Rowan Blanchard, Sabrina Carpenter, Rider Strong, Ben Savage, August Maturo, Danielle Fishel in Girl Meets World
Editor's Note: Michael Jacobs is a writer and producer whose work has appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, television, and film. He's created and developed over fifteen television series, including "Boy Meets World" and the eagerly anticipated spin-off series, "Girl Meets World." Here, Michael joins his daughter, Rachel, along with original castmates Ben Savage (Cory Matthews), Danielle Fishel (Topanga Matthews, née Lawrence), and Rider Strong (Shawn Hunter) to discuss the show's evolution and the phenomenon of revisiting characters fourteen years down the line. "Girl Meets World" will premiere on the Disney Channel on June 27 at 9:45pm, before moving to its regular time slot starting July 11 at 8:30pm.
Word & Film: What was the impetus to revisit "Boy Meets World?" Why now?
Michael Jacobs: Disney called and asked for a new "Boy Meets World," which I would never do. They appreciated that, and asked if there was anything I'd do involving the show. So I thought about it, because they were very passionate about wanting to do it. I took a look around at what was on television, and I saw that there wasn't anything on that resembled that sort of storytelling. Fourteen years had passed since the end of "Boy." Cory and Topanga were married. They had moved to New York. There's a show there from the point of view of their children. Cory and Topanga would be young parents. Ben would be as confused a parent as he was a kid, balanced by Topanga's great strength. And then I thought about the kids. I thought it would be more interesting, perhaps, if they had a daughter. Like you.
W&F: Yeah, Ben told me he only wanted to do the show if the relationship was like you and me.
MJ: Yes, I've kept that in mind.
W&F: Well, certainly that'll make it a better show.
MJ: Yeah, thanks. The last element that made it click for me was that it's a rougher world, and everything that's happened in the last two decades would come into play. We get to see the original characters deal with the current world.
W&F: How do the original characters, in their later iterations, compare to who you thought they'd be when the show started twenty years ago?
Ben Savage: Cory is still the same sweet, neurotic, guy he's always been. He still wants things organized. He's still resistant to any and all change. And he still likes cake. The difference now is that Cory is a father to two children, whom he absolutely adores.
MJ: Based on his exposure to Topanga and his children, Cory has reached a forced maturity, which contends with his natural spirit. The opposite happened to Topanga. No matter how strong you are, children change you. We definitely have a changed Cory and Topanga, and I think the children have changed them for the better.
Cory's mantra was always confusion. He never understood the world. The pilot ended with Cory saying, "I don't understand anything." His evolution as a person was to understand one thing totally: If you can love another human being, no matter what the world, you risk everything and go after it. That was always Cory's great strength. That's evolved from wife to daughter and son. He loves his kids, but he has no idea how to raise them. The dichotomy here is that Cory received instruction from his father and mother, but he also had the added bonus of being in Mr. Feeny's class for every year he went to school.That rubbed off on him, and motivated him to become the teacher that he is.
BS: He takes his role as a father and mentor very seriously.
MJ: Feeny wasn't always Feeny. We came into his career after he was already established. What if Cory had to establish himself as a teacher? What if he made mistakes and what if he had great victories? He's learned how to be a husband, he doesn't quite know how to be a father, and he's learning to be a teacher. That's what we're exploring.
BS: As is the case with all parents, it's difficult for him seeing his kids grow up because he knows it's only a matter of time before they begin to question and explore the world around them, just as he did as a child. While he genuinely wants the best for his kids and their happiness is paramount to him, if it were up to Cory, his kids would never need or want to grow up. He knows the potential dangers that await his kids out in the real world. And he likes things just the way they are. I'm not a father myself yet, but I'm learning from Cory every day about what it means to be a parent.
W&F: After playing a role for so long, I imagine the character starts to become a part of you. Are these characters extensions of each of you? Where do you leave off and where do your characters start?
Danielle Fishel: I believe that a large part of the reason I am as independent and self-confident as I am is because I grew up portraying Topanga, who is the epitome of a "do-it-all" kind of girl. I think Topanga has influenced me more than Danielle has influenced her.
MJ: Topanga was always a creature of great strength. She has always had a deep belief in her ability to get through the world because she pursued the A in class and the A in life. She's a very funny, loving character in her new iteration.
DF: Topanga is definitely an extension of myself. I always say that she lives just right on the other side of my heart. The lines between the two of us have been blurred for decades.
MJ: Now she's a successful lawyer. There was never any doubt she was going to be a success. We started her off, in an early episode, as being on the wrong side of a case. And she knew she was on the wrong side of the case. This allowed us to call upon the original conception of her character, a hippie Earth mother, who comes back to instruct her current self how to behave.
