Wednesday, December 21, 2016

20 Greatest Meets World Characters: #17. Harley Keiner

#17. Harley Keiner




Played By: Danny McNulty (1994-1995, 2014-2017), Kenny Johnston (1995)
Episode Count: 15 (9- BMW, 6- GMW)
Role: John Adams bully, John Quincy Adams janitor
Signature Episodes: Back 2 School, Sister Theresa, Cyrano, He Said She Said, Girl Meets Flaws, Girl Meets Rules

Much like Minkus, Harley is a character that helps define a single season of Boy Meets World, but plays basically no role in any others. More than any other character besides Cory himself, the Season 2 premiere (one of the best episodes of that entire season) is largely defined by Harley, setting the stage for the big role he'll play in the season to come. It's a testament to how well he's established in that premiere that when we see Turner stand up to him at the end of the episode, we're genuinely impressed. Here's a guy we've known for less than 30 minutes, who's being taken to task by someone with obvious authority over him, who's also clearly bigger and stronger than Harley is, and yet his being cowed by him makes us go like "Whoa, Harley's intimidated by you?" It's a great scene for Turner, but actually says more about what a good job they'd done with Harley in that premiere.

Adding to that first paragraph, Harley presents a world for Cory to grow into. This setting existed before our story got there, and it exists and functions off camera when the main characters are doing other things. Harley shows us that this world is bigger than the protagonists. In contrast, I'm convinced JQA High would just cancel all classes if Riley were to stay home sick. 

A flat-out villain in a show that doesn't really have any others, Harley is bombastic and larger than life. The mere mention of his name sends chills down character's spines, and he takes over the energy of a space simply by walking into the room. There is probably no other character on this list of which this is true - if Harley Keiner is in a scene, that scene becomes about Harley Keiner, because he demands it become about him. Cory and Shawn can't just continue their conversation, they now need to deal with the fact that Harley's here and the scene's energy changes accordingly. That's a big impact for a recurring character to have. 

And as a villain, he's also fairly unique. School bullies are a dime a dozen on TV shows, and while Harley is eventually presented with moments of humanity that causes us to look at him in a sympathetic light (Sister Theresa remains his best episode), that's also not unheard of. It's the way he's a bully that I always liked. In real life you might expect him to be crass, vulgar, and violent. But, he's not. Instead, he speaks with exaggerated elegance and a terrifying politeness. He doesn't have to actually beat the shit out of you, because he'll calmly explain his plan to do so and you'll give him what he wants to avoid it. The faux sophistication is all bluster, of course. Guys like Harley are usually pretty dumb, and Harley's no exception, so beneath the flowery prose there's always the sense that this is is a put-on, an attempt to portray class where class doesn't exist, and it usually seems like he barely understands the words he's saying himself. 

It's a fun mixture of quirks that always made Harley pop onscreen - and it very much comes down to McNulty's performance. The one episode Kenny Johnston is just... weird. Harley loses all of that and just seems like a piece of shit. It's probably a more realistic example of how a bully would act, and Johnston's performance is actually not bad, but it's just... not Harley. It's not Harley at all.

When Harley leaves near the end of Season 2, it really becomes a different show. He helped flesh out the world of John Adams, and without the scope of his villainy, it starts sort of feeling like a school that only a small handful of self-involved kids attend. Still, it also felt like his time was over and that he'd served his purpose of being the personification of what's scary about high school. Cory and Shawn were getting older and more confident, and it was starting to become clear even to them that Harley was ultimately small potatoes who they were more than capable of outwitting, so it was time to move on. Even in the episode featuring his return in Season 3 (another great episode) Cory and Shawn don't have much to do with him, because they no longer seem like the Cory and Shawn who'd care much about him.

It may seem surprising that I'm the one writing about Harley, considering I was pretty vocal in not really digging his reappearance in Girl Meets World. A lot of this was because of Danny McNulty's atrophied acting skills (which improved as time went on, in fairness) but it was also because Harley seemed a really odd choice to bring back into Cory's world when people like Eric, Alan, Amy, Jack, and Angela either hadn't yet appeared or hadn't appeared much. And this is still true. But, he did appear, and it's helped further cement him in the lore of this show by making him such a large part of Girl Meets World. While this show has featured other teachers than Cory - a professorial science teacher, two different inspiring art teachers for Maya and, most significantly, Harper the Turner Clone - Harley's the only one of much significance. His demeanor, tone, and life experience is vastly different than Cory, and so he shares a perspective that Cory can't, and although Girl Meets Flaws isn't a good episode, his role in it was important. I'm still not entirely convinced that the show ultimately justified his recurring role, but it's certainly helped add to Harley's significance.

