Saturday, June 18, 2016

Girl Meets World Reviewed: Girl Meets Jexica

When Riley decides to add a little "Jex" appeal.

I tell you right now, the boy died happy. Yeah, this is the type of quote (and the context it was said in) that's automatically gonna shoot to the top.


It took a lot out of me trying to think of an opening sentence for this review.

I knew I should have done this sooner. In fact, I was considering drafting this the night the episode aired but my procrastination got the better of me. Plus, with a new episode last night, I'm going to have to break even. I've heard the near-universal praise that this episode has gotten in the past week, and let me just say that I'm starting to think it's a little reactionary. Don't get me wrong, this episode is definitely good. In fact, this is one of the best episodes the show has put out in more than a few months. But I wouldn't call it top five of GMW or anything like that. It's not as hilarious as "Mr. Squirrels" or as game-changing as "Yearbook" and the Texas trilogy. It's just a really solid episode from a show that is very bipolar in terms of quality. One week, it can give you complete dog shit like "Gravity," and the next week it will turn around and give you a classic like "Pluto." I don't get it. I mean, this show has had potential to be great for two years. The inconsistency has always been a major problem with Girl Meets World. It seemed like season two was going to go on an unstoppable rampage with a bunch of good or great episodes, then it fizzled out and ended with uncertainty. But you know what, I digress. Let's take a look at "Jexica," and how it managed to get me more excited for season three than the actual season premiere. 


It starts off in the halls of Abigail Adams High School. Seriously, these writers have a weird obsession with the Adams family. I wouldn't be surprised if their next Halloween episode didn't have Abigail Addams High School as the name. Anyway, the kids are filling out their profiles for the school's social media site, and Riley realizes she has no interests to put down. Wow, this episode is already cooking with gas. Riley just realized she has no interests. This has been three seasons coming, but finally the show admits it. Riley is afraid that the other kids won't like her because she's boring, but Maya comes up with the idea of an alter ego. She likes everything Riley likes, but her profile has a different name. Riley decides to call her Jexica, and it works like a charm because her profile becomes the most popular in school. 

By the time we get to the first classroom scene, I feel like I'm falling in love all over again. This episode had a phenomenal first act that never lost steam. Every scene was entertaining, there were a lot of chuckle-worthy moments, and the lesson is being taught in a way that makes sense without being beaten into you. The execution has been delicious so far. Also, extra points for the classroom scene. This one is the best in a very long time. Cory's not being interrupted, his lesson corresponds beautifully with the kids' activities, and the lesson is one that everybody can chew on, not just the target audience. Who wrote the first draft of this?

Mackenzie Yeager? She's new, and if the Google search images match up, she's quite the looker too. Lock her up. Throw her in the Disney Channel basement, keep her around for as long as possible. She gets this show. I wouldn't be surprised if she watched Boy Meets World growing up either.

So this is where the episode starts to slip into old habits, or so it seems. Riley is basking in her newfound popularity as Jexica, and when Lucas messages her for advice, she comes up with a really stupid plan. She decides to dress up as Jexica and make Lucas fall in love with her so she can solve the love triangle........which may or may not exist. I don't know, the storytelling has fallen off a great deal since "Texas." I know what you're thinking, this is horribly contrived zany sitcom garbage. It's even lampshaded when Riley admits that something horribly wrong will occur and ruin the plan. Fortunately, the show is one step ahead because they immediately skip from Point A to Point D when everyone in school decides to take credit for Jexica's popularity. The next day, everybody is over Jexica because as Cory said in class, the next cool new thing came around and made her yesterday's news. That's when Riley realizes she wants the school to know her for who she really is, and updates her profile to accommodate her adventures and her friends.

Once again, Girl Meets World has a dud season premiere but rebounds with a much better follow-up. I say certain things all the time about this show, but as Mr. Enter just recently stated, the best criticisms are the ones you hear the most frequently, because they have yet to be defeated. Girl Meets World had a decent plot on its hands and made it shine through with great execution. The lesson was not only valuable, but taught very well throughout the episode and never annoyed the viewer. It was just reinforced by events we actually saw and were entertained by. There were small jokes and big jokes throughout the entire episode, and almost all of them hit. I haven't even gotten into the subplot yet, but it's definitely worth the price of admission as well. 