Of the three of them, Shawn is the writer's delight because nothing good has ever happened to him. He has watched Cory and Topanga, and that has informed what he aspires to and has represented what he has never been able to achieve. He has lived a very different life. I once read an article where the writer wrote, "Don't aspire to Cory and Topanga, it will only bring you heartache. This relationship isn't achievable by human beings." I don't believe that. The aspiration to love must be chased and must be won.
W&F: Rider's role has changed for the new series. He's moved behind the camera.
MJ: Rider didn't want to revisit Shawn Hunter. He told me he keeps him locked in the cellar. Rider knows that nothing good will happen for Shawn. He was left by everybody. What happens to a personality like that? I think the way we solve it is to allow Shawn to find that moment of ascension just when he's abandoned the possibility of it. But Rider's moved away from acting. He's a filmmaker. A natural director. So well-versed in the understanding of story and how to communicate it. He'll be in front of the camera, but he'll be behind it, directing, as well.
Rider Strong: I'll be honest and say it has not been fun playing Shawn again. Going back to the show as a director is incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. But the acting is tough. As a child actor, there's a level of passivity to your own career: you don't really have your own opinions about what kind of characters you want to play, what kinds of projects you want to be involved in. Because, well, you're a kid, you don't know who you are yet. While I'm proud of "Boy Meets World" and the way that it has impacted people's lives, it doesn't necessarily feel like "mine" the way later projects do, projects I've pursued as an adult. I spent my twenties exploring new areas, both with my education and my creative endeavors. Overall, the progression has been away from acting. Consequently, jumping back into the same character feels like a regression rather than a continuation.
The battle for me is realizing that this is my issue, and mine alone. The fans of "Boy Meets World" don't care, nor should they. They're engrossed in an ongoing story, of which me and my fragile ego are just a small part. All right, that concludes today's lesson on Child Actor Therapy 101.
MJ: Since the announcement of "Girl Meets World," the "Boy Meets World" cast and crew has felt extraordinarily grateful. The response has been overwhelming. When "Boy Meets World" ended, the Internet didn't exist the way it does now. We never really knew what the show meant to people. We only had ratings information. I think the reason the show's received the way it has been is the characters. They're real. To put real characters in imaginary circumstances is a basic tenet of comedy. The audience relates to Cory as an Everyman and Topanga as his aspiration, the character that enabled him to fall in love. And it was always clear she loved him back. His confusion was attractive to her because she was never confused.
BS: It's been a lot of fun revisiting Cory again. Most of the writers and many of the crew members worked on the original series. And it's incredible to go to work every day and see so many familiar faces on set. Working on "Girl" is this journey into the past. I have a lot of déjà vu moments.
DF: It's felt surprisingly natural. It definitely felt like time had passed because I have personally grown up so much since I last played Topanga. I sort of just looked at my own growth individually and applied it to Topanga's life as if it were my own.
W&F: How have you changed in the time since the show ended?
DF: I've definitely matured. I've learned to never take anything for granted and that people are all works in progress. Some people are just actively working on progressing and some aren't. I always want to be a person who challenges herself to be a better person and spends her time giving rather than receiving. I think Topanga has always been that way and it just took me a little while longer to catch up to her. She obviously has children, while I do not, so I can only do my best to imagine what a loving, thoughtful, and caring mother Topanga would be.
RS: Shawn is a perpetually lost teenager. I actually maintain pretty stable relationships in my life.
MJ: One thing hasn't changed since "Boy Meets World." I still look at the world with the same belief system. I'm a funny optimist, which means I believe the best things will happen, but there's always a funny road to get there. The beginning and end of the story is never as interesting to me as the middle. All good television shows -- all good storytellers -- can come up with a beginning and an end. The struggle is the center.
When you have the added benefit of characters your audience already knows, the degree of difficulty is lessened because the audience trusts the characters. What I want though, is for the new audience to fall in love with Riley and Maya. The new characters are more difficult to write. We're attacking that difficulty and trying to give the audience a new rooting interest.
We had a reunion episode. It'll air this holiday season. The middle of that episode was the most important middle of any story of the year. There were two separate conflicts: One between Cory, Topanga, and Shawn. The other was between Riley and Maya. The true test of the series was seeing who the audience would root for. If the audience cared more for the original cast, we had lost the series. Thankfully, there was no question. The audience was rooting for the girls. When we saw the live audience -- an audience made up of "Boy Meets World" fans -- abandon their allegiances, in that instance, and root for the girls, we knew we had a series.
If anything would be in bold print here, it has to be this: To evolve original characters, while creating new ones to interact with those characters, is such a unique experience for a writer. You cannot, as an audience, compare the pilot, or the first couple of episodes, to an entire television series. It's an unfair comparison that won't benefit anybody. The show gets better, and will continue to get better, as the new characters grow and evolve. And just like you fell in love with Cory, Topanga, and Shawn, I think you'll fall in love with the new characters, too.
"Girl Meets World" will premiere on the Disney Channel on June 27 at 9:45pm before moving to its regular time slot starting July 11 at 8:30pm.