As a side not, some may be surprised he made the list while the more likable Griff and the longer-lasting Frankie and Joey (spoiler alert) did not, but the reason is that despite the fleshing out that they (especially Frankie) received, ultimately their significance on the show comes back to Harley himself. They're Harley's replacement or lackeys first, and their own characters second.

I wanted to toss in this line from Harley's final scene, in Girl Meets Legacy: "I respect a nice place where good decisions get made. It's gettin a little... worn down... a little old, as time goes by... but aren't we all?"

28 comments:

  1. I cannot agree more with this.And though I'm not happy with not -seeing- Cory 'be that good kid' for Harley; it's been stated numerously on GMW that he was that; usually as an example to Maya.

    Which is really why I see Maya as less of a generation Xerox as Shawn, and more one as Harley, except one who -had- found her good kid when still young.

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  2. This is Cryptid.

    While I am slightly disappointed to see Frankie not make the cut (my own biases are largely at hand here--there's something to be said for actually seeing a bully become a friend), I love Harley Keiner and fully agree that he belongs on this list.

    Harley's role in world-building is very pronounced. As Christian put it "without the scope of his villainy, it starts sort of feeling like a school that only a small handful of self-involved kids attend."

    Harley did for Cory and Shawn (though surprisingly not Topanga--did they ever interact?) what Turner did to Feeny. Gave them a foil, for reasons that vary, and the show is forever better for it.

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    1. This is where my problem with Topanga in Season 2 comes in. With the exception of I think one episode (the year 8 election episode; can't remember the name), she only ever seemed to appear when it was to promote the Cory/Topanga thing they wanted to build towards.

      On the other hand, a lot of physical bullies, especially back in the '90s, would be leery of picking on a girl, because the punishments were worse. Or because their code of honor forbade 'hitting a girl'.

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    2. Yeah it's hard not to love Frankie, and he does have a tiny little character arc, but that arc doesn't really affect Cory or Shawn, it's just something they sort of did one time.

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    3. Oh yeah, I can't even envision a scenario where Harley's gang would pick on Topanga. Obviously a lot of it is just that she's a girl, but Topanga's just also not an easy target. I feel like if they tried to intimidate her she'd just start scolding them and they'd wind up apologizing.

      But it's weird how much Topanga and Harley's gang seem to belong to different Boy Meets Worlds. The only story I can recall where their paths intertwined is "Wake Up, Little Cory" and every time Joey says "Did you sleep with Topanga?" I think a notice that Joey even saying the word 'Topanga' sounds odd.

      Looking into it, half of Harley's episodes, Topanga is indeed not even in.

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    4. She's technically a cast member in Season 2, but Danielle really does still function as a recurring character that season. She misses a whopping 10 episodes.

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    5. Yeah, I agree with Sean's take. I certainly *like* Frankie more than I like Harley. In fact, of Harley, Frankie, Joey, and Griff, Harley is by far my least favorite - Frankie's much more sympathetic, and Joey and Griff are much more fun. But Harley's the only one with a real connection to the narrative as a whole. Frankie does have a couple of nice episodes that give him an arc, but then, like, Corinna has an episode where she gets a character arc.

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    6. Yeah; watching it with the knowledge of what's happening, I am convinced they knew they wanted Topanga to be Cory's girlfriend; so they made her regular - and every time she turned up; they pushed that agenda.

      Not sure if they knew they wanted to be his serious, end-game girlfriend though.

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    7. It may have been too early for "endgame" to be on their minds. I doubt they had any expectation they'd wind up married or anything by that point.

      But it was weird, when Topanga was around, they did push Cory/Topanga, but when she wasn't, they'd almost forget about her entirely, suddenly pairing Cory with T.K. or Wendy or whomever else.

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    8. Topanga feels more like a main cast member in season 1 than she does in season 2

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    9. Which is why I wouldn't have had them actually date in season 3. I would have Season be Cory dating around; Season 3 dating around, but slowly realising that he really liked Topanga. But then, that's with the benefit of hindsight.

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    10. Cryptid here

      I would argue that Season 2 is where Cory dated around. There was T.K. who kind of vanished into thin air...and though it isn't particularly often that I think about it, I do wonder what became of here.

      There was also Wendy, whom I was rather fond of, with her sweet-natured mother-henning.

      There was Ingrid, who gave us a great example in what NOT to look for in a high school relationship.

      And then there was Topanga. Fischel might not have been in many episodes, but there was some build-up. "Wake-Up Little Cory" is significant because it shows the darker side of high school relationships, and it shows us that Cory cares deeply for Topanga's friendship.