What can I say? When the show knows what it wants to do, has a more subtle and thoughtful approach to telling stories, and emphasizes comedy over drama, you get episodes like this or "New World." "Jexica" was goofy, it was hilarious, it was sweet, and it actually had something to say about the social media age. This episode had one of the best lessons in the whole series. Now is this top five of GMW? No, stop smoking. But it's definitely one to check out and a shot in the arm that this show desperately needed.

Episode Grade: B+
Episode MVP: Mackenzie Yeager, you the real MVP. No, I'm just kidding. Rowan Blanchard did a great job in this episode, and Riley was genuinely interesting and entertaining for the first time in a long while so she picks up the trophy. I said it more than a year ago, but I think Rowan's strong suit is comedy and Sabrina's is drama. When you give these actresses their strengths to play on, they become so much more engaging to watch.


EXTRA THOUGHTS
-When was the last time this show had a bad opening scene? I'm really trying to remember here. Even in terrible episodes, the show tricks you with a really good scene to start it off. But fortunately for this one, the rest of the episode just builds off of it. Riley's explanation for Jexica's name, Farkle's favorite song being the sound of his computer opening up (Corey F. really nails the facial expressions and body language there), Zay's favorite movie being The Notebook and his love for Celine Dion. I'm having fun here. I'm having fun with my Girl Meets World pals.

-Nice interaction between Maya and Yogi. Also, when I first watched this episode, I was worried that even Riley's friends wouldn't know who Jexica is because the way Lucas and the boys talk about her makes it seem like they honestly don't know. But it turns out they knew the whole time so I was relieved. It feels like the script was trying to trick the audience into thinking it was going to go into standard bad GMW territory and make you look foolish by avoiding it. Also, there's this Mean Girls-type bit going on where everyone faces the camera and talks about Jexica. Zay does the same thing, but he was pulled back into the shot by Lucas. This show has jokes, man.

-The main plot would have been enough for me to enjoy this episode, but the gift just keeps on giving because the subplot is almost as good and just as funny. So Auggie is about to be tricked by an online scammer. I thought about that Family Guy episode "Scammed Yankees" where Peter and Carter fell for the same scam, but it's different here because Auggie's just a little kid and not a complete idiot like Peter or an out-of-touch weirdo like Carter. Cory wants to make it seem like the scam is real, but Topanga doesn't want Auggie to grow up to be a sucker. Cory and Topanga steal the show completely. Their interactions feel straight out of Boy Meets World, with a flashback to the original show to match. Even the ending to the subplot, though very confusing, is really funny and lets you know they weren't taking any of this seriously. This plot did exactly what it needed to.

-I honestly didn't get Riley's plan. Either she's stupid enough to think this will work, or she thinks Lucas will be stupid enough to fall for it. Then the kids impersonate Jexica, which is odd because I have to assume they all have profiles on the site too. That means none of them can be Jexica. Eh, it's a minor speed bump but the episode stays in the fast lane. I really laughed when Riley came out of her closet dressed as Jexica and didn't think Maya knew who she was. "I know it's you, you nimrod."

-Man, those classroom scenes were really something. If we could get more of those every now and then, it could really validate Cory as a teacher. The best part was when Cory asked the kids if they knew the capital of Minnesota or where polar bears/penguins lived. No reaction. He mentions "Charlie bit my finger" and everyone starts imitating the bit. The joke was used twice, and it was just as funny the second time as it was the first time.

-"I'm tired all the time." This was the best line of the whole episode, bar none. I love the way Lucas said it and it just accurately describes how confusing this love triangle is. Seriously, I hope they resolve it soon. I can only hope.

Haha, I know all about procrastination, Mike!

Previously I would've probably just interjected that right into the green text but I'm starting to realize that seems like stepping on your toes, so from now on out I'm doing this strictly "Christian and Sean-style" where we have our blocks entirely separate. Why am I mentioning this when most of you and probably even Mike himself won't even notice? I don't know.

