#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?"