I watched Meets Popular just now, and I actually enjoyed it. I was eating a sandwich with just the right amount of dijon mustard at the time, so maybe I got some signals crossed, but let's go through the episode anyway. Let's travel back in time.
Take your pick.
But don't pick the second one.
What's interesting right away is the dynamic between Maya and Riley. Maybe it's because the Jack post is fresh in my mind, but this feels a lot more like Eric and Jack than Cory and Shawn. Riley mostly speaks in flowery nonsense while Maya dismisses it, though fortunately with more snark than Jack ever had.
The girls are convinced that Maya will be invited to this cool looking guy's party and Riley won't. So much so that Riley stonefacedly pushes her invitation back toward Maya because surely he's made a mistake.
I laughed out loud here. Almost all of Riley's jokes in season one involve being loud and flailing and making goofy faces. She never gets this kind of humor and it's really well done. Probably the hardest part of watching this episode is Rowan's unpolished acting, but she nailed this bit.
Maya doesn't get invited though, harkening back The Uninvited, but there's a cool difference between this and that, which we'll get to in a bit. Cory claims he didn't get invited to a lot of 7th grade parties, but he has a weird look on his face like he's remembering all the 7th grade parties he went to. He went to plenty, a makeout party in Fear Strikes Out and a couples party in Breaking Up Is Really Really Hard To Do. I think that face is telling us he's just humoring Riley.
In fact, if he thinks it's going to be anything like that party in Fear Strikes Out, I can't blame him for telling Riley she can't go.
Cory gets into the story of The Sword of Damocles, which is a fable and not really history, but maybe it could lead into some historical examples. Regardless, this setup is vastly different from what's to come. They actually did this one right. Most of the time, we would have had Riley show Cory the invitation at home, fade to black or theme song, then open on Cory's clairvoyant puppet-master lesson. But he already had the lesson ready to go, so it's just a coincidence like Pygmalion or The Grapes of Wrath on BMW. Right on.
At Mrs. Svorski's bakery, the audience claps too much for Cloris Leachman to say her lines, which is the most annoying thing a sitcom can possibly do. Some bigwigs at the same law firm as Topanga want to push Svorski out by raising the rent on her building, and Topanga seems resolved to help.Shockingly enough they got this one right too. 99% of the time, Topanga has to grapple with some Auggie and/or Ava nonsense, and I understand why that appeals to some people, because it is satisfying to see her as a loving mother. But she takes care of that here, she's spending time with her son, Auggie loves this bakery and she wants to make him happy. But she's also given the reins of this side story. I don't think any of us could have predicted back then how rare this would be.
Maya has apparently predicted that this party is not what Riley and Cory think it is, which is a nice touch. Indeed, as we all know,
Farkle announces Riley as the first female to arrive at the party, prompting an as yet unnamed Smackle to remind Farkle that she is also a female, and does so with a hilariously awkward display of femininity.
The cool guy handing out invitations turns out to be two kids stacked together. Cory and Maya burst out laughing as Cory says "That's the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life." He's not far off, it's pretty funny. This scene is looking like a ten out of ten until the "geeks" start doing the robot and making Farkle's stupid goose sound/laugh. That's the worst shit on the planet, this scene is so good otherwise. One of the lightsabers hanging over Riley's head almost stabs into her, eliciting "Damocles!" from Riley. They've done that twice, the second when Cory shouts "Hoover Dam!" I'm surprised they got away with either of those, but I like it. I also like that Cory and Maya are just off in the corner laughing their asses off at Riley.
Nobody needs to cry or go to the Bay Window to talk about it, it's a funny stupid thing that happened and they reacted appropriately. WHY DID THEY HAVE TO DO THE ROBOT. IT WAS SO CLOSE TO BEING GREAT. You're better than that, Jeff Menell.
The geeks invite Riley to be their queen. She realizes she can be "popular" in this group, something she desperately wants. Then the kids start doing the robot again, I really don't fucking know why. And it ends without a hint of Smackle's name. This aired before Girl Meets Smackle, so who knows what the story is with that.
In class the next day, Farkle is a sexual predator. Awful. "The Sword of Damocles" is still written on the board so somehow that lesson isn't over. Riley has rebranded herself as a Harajuku girl. Now listen, I hung out with a bunch of anime loving japanophiles in high school, there were at least ten women at anime club, and I had never even heard of Harajuku until this episode. Yet somehow Riley, Maya, even Cory, and seemingly everyone else, all know what this is. Maybe it was a phenomenon after my time, I honestly don't know.
So this is her explosive new look to accent her ascension to Empress of Geeks. We met a lot of rehashing of Boy Meets World stories on this show, so I appreciate this stark difference between Cory and Riley. Faced with his geekiness in The Uninvited or Cory's Alternative Friends, Cory wants to run away as far and fast as he can. But Riley runs at the same speed straight into it. Cory hides his geek side to try to be popular (when he was this age, anyway) while Riley over emphasizes that side to try to be popular.
