#5. Alan Matthews
Played By: William Russ (1993-2000, 2014, 2017)
Episode Count: 132 (130- BMW, 2- GMW)
Role: Matthews family patriarch
Signature Episodes: On the Fence, Father Knows Less, The Father/Son Game, Kid Gloves, Career Day, Stormy Weather, You Can Go Home Again, I Ain't Gonna Spray Lettuce No More, Wheels, Security Guy, Raging Cory, Better than the Average Cory, Cutting the Cord, The Honeymoon is Over, Pickett Fences, I'm Gonna Be Like You Dad
Where to even start? Genius though my other posts undoubtedly were, I must confess I never really gave them all that much though. We gave the rankings themselves plenty of thought, and ample discussion, so I basically just kind of restated my explanations and reasonings and could crack them out in 10-15 minutes. But now we're looking at the Big Five, not just the greatest five characters in the Meets World universe, but also the five who mean the most to me. They're great for so many reasons, with so many examples I could share, that I confess I'm a little intimidated for the three it's my responsibility to write about. Especially since, as in the case of Alan, I'm also tasked with explaining why I didn't rank him higher.
Sean and I have both waxed endlessly about how Alan is the perfect TV dad. He existed in the age of '90s sitcom dads in which all fathers were some degree of oafish. Benign idiots (usually fat, but with far hotter wives) who were prone to laziness, comical pratfalls and bad, out-of-touch advice. If there's any competent help or advice to come from the parents in these shows, it generally comes from the mother. I've read articles on this phenomenon in the past, and most sources seem to point to Homer Simpson as who really popularized this trope, but from Al Bundy to Danny Tanner to Tim Taylor to Carl Winslow it really affects just about everyone. It didn't use to be the way the world worked, TV fathers of the '60s, '70s, and early '80s were often almost preternaturally wise, and it's thought that the instinct to avert that trope caused another one to come to light.
Whatever the genesis of it, Alan Matthews isn't having any of that. Alan feels like a real dad, he works hard, he gives great advice, he cares deeply for his children, and he scares the shit out of them when they're in trouble. He's not perfect, by any means. He makes mistakes and his first instinct isn't always correct. Sometimes he even mistreats his children and needs to be told by Amy or even them that he's doing so. But he always means well, and if he does screw up, he corrects it right away. Sure, he's sometimes a little oafish, and sometimes a little out-of-touch. Dads are like that sometimes. But I don't know any fathers who are defined by that. Mine certainly wasn't. My father (and I think most) chart a course like Alan does: day-to-day he's less likely to nag you about little things like picking up your room or doing your homework, but if you really get in trouble, he's who you have to deal with, and you're not going to like it. That was exactly the dynamic Alan had with Eric and Cory, and it really felt true. Sean's fond of Eric's quote from "Uncle Daddy": "You think he likes yelling at us all the time? He doesn't. He hates it." and it is a good one. But another part I like from that episode is the little B-Story he has with Cory, because it feels really real. Cory gets in trouble for Alan running out of gas because he didn't fill up the tank. Later, the reverse happens, Alan forgot to fill up the gas tank and Cory ran out of gas. When Cory complains about the hypocrisy (a valid complaint) is Alan embarrassed? Contrite? Does he resolve never to punish Cory like that again like Danny Tanner probably would have? No. He gives a mocking apology and eventually gets annoyed that Cory's even complaining about this. And that also feels like a real dad thing to do, even if it's annoying. By show of hands, how many of you ever tried to point out how it's unfair that your parent doesn't get in trouble for something you get in trouble for? And how many ever got anywhere with that argument?
And because William Russ is a trained actor, not a stand-up comedian turned actor like most TV sitcom dads of the era, he feels that much more like a real guy. There's a salt-of-the-earth nature to his performance, where I just really believe this is a real guy, more than perhaps everyone else. For a sitcom dad (particularly on a sitcom that focused primarily on the children, as opposed to something like Home Improvement or Everybody Loves Raymond that focused more on the adults) he has a remarkably rich backstory. He grew up poor and was in trouble a lot, much like Shawn, and given the time period never wound up going to college, instead going to the Navy where he was an amateur boxer. After he got out of the navy, he had big dreams, but wound up starting a family fairly young, taking a job at a grocery store to make ends meet, and somehow time got away from him and it took him until his 40s to figure out what those dreams were. It's a beautifully real backstory, and helps us truly feel like I know him.
And because we know him so well, it breaks our heart in episodes where unthinkingly selfish Cory and Eric do things that make him feel like he's not good enough. When I see him watch home videos of Cory after they've fought, or when Cory tells his father he's not special because of him, or when they blow off the baseball game he's all excited for, I absolutely ache for him. Especially for him. When Cory or Eric get upset, they're going to cry and moan and tell you how upset they are. But Alan's a grown-up from a different generation, and he doesn't get to do it. Instead he suffers silently and stoically, and it's so compelling because of William Russ. Conversely, when he tells Eric and Cory that he's proud of them, it feels so real that, by God, you feel like you you did something. I feel, without a doubt, he's the best actor on this show - and this is a show with William Daniels on it.
What I find just as compelling is the wonderful specificity of his relationships with his very different sons. Most TV fathers treat all their children the same, and treating children equally is generally seen as the "right" thing to do. But parents are human, and can't do that. And, anyway, Eric and Cory (and I know Alan has two other children, but obviously his relationships with them were far less focused on) are very different and act differently. He's more of a buddy to Eric, who like him is a bit more outdoorsy than Cory and is also, let's face it, more fun, and thus they're generally closer. But he also has trouble taking Eric seriously and can't quite shake the perception that he can't take care of himself and needs Alan to take care of things for him. His relationship with Cory is very different, maybe because he was older and more grown up when he was born. They're also close but he's Cory's father first and his buddy second. And because Cory is a bit more independent than Eric, and more introspective and questioning about things, he also feels more comfortable challenging him and fighting with him if he needs to. This naturally lead to one son who took far too long to grow up and another who grew up maybe even too fast. The complexity of this dynamic, and the way Alan comes to terms with it, is fascinating. This is in stark contrast to Amy, who's generally just.... nice, happy, wise mom to everyone and in equal measures (well, until she starts despising Eric, but let's ignore that...)
I don't know, I could go on, but I don't think I need to. Alan is a really, really great character, and an amazingly real look at your average middle-class father. So, why isn't Alan higher? The obvious reasons, I guess. I mean, if you look at the predictions everyone made for Alan in the top 5, pretty much everyone had him last too. He's just not as important as the other four. He's got a lot a wealth of great episodes that I listed as his signatures, but in most of the rest he generally isn't given all that much to do. He's amazingly impactful to Cory and Eric (and Shawn, who I realize I didn't talk as much about, but their relationship, the level of inherent understanding between them, and the fierceness with which Alan comes to Shawn's defense when need be is fantastic) but Feeny has just as much of an impact on Cory, arguably even more on Eric and Shawn, and also inspires every other character on the show too, including Alan himself. And while he grows and changes a lot more than a lot of other characters in the show (particularly among the adults) he just.... obviously doesn't as much as Cory, Eric, and Shawn do. They're who the show's about.
And then there's Girl Meets World where he's barely seen and contributes absolutely nothing of value. So, it kind of becomes a no-brainer. But considering how poorly he's utilized in GMW (far less than randoms like Minkus and Harley, which is really pretty unconscionable) , it just goes to show you what a momentous force he is in the original series.