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    11. I agree; my point was that when Topanga is in an episode in Season 2; they push at Cory/Topanga quite significantly. I'd be happier if she was in an episode where Cory was actually seen dating/trying to date someone else; makes it more fluid.

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    12. This is Cryptid.

      "Obviously a lot of it is just that she's a girl, but Topanga's just also not an easy target. I feel like if they tried to intimidate her she'd just start scolding them and they'd wind up apologizing."

      Funnily enough, the only time I think Topanga interacts with Harley or any of his crew directly is when she thumps Frankie upside the head for turning away the band in "Rave On."'

      Indeed, not the type of person Harley would bully.

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    13. I remember that too. Especially as that was when Frankie was still very much the 'big, mean bully' phase; this was hilarious. As her father was still in his hippie-portrayal, I think the intent was less to show how intimidating Topanga could be; and more to showcase the attachment between her and Cory, that she'd be violent, something she was opposed to, for him.

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  3. It boggles my mind that Harley was only in 9 episodes of BMW.

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    1. That's why his presence is so great, Less than 10 episodes and he is by far one of the most memorable figures.

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    2. And really it's only 8 episodes of "real" Harley which makes it even crazier, and one of those 8 is in season 3. So really there's just 7 episodes of Danny Mcnulty as Harley in season 2, which is crazy to me

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    3. Danny's last episode of Season 2 is actually Episode 13 too. Which actually makes sense. TV shows (like BMW) that weren't bona-fide hits, especially back then, usually filmed just the first 13 episodes of a season, and then stopped for a while while the network considered their performance and would decide whether or not do a "back 9" which would take it to a full 22 episode season. Which is why most seasons you'll see on network TV are either 13 or 22 episodes.

      Danny was presumably on board for the first 13 episodes, then there would have been some time off, and by the time they came back to do their back 9, Danny was gone - it seems due to struggles with substances. They tried to do without him for a bit, then they tried to replace him, and then just decided to scrap Harley and bring on Griff. Then by Season 3 they decided they didn't really need bullies anymore.

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  4. He had a breakdown. He's bipolar. As I understand it, it happened while working on the episode and that's why they brought in the other guy, because it was too late to change the script.

    He's great, but Frankie is one of my favorite characters period. Possibly just because his dad is my second favorite pro wrestler of all time.

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  5. Reaching back for this post. But I was just was thinking about how odd it was that, in successive GMW episodes, his occupation was framed as a noble and unjustly overlooked endeavour, and then as a kind of contrapasso.

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    1. Milestones!

      What really frustrated me about Harley's arc in GMW in particular, is this 'Cory was his good kid' thing. Whilst I liked the fact that briefly they broke away from the Maya was Shawn Jr role, and cast her in a much more fitting, I felt, role in Maya is a Harley that found her good side, I really despised the fact that... Cory was never Harley's good kid.

      Okay, yes, in a single episode, the episode Cory was dating his sister, they did seem to lean that way briefly. But in the following episodes, he's back to bullying Cory, and if Cory made him see the light at all, it was after both of them were graduated. If they really wanted to do this, Frankie was a much better fit for it. Now, maybe the actor behind Frankie wasn't interested; whilst the actor behind Harley was, but that doesn't make this storyline make better sense.

      Just leave out the 'Cory was my good kid' thing. It's not true. Just say that Cory helped him see the light, then you can successfully argue that this was a thing that happened after the series, because they're no longer kids.

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    2. Hi Will, yeah, that was another about this character in GMW. I liked Rules a bit more that a lot people, but, even though I hadn't at that time watched any BMW, that "good kid" stuff rang hollow.

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    3. This is way, way late, but that is a bit of an interesting point. Janitor Harley really only does his job in "Meets the Forgotten," but then again, there have been a couple of other shows, some oriented towards kids and some for adults, where the janitor did very little cleaning that I can recall.

      I only saw the first season of Scrubs, but I don't remember their janitor doing much cleaning.

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    4. What's more, they set up why he isn't seen to do his job again, with his 'ninja vs showman' speech.

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    5. Maybe he was too busy tracking all those good decisions being made on the bench commemorated in Legacy.

      In any event, it's hard to imagine that "more mopping" would have ranked high on anybody's wish list for the series. Though it could fit in as part of a general, adult complaint.

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    6. If it's more mopping and less triangle; especially if it's more mopping with Harley giving life lessons about not being a bad kid; you never know.

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    7. Will, that's funny. Yeah, if it's a swap, I'm sure everybody could point to stuff to which they would have preferred a display of janitorial chores.

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