For the life of me I cannot relate this to Damocles. It's not some layered, complex piece of literature. It's a two sentence story about the fear of getting killed in a position of power. Riley is not in danger. This is a struggle of identity, which is basically the polar opposite of the struggle Damocles felt when he saw the sword above his head. On the bright side, the resolution doesn't even mention Damocles, so the story works without it. I think they just really wanted to do that lightsaber over her head allusion, and couldn't fit it into any other episodes.
The best thing here though is that Cory is stumped. He has no idea how to deal with this insanity, which is FANTASTICALLY refreshing after three seasons of fortune cookie Cory, so he turns to Maya to fix it. "My daughter's going through this week's crazy. You get in there." The geeks admit that they want to "keep their distance" from girls in general, which appeals to Cory as a father, so naturally they all do the robot.
Except it's not natural, it's FUCKING INCOMPREHENSIBLE.
We skip over to Topanga's own identity crisis. There's a nice parallel theme going on between the two stories. Another thing we couldn't possibly have appreciated at the time, this might be Topanga's only solo scene in the series. Granted, she's talking to her old weird self, but everyone in the scene is Topanga, so it counts.
Since Topanga's own law firm is on the morally wrong side of the bakery issue, Topanga appeals to her weird side for help. Christian's review railed against this for nostalgia baiting, but I don't mind it at all. I liked seeing her weird side pop back in Resurrection. It's a very real part of her that I don't want swept under the rug. The directing of the scene is awkward as hell, it's filmed so poorly, but the spirit of it is good. They cut to an old clip of weird Topanga in Cory's Alternative Friends, BUT I DON'T NEED IT. I'LL NEVER FORGET.
SIDE NOTE for the angry Christian of yesteryear. Topanga turns around in the middle of class in Alternative Friends in that scene to check if her and Cory's energies converge. Then Cory goes up to Feeny's desk and talks to him one on one. The main four absolutely run roughshod over Cory's class too much in the first season, but their distractions in this episode are comparable in length to those distractions in Alternative Friends.
We find Topanga's boss, played by Willie Garson, negotiating terms with Mrs. Svorski. This has to be a nod to BMW fans, and I really like to think that Leonard Spinelli went to one of those self help seminars, changed his name, and became a soulless shark of a lawyer. I don't think Topanga ever met Leonard, so it could happen.
But now Topanga and Auggie show up dressed as hippies to defeat the evil lawyer. Look I'm gonna be straight with you here. I like this episode. I didn't remember liking it, but watching it while I ate my sandwich and watching it again immediately after that while I write this, I like it. I wouldn't have bothered writing this if I didn't honestly enjoy watching it. But this scene is the worst shit on the entire planet. Please, bring back the robot and the lightsabers, I'm begging you.
What is going on! In the plus column, she's including her son in her life, and his costume is pretty funny. Motherly Topanga is great when she's dictating the terms instead of riding the Auggie Rollercoaster of Nonsense. Other than that it's a complete train wreck, what the fuck is Topanga doing? Auggie claims she's "going to her happy place", but she could have done that outside! What is going on! Topanga just holds that pose while the others wonder what she's doing, and then Mrs. Svorski recites a depressing communist version of 99 Bottles of Beer that she learned back in the gulag. What is going on! Topanga ultimately makes a futile appeal to pathos, which is a pretty stupid idea considering all that meditating she had to do to come up with it.
Garson and Leachman are amazing though. The way Garson backhandedly calls Topanga "Aquarius" is hysterical.
In a move beyond my ability to defend it, we have entered day THREE of our lesson on The Sword of Damocles. Maya's wearing a Ride the Lightning shirt though, so that's cool.
That joke works better when you can just play the X Files theme. Anyway.
We learn that Riley doesn't actually know anything about Harajuku or its girls, she's just doing this to be popular, which is important later.
There's a lot of implied violence in the next scene when a very fierce Maya wants Farkle to stop supporting this crap. Maya's pissed, and she tells Riley "The world I know wants you to be yourself. And my world... it needs you in it." Menell is earning his keep there. Meets World is amazing because it goes beyond those cliche lessons. It's not "be yourself," it's "your friends probably rely on who you really are, so it's okay to be that person." What I really like about this is that it isn't the god damn Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, there's no crying, there's no speeches. It's just Maya laying it down like Shawn does at the end of The Uninvited. Maya's words aren't enough though, as Riley remains determined, which I also like. Maya's really putting effort into this, and by a twist that I can't remember seeing anywhere else in the series, the best friend approach isn't enough. Wow.
Topanga asks Riley if she's popular with herself, which is closer to the cliche end of things, but there's no indication it contributes to the resolution at the end, so this moment feels out of place, but it only lasts like ten seconds. Auggie observes that "weird mommy is cool," which is his only line on this show that resonates with me. Weird Topanga is cool, and I like when she played laundry basketball with Cory.
