#9. Jonathan Turner
Played By: Anthony Tyler Quinn, (1994-1997, 2015, 2017)
Episode Count: 54 (51- BMW, 3- GMW)
Role: Foil for Feeny, surrogate father for Shawn, teacher for all
Signature Episodes: Back 2 School, Pop Quiz, Home, I Never Sang For My Legal Guardian, Cult Fiction, Girl Meets Goodbye
The biggest mistake people make is to see Turner as "Feeny-lite" and dismiss him on the grounds that he wasn't as wise or emotionally profound as Feeny. "He wasn't as good as Feeny" is the wrong way to go. Indeed, it is precisely their differences that make Turner so great. We saw this immediately in his first episode, Back 2 School. He drives a motorcycle, he reads X-Men, and his class is way more laid back than Feeny's, with whom he butts heads almost immediately. But that's all fairly superficial, as if they decided to introduce a "cool" teacher for "cool" kids to watch on television. And what's exciting about Back 2 School is that we fall for that bad first impression, like Feeny does. "Great, he's got long hair and an earring, who cares." It's not until the ending, where Turner protects Cory (and Eric) from Harley, this guy who's been a massive threat the entire episode. He does so without using the word "detention" (hey Feeny), and closes it out with a reference to their classical literature assignment as it relates to Cory's life. He calls Cory "Odysseus", and I fall in love.
Turner's teaching style is to meet the students on their level, and bring them up as they go, while Feeny prefers to start with the end point in mind, "this is the level you need to be at," and work toward that. To his credit, Feeny gave some at-their-level assignments in season 1, like Model Family, but by season 2 that's mostly transferred to Turner. (This is my one main complaint about Turner, which isn't his fault - the effect he has on Feeny. When Turner's not around, Feeny is perfectly capable of explaining things to them on their level, and is perfectly willing to go outside the box to teach lessons, he does it all the time in Season 1. But in order to make Turner seem cooler they seemed to be feel they had to make Feeny a conservative stick-in-the-mud when it comes to teaching, and I think that does him a disservice. But anyway!) We saw that pretty quickly in season 2 in Me and Mr. Joad. Kids hate tests, meet them at their level, fine, no test if you do the work. And again in Pop Quiz. Feeny is blatantly having trouble getting Cory and Shawn to listen, but Turner understands how these kids think and by the end he's got them wanting to learn and pay attention. Me and Mr. Joad, Truth and Consequences, Cyrano, and Pop Quiz are four rock solid examples of Shawn and Cory actually learning the material in class. It's not until they're disgraced on national television in Quiz Show that they actually want to learn in Feeny's class.
But the strength of this character extends outside of school, and what's cool is it continues to set him up in contrast with Feeny. It kicks off in Career Day, when the two teachers are discussing how Shawn stayed on Turner's couch the last night, and Feeny warns him about getting too close. Turner asks "Come on, really, what would you have done?" Feeny answers, "I truly don't know." It's a fantastic character difference, how this was a no-brainer for Turner, letting Shawn stay, while Feeny isn't even sure what he would do. And that launches Turner into his biggest contribution to the story, as Shawn's not-so-legal guardian.
Through season 3, Turner continues to defy Feeny's advice about getting too close, and we start to see how necessary this role was. Some authority figure needs to talk Shawn through his unrelenting emotional problems. Feeny won't do it on principle, Chet is gone and couldn't have done it anyway, and Alan has his own kids to deal with. I loved this in particular in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Turner helps Shawn with the Dana situation, something the other three adult males couldn't possibly have done, and hits Shawn with maybe the most important thing he's ever heard: "See this guy right here? (pointing at Cory) This is your best relationship." Turner becomes an effective buffer between Shawn and his self loathing, which is a full time job. And of course that climaxes in Turner's last BMW episode, Cult Fiction.
He's not the perfect authority figure though, which of course makes him an even better character. He makes his fair share of mistakes, like in The Double Lie and later going out with Dana's mom, he regularly admits he doesn't know what he's doing (a theme of the whole show), and struggles to find enough resolve to sign the legal-guardian papers. It's always a struggle for both him and Shawn, it's always gray, both doing the best they can.
Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks. Likely due to the popularity of shows like Friends, the showrunners decided to try to explore Turner's character through his adult friend Eli, which is almost entirely a waste of time. Eli tells Shawn that Turner comes from a rich family, and left that behind to find personal satisfaction, which does add to his overall character, but I can't think of anything else Eli does to improve Turner's character. As a result, the only actual piece of development we saw from Turner was his acceptance of responsibility for Shawn. He had no threads to follow in season 4. Second, Turner is written out of the show with no real explanation or closure until the end of Girl Meets World (it was worth the wait). Third (and least important) is that his role as superintendent on Girl Meets World is largely unimportant, even though we all loved seeing him.
The story needed a compelling and effective teacher to set up a fun contrast with Feeny. The story needed an authoritative emotional support figure for Shawn. Jacobs decided to weave those two together, which added the struggle of trying to maintain those two separate identities. I would really love to know where Jacobs could have taken this character without Eli. As it stands, though, Jonathan Turner is still pretty fantastic.