This is mostly an excuse for me to talk about the only show that successfully imitated Friends. You may remember how in the mid-to-late ’90s, the networks were clogged with Friends clones and shows that retooled themselves to be more like Friends. The glut of wanna-be Friends nearly killed off the multi-camera sitcom. But what most of us didn’t notice at the time was that there was one show, and probably only one, that patterned itself after Friends. And that was Boy Meets World. Yeah, Fred Savage’s brother, Topanga, Boy Meets World. Let me explain:
Around 1996, ABC’s once-mighty TGIF lineup was experiencing declining ratings, partially due, perhaps, to the rise of the WB and UPN, two youth-oriented new networks who siphoned off some younger viewers from ABC. Many old favourites were cancelled (some of them, like Family Matters, were exiled to another network). In that atmosphere, you wouldn’t have expected Boy Meets World, a whimsical comedy about a kid learning life lessons, to survive. But Michael Jacobs came up with a surprising and frankly kind of nutty move: he re-vamped the show as Friends for kids. Friends Jr., basically.
So as the show became more Friends-ified, Cory (Ben Savage) and his girlfriend Topanga (Danielle Fischel) became the show’s Ross and Rachel, constantly breaking up and getting back together again. Cory’s best pal Shawn (Rider Strong) was given his own on-again, off-again romance, with the new character of Angela (Trina McGee), bringing the show some praise because it presented an interracial romance without comment or controversy. Matthew Lawrence, Joey’s brother, was added to the cast as Shawn’s previously unmentioned half-brother, to create a Joey-Chandler dynamic with doofus brother Eric (Will Friedle). A new apartment set was built that looked kind of like a low-budget version of the Friends apartment. And the whole thing was topped off with a new, very Friends-ly theme song. The show was still recognizably itself; the characters still learned lessons in every episode and Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) remained awesome, and actually the show became rather soapy and serious at times, leading to a weird combination of surreal humour with Friends-like banter with soap-opera angst with Jacobs’ culturally conservative messages (Jacobs is one of a smallish number of devoutly-observant Jewish writers in Hollywood; others are Etan Cohen and David Sacks). But it worked; the show lasted until 2000, after most all of the other TGIF shows had gone.
I don’t know much about Jacobs, though I like his stuff — he does “family” shows that are quite smart and engaging, and is good with actors. Andrew Nicholls, who worked for Jacobs on a flop TGIF sitcom called You Wish (from the year when TGIF insisted that all its new shows had to be supernatural comedies like Sabrina) portrayed him as “an intent workaholic” with a habit of taking some of the best jokes out of the script so that he could put them back in again and “save” the script at the table read. He’s also known for his marathon notes sessions, sometimes lasting two hours. He definitely takes family comedy very seriously, and even Nicholls notes that some of Jacobs’ longtime writers considered him a genius.
A couple of excerpts plucked randomly off YouTube:
This first is from the final season, where frankly the show was running out of steam (William Daniels wasn’t appearing much and most of the episodes were more soap opera than comedy), but this one, the episode right before the wedding episode, was one of the funnier ones. By the way, when the Disney Channel shows this, the entire middle section of this clip is censored. And this is my problem with the Disney Channel in a nutshell: if Boy Meets World is too racy for you, you’re heading for a state of terminal blandness.
And because William Daniels didn’t appear in that last clip, here’s the end of an episode from the fifth season, written by Barbie Feldman (Arrested Development) that becomes a byzantine series of in-jokes as Eric gets a job on “Kid Gets Acquainted With Universe.”