It's ironic that the pilot episode of “Girl Meets World,” the new Disney Channel spinoff of ABC's beloved '90s comedy “Boy Meets World,” focuses so much on young Riley Matthews' (Rowan Blanchard) adolescent identity crisis when you remember that “Boy Meets World” never quite figured out its own identity.
The show started as a silly middle-school farce, then evolved into a slightly cooler high school comedy with rewritten characters (Shaun Hunter was now more serious; Eric Matthews was suddenly a dolt) before shifting to a melodramatic, sentimental style centered on Cory and Topanga's (Ben Savage, Danielle Fishel) relationship and marriage. If Riley Matthews, Cory and Topanga's preteen daughter who's beginning to establish her independence on “Girl Meets World,” can establish more consistency than her dad's old series, she'll make it out OK.
Unfortunately, the premiere of “Girl Meets World” is a mess of incomprehensible kiddy comedy and “Full House”-type cloying moments. Though Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel are back in their old roles (with Cory now his daughter's teacher), they're merely shells of their former characters as they look their daughter in the eye and say things like, “Go ahead. Make this world yours” — as if the title “Girl Meets World” needs additional clarification.
Strangely, the show is aimed at a demographic younger than any age of “Boy Meets World” fan. The feel is pure Nickelodeon as Riley's rebellious best friend Maya starts a homework revolt and wacky classmate Farkle jumps on teacher Cory's back when the sprinkler system goes off. Maybe Riley and Maya just need a couple of episodes to settle in and let us believe in the power of their friendship, because right now they're just pleasant archetypes in perfect Kohl's catalog attire.
In fact, the only impressive moments in “Girl Meets World” occur when the show dares to feel nothing like its mothership series. Riley and Maya take the subway to school, and while they're on it, a saucy woman named Evelyn (played by sitcom legend Jackee Harry) hurls one-liners and complains about finding a seat. I'm saddened to report that Harry is billed as a special guest star, because every line out of her mouth is both hilarious and a breath of fresh air. “Best friends are important! I got a best friend!” she hollers at Riley and Maya, before muttering, “I'm not talkin' to her right now.” Those Emmy-winning “227” chops haven't softened a bit.
At the end of the episode, we did get a touching cameo from William Daniels as Mr. Feeny. The sincere tenderness of that moment gives me hope for the future of “Girl Meets World,” but for now the show needs to rein in its chaos and schmaltz if it wants a chance to develop a singular identity.