When Clarissa Explains It All first aired on Nickelodeon in 1991 it accomplished several firsts. For starters, it was the first television show starring a female protagonist on the network. It also marked a significant shift in terms of the network’s programming. Hey Dude had broadened the possibilities by becoming a live action hit, which let Nickelodeon explore options beyond cartoons, including Clarissa Explains It All, Salute Your Shorts and more.
Network execs had concerns about a female lead, worrying that it would ostracize male viewers, but the show quickly proved this wasn’t the case. Girls and boys tuned in to watch Clarissa (played by Melissa Joan Hart) get into and out of scrapes, learn lessons along the way, and look totally rad doing it all.
The narratives that children’s programming offered viewers throughout the 1990s spoke directly to the young audience. In one particular episode, Clarissa wants to make some money to buy a used Gremlin she finds in the paper, so she invests in a get rich quick scheme. She agrees to sell thousands of Christmas cards in July before realizing the fine print in the contract states she will owe one million dollars if she doesn’t sell every last one. It’s a hyperbolic scenario, sure, but it leads to talk of bankruptcy, house repossession and more. And Clarissa is only 12-years-old. Mind you, since Clarissa aired on Nickelodeon, it never wrapped up its story arc in an after-school special type of way. Still, the show’s underlying quirk and comedic tone allowed it to explore stories and issues related to its younger audiences, without dumbing those things down.
Nearly 25 years later, Girl Meets World begins airing on the Disney channel, and aimed to reboot the popular Boy Meets World sitcom, which began airing in 1993 as part of ABC’s TGIF line-up. Bringing back Cory and Topanga as parents, the show follows their daughter Riley (played by Rowan Blanchard). Like her father, Riley faces a confusing world filled with new lessons and formidable challenges as she comes into her own, transitioning from childhood to becoming a young woman.
Girl Meets World aims itself towards a similar audience, age-wise, as Clarissa’s: pre-teens who occupy that space in between childhood and full-fledged teenagedom, where identities are still forming, angst crackles beneath the surface, but hasn’t overwhelmed things yet a la My So-Called Life. It’s a space where elements like family and friends, school and life can be equal parts confusing and embarrassing.
Where Clarissa is a strong, independent girl at the ripe old age of 12 at the start of the series, Riley at 12 is still figuring things out. This is a good thing. For viewers at home who are still figuring out their place in the world Riley offers a compass of sorts onscreen, because her insecurities, quirks and mannerisms are a necessary addition to children’s programming. In today’s world, where identity has become a more fluid notion and things like self-confidence are never an overnight acquisition, her character has great potential to help viewers find their own voice.
Yet, aside from certain similarities in style and quirkiness, Girl Meets World has a troublesome tendency to obfuscate its point or make illogical, dramatic leaps forward in the narrative. In many ways, the show has this potential to be a strong cultural voice for its generation, but, as the first season revealed, it has a greater propensity to talk down to the audience rather than to them.
Season One certainly exhibited its fair share of bumps, as the show tried to navigate from the format that made its predecessor a hit to something more modern for the Disney age. More often than not, it failed. In spite the heartwarming friendship between Riley and her best friend Maya, the show oftentimes felt discombobulated. And unlike the beloved Boy Meets World, Girl Meets World doesn’t offer audiences nearly the same level of poignant or intricate narratives. Boy Meets World could be considered more of a family show aimed at a broader ABC audience, whereas the Disney Channel has a particular demographic not necessarily involving parents. With that in mind, the way Girl Meets World structures story arcs, dialogue and the like is unsurprisingly different. But different shouldn’t necessarily mean simplistic.
While Girl Meets World deals with pertinent issues to the contemporary generation (like excessive cell phones use, bullying, autism and first dates), it doesn’t do so with nearly the same heart or expectations on the part of the audience. It was disappointing to see it aim so low.
That changed significantly in Season Two, specifically with “Girl Meets Rileytown,” an episode that tackled cyber-bullying. Mind you, the fact that Riley has a cyber bully doesn’t become clear until the last third of the show (again an issue with how the show chooses to set up and unfold its narratives), but the entire episode seemed to gel in ways that aligned it closer with shows like Boy Meets World and especially Clarissa Explains It All. The dialogue dealt clearly and solemnly with the gravity of the situation, the pauses felt more like effective beats than clumsy gaps and the show’s potential finally reached its mark. Rather than allow her friends to stand up for her or her parents to get involved, Riley even took one step closer to Clarissa in influence: She stood up for herself (with the support of those around her).
It’s not that the show has to be serious to be effective, but by drawing on what made 1990s children’s’ programming meaningful and memorable, and borrowing from those aspects in order to reach today’s younger generation, something more interesting and impactful can happen.
Call it nostalgia, but for children who grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, television abounded with quirky, insightful programming directed at them. From Nickelodeon’s line-up, which included The Adventures of Pete and Pete and All That, to ABC’s TGIF line-up, which featured Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step and eventually Boy Meets the World, the point was to offer young viewers shows that helped them handle the world around them.
If network execs today feel that shows must pander to achieve high ratings, then Girl Meets World will likely go the way of so much other light-hearted and fluffy Disney fare. But young people deserve a show equal to their experiences, one that can be as fun and quirky as Clarissa Explains It All once was for its viewers, even as it dealt solemnly with issues of great import.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance writer specializing in comedy and music, and occasionally books and TV. Follow her on Twitter.