At the bakery, Topanga walks in on Willie Garson trying to bamboozle Mrs. Svorski into signing a contract. Topanga looks like a professional again, the idea being that she's combined her weird self with her shark lawyer self, and I'm going to be daring and claim that it's reflected in her wardrobe:
No but seriously I think that was intentional. It's funny though, Topanga's being dramatic and metaphorical and Garson is not having any of it. I wish he was in every scene on this show to be like "You're not talking like a human being right now. You are not acting like a human being would in this situation."
The Matthews parents have decided to give Svorski the money she needs. Attempting to gauge their finances, Svorski asks Cory what he does for a living, and gives a nervous laugh when he says he's a middle school teacher. Yup, this is Meets World alright. This line from Topanga though, "He's always been my partner, and we've always done well together. Now... it's time to do good." RED ALERT, SIRENS, THAT'S A REFERENCE. As you all know and certainly don't need to be reminded, Feeny told them to do good in the finale, and Topanga incorrectly asks "Don't you mean 'do well'?" And bam, here she is, making the distinction as she follows Feeny's last lesson. Awesome.
OH WAIT. SOMEONE DOESN'T KNOW THAT AND DOES NEED TO BE REMINDED. BECAUSE CHRISTIAN DIDN'T CATCH IT WHEN HE REVIEWED THIS EPISODE. There are only two commenters on that post, and neither of them mentions it, so you are all to blame. That is a blemish on this blog's legacy, and I'm glad we have remedied it today.
It's a bit of a mish mash though, I don't see what weird Topanga has to do with this decision. Weird Topanga wasn't like, noteworthy for being a philanthropist. She threatens to find another firm and "destroy" Garson if she doesn't get a salary advance to cover the costs, which is also awesome, but also not really related to weird Topanga.
Now the qualifying round of the regional spelling bee is in Cory's classroom because it just is, between JQA, recently joined by geek empress Riley, and Einstein Academy, which has apparently relocated from Philly, or maybe they just traveled far to be on High School Quiz Show, I don't know. Farkle calls Smackle by name here, so I'm assuming this was supposed to air after Meets Smackle.
Cece has been fantastic from the beginning. I didn't review Meets Smackle either, I might do that one next if it's any good.
Smackle claims she's going to "destroy" Farkle. I'm really digging the female empowerment in the last few minutes. It's Riley's turn to spell, and in breaking every conceivable rule of spelling bees, Maya hands Cory a new card with a word for Riley to spell. You can actually see through it, and it does indeed say "Harajuku." Not that Riley would need to cheat, since anyone's very first guess at spelling it would probably be right.
We've moved from The Uninvited to Cory's Alternative Friends, and finally to Quiz Show. The idea here is to shock Riley into this realization of "Oh shit, if any part of this persona were authentic I would know this, I must be a complete fraud," like Shawn's realization at the end of Quiz Show. This show isn't as good, so we're left without a crushingly memorable line like Shawn's "I don't... really know anything..." Also Shawn wouldn't be able to use words like "persona" or "authentic," although as a Hunter he's probably intimately familiar with "fraud."
So Riley finally abandons her Harajuku life, and gives Farkle's geeky friends a delightful confidence boost by saying they were cool to hang out with. Their faces light up, and it doesn't serve the story or lesson or anything, it's just an excellent bit of polish for Riley's character. I also love that Maya and Cory were a team to solve this one. Great work, Menell.
And there are some emotional moments during the credits.
Let's try to recap what I liked here. The class lesson isn't puppet mastery. Its sole involvement comes from Maya's misinterpretation of the story in the first few minutes, she says "Being what other people want you to be is just a sword hanging over your head." Cory says that's "Good" but it was Damocles himself who wanted to sit on the throne, so it's nonsense. But that's okay, Shawn and Cory misinterpret the Grapes of Wrath. And it's not necessary for the class lesson to coincide with the life lesson, we're just so fucking used to it that it sticks out when it didn't happen here. And I love Cory's reaction to all of it, starting from the Geek Party. He's not being controlling or trying to influence it, he just helps out at the end. And of course, seeing him carry out a story with Topanga is a treat.
As for Riley, it's not the standard best friend spiel that changes her mind. In fact we explicitly see it not change her mind. It ends up being a personal realization that makes the difference.
That one Topanga scene is the worst shit on the planet, like I said, but her implementing Feeny's final lesson and the two fantastic guest stars absolutely make up for it. And Auggie is exactly who he ought to be in this episode, a companion to play off of Cory and Topanga.
Anddddddd. It's funny. Jeff Menell is still a funny guy. That invitation push at the beginning is still cracking me up.
I think Christian's poor grade here (a C+) is largely because he hadn't suffered through three seasons already. We were still hopeful back then. I'd be shocked if this episode isn't in my top 3 for season one. I mean Lucas isn't even in it. That's about as good as you're gonna get in season one. In fact I'll try to take recommendations, anything before Meets First Date, which was my first review here, that you think is as good as or better than this one.
I liked it a lot. Smackle is Cece Balagot.
That's a fantastic two line poem. It has a two-syllable rhyme on a_ot and the consistent k sound on the second syllable. I'm the best.
But yeah. Great episode. What should I watch next?