’s what people held on to. When people watched the shows years later as adults, they got new messages and new life lessons they didn’t pick up the first time around. I think people like that. There’s a nostalgia feeling, like you can revisit your childhood, and there’s a comfort and safety there without feeling like you’re watching a kids’ show, per se.
What has been the most outrageous fan response after the initial news of Girl Meets World came out?
Savage: I don’t know if it’s one thing in particular, but the fact that people grew up with the show and they have their own families [now]. That’s really special to us. You forget — we’re in L.A. and we’re working — that the show had such an important impact on people. I’m not saying it’s the most important thing, but in this life and in this world, if you can have any sort of positive influence on someone’s life, it means a lot — even if it’s to make them laugh for a few minutes every day.
Was there any hesitation about reprising your role?
Fishel: I can’t say there were any hesitations. I would have been hesitant if Ben wasn’t coming back, and they were going to try and do something with just one of us, or if Michael Jacobs wasn’t going to be involved. I would have then been concerned that this kind of show could have fallen into the hands of somebody that didn’t know the original intention or that it could have been misconstrued or done in a way that we wouldn’t have been proud of. But the people at Disney, Michael, Ben and I knew exactly what the message should be, and what the goal was going to be and why this was an important show to bring back.
In Girl Meets World, Cory and Topanga are married. What does that look like?
Fishel: Cory and Topanga have obviously matured. If you look back at some of the old episodes and envisioned what they would look like as parents, I don’t think people are going to be shocked by what they find [on the new show]. The world is completely different now than it was in the ’90s, so we’ve had to adjust our storylines and what kids are really dealing with. It’s vastly different than what we were dealing with in the ’90s.
Savage: As kids, we grow up thinking our parents are perfect and flawless — well, some of us — but they’re trying to do the best they can. What I’m most proud of about Girl Meets World is that it’s going to appeal to all different demographics. Obviously it’s going to appeal to the Disney fans, but I think we’re going to bring in a much bigger audience: parents that grew up with Boy Meets World, younger parents who are dealing with the trials and tribulations that younger parents go through. It’s Cory and Topanga doing the best they can, trying to figure it out — and I will say that I think they’re pretty hip parents; they’re on the cooler end of parenting.
Who’s cooler as a parent: Cory or Topanga?
Savage: Cory is definitely still Cory Matthews, which is the farthest thing from cool. But he’s a very loving father, and he tries the best he can, and he tries to be hip, but he usually comes up a little short.
Is Cory on his way to becoming his father?
Savage: No. Alan was pretty cool. Cory’s his own little entity of a neurotic, funny, sweet, sincere roller coaster. Topanga is definitely the more centered, firm authority in the house. But that’s OK.
Is Topanga 14 years later what you envisioned she’d be like?
Fishel: I think so. Topanga’s a lawyer. She went to law school when the show ended in 2000. Maybe something that’s a little bit different is having kids really changed her.
How much of a say did you have in the casting of Cory’s daughter, Riley?
Savage: It was a very big deal. We spent months and months trying to make sure we got the perfect daughter that would take over the reins. And I think we found a girl who’s like Cory. She’s a young Cory Matthews. She’s goofy, and awkward, and sweet, and adorable, and endearing. You watch Rowan and you want to see what happens on her journey. Hopefully our fans will too.
Fishel: Ben and I were able to be involved in casting, which was important to us because we know the characters so well. We know the kind of kids we wanted to not only represent Cory and Topanga’s children, but the kind of kids we want to work with every single day. We wanted our kids to be a good mix of what Cory and Topanga were. We looked for kids that we thought shared the quirky sides of our personality.
Rowan Blanchard said she had an inkling she had the role of Riley midway through the process. Did you know instantly?
Fishel: Michael had seen her before we saw her in the audition. He wouldn’t tell us her name — we were also meeting a lot of other girls — because he didn’t want us to feel biased toward her because he already liked her. So he said, “I just want you to know there’s a girl who I think is fantastic, and I think you guys are going to love her.” After meeting all the girls that were final contenders, Rowan did stand out to us. She was naturally funny and very engaging.
What was it like playing out those scenes with Rowan? Did you have a moment: “This is our new TV family now?”
Savage: I thought it would be a little weirder than it was, but it fell into place. We’d been rehearsing for so long, and talking for so long, and meeting for so long, and strategizing that by the time we shot our pilot [last] March, we were so ready. That being said, it’s weirder as time goes by. I have little tiny moments of realization where it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is my daughter.” The kids and I spend time together outside of work. We’ll go bowling, or we’ll go to dinner, and it’s weird because I’m their [fake] parent.
Mr. Feeny is among the familiar faces making cameos.
Savage: I don’t think Boy Meets World fans are going to be disappointed. I know that there’s a lot of reservations from Boy Meets World fans that the show is not going to be how it was and it’s going to ruin their childhood memories. That’s not true. This is Girl Meets World; it’s a different show, it’s speaking to a young generation. However, we’ve got a lot of the same cast, we’ve got the same writers, we’ve got the same producers, we have the same messages that we want to get out.
What was your biggest challenge revisiting a role you last played more than a decade ago?
Savage: It hasn’t been challenging because Cory Matthews is always written to me — to Ben. I always looked at whatever Cory was going through, I was going through. In a way now, Cory has surpassed Ben.
Will there will be Easter eggs viewers who watched Boy Meets World will pick up?
Savage: I’m the girls’ history teacher. So, it is a passing of the torch. Mr. Feeny was our teacher. I’m definitely not Mr. Feeny. I’m definitely Cory Matthews trying to emulate Mr. Feeny.
Fishel: Definitely. They will not be right smack in your face. You’re going to have to have been a fan and paying close attention to pick up on some of them. There are definitely some nods back to the older characters, to different storylines, to different times. Ben and I reminisce about the show the same way Cory and Topanga do.
Any words of wisdom Cory will be doling out?
Savage: There are words of wisdom, but they’re Cory-isms. Mr. Feeny was so wise and so knowledgeable, and he always had something beautiful to say. Cory is more going on this journey with the kids. I think he’s eager to teach them and impart wisdom — which I don’t even know if he has yet.
Has there been a moment of deja vu for you?
Fishel: [Old castmembers like Will Friedle and Rider Strong] come to visit and watch us tape shows. They love to see how it’s progressing. They’re happy for us and they want to be as supportive as they can.
Going back to Boy Meets World, is there a moment or episode you remember fondly?
Savage: That was my life — it was my childhood. I remember every episode. What do I take away from that show? We had a ball. We just had so much fun. We didn’t stop laughing from the second we got to set until the second we left. Episode-wise, I remember the pilot because I was 11 and we filmed super late that night — I think we filmed until 12 or 12:30 a.m. — and I thought it was a cool thing to be staying up that late. And the last episode sticks with me because, personally, it was not just the end of the show but it was almost the end of my childhood. It’s very hard for people to pinpoint an exact moment in their life where it’s like, “OK, I’m now becoming an adult,” but for me, it really was the second they said “cut” on that last take of that last scene of that last episode. I remember feeling like, “Oh my gosh, it’s literally over, and now this whole new chapter of your life opens up.” It was scary and exciting. Now here I am.
Fishel: For me it was the very first episode I did, which was the fourth or fifth episode of the first season. Every single thing about that week stands out to me so clearly. It was so much excitement. That was when [Ben and I] had our first kiss — up against the lockers, which now is an iconic image of him with his hair standing up and his frozen face. That whole week, that whole episode is my favorite.
Girl Meets World premieres Friday at 9:45 p.m. on Disney Channel.
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