First thing I want to mention is the opening shot of Riley and Maya, and especially the lighting, is really slick as hell. That's the type of shot composition frankly most Disney Channel (and Nick) directors don't really seem to want to be bothered with in their rush to just churn these multi-cams out like sausages and act like they get a significant bonus proportional to how under-budget they get. Seriously, 99.99% of the time they absolutely do not want to deviate from "well we have our three cameras already positioned here, and we've got whatever lighting happens to already be in the studio which will forever be set to 'indoors at high noon'" so any time they express even the slightest in shot composition creativity it has to be noted. I have a feeling this episode's a natural set-up for Rowan to take Episode MVP, but runner-up's going to be whoever directed this episode just for this opening (I wouldn't be surprised if it's the Rider/Shiloh team). I bet Christian and Sean would be a lot less dismissive of Jessie or Liv and Maddie if their directors bothered to show some anti-drone mentality like this (in Jessie's case it's mostly either Rich Cornell or Bob Koherr, who together direct something like 80% of all Disney Channel multi-cam episodes, and have been doing so since FOX Family was a thing and Disney ended up inheriting them from the changeover to ABC Family; in LaM's case it's either going to be Jody Margolis I believe her name is?, and Andy Fickman, both of whom were not only essentially hand-picked by Beck and Hart and have been a part of their team since well before Disney hired them but also have more than a fair deal of theatrical movie experience under their belt, so I'm actually a little confused by their lack of daring). 

When I first heard about Meets Jexica, my biggest worry is that it would just be a rehash/redo of Meets Popular - which incidentally was GMWReviewed's first review (did they mention this in their review of Jexica? Yeah I actually haven't gotten around to reading that yet). In a lot of ways it is - Riley invents herself because she wants to be more, well, popular. In Popular it was born out of frustration and angst - so it was really Riley's own all-too-in-character interpretation of becoming Goth, actually - but here it's an online persona that's gotten out of hand and she's now forced herself into acting out in the real world. Given that I'm typing this out after having just seen the credits and intro, I'm still not convinced it really is all that different from Popular. I have a feeling this one's gonna rise and fall based entirely on execution over concept (considering that strength-of-concept has been enough to help GMW get off the hook waaay too often up to this point).

Ok so it turns out there is a twist compared to Popular - rather than becoming...*I actually can't find a reference to what Riley called herself without having to refer back to and re-watching Meets Popular* as a Harujuko...Harijuku...Japanese anime girl, Riley's actually threatened by and competing against her alternative persona. By this point it's not exactly an uncommon concept in teen-centered media but...and even I hate saying this...it comes off fresh when this show does it. What I mean by that, and what I mean by "even I hate saying this" is given the bulk of past episodes - Meets Fish, Meets Gravity, Meets The Tell-Tale Friggin' Tot - yeah, the show has a history of falling in love with stale plot points. What I'm mostly looking forward to is seeing how Riley's going to react to something of her own creation. Most of this show - including all that I listed above - is really about Riley reacting to the outside. Especially in Meets Gravity in where she was supposed to be reacting to her own narcissism and self-centeredness but in the end only ended up reacting to how people perceive her to be that way, hence that episode being an ungodly disaster. In other words, most of the show has been about Riley reacting to something external, even if it ends up being Maya a lot of times. I find it interesting if not necessarily ironic that in an episode that's again supposed to be about Riley's preoccupation with being popular it's about her reacting to very much a reflection of herself, or at least a reflection of what she thinks she should be.

...as soon as I heard "...prince from Nairobi," yeah, this is another subplot that I'm probably going to let Mike's words already written take care of and not waste additional keystrokes on (Episode Subplot Grade: F-).

Actually there are three points: 1. Apparently it really isn't about trying to teach Auggie a life lesson on why he shouldn't wire money to African princes who introduce themselves as life-long friends through email, 2. There's being naive, there's being naive to protect a child's naivete, and then there's Cory Matthews doing his best Cat Valentine impression (late Victorious/Sam & Cat Cat Valentine no less), and 3. They need to just either see if they can get away with stretching the image, zooming in on the image or some combination of both next time they flashback to Boy Meets World. The fuzzy, blurred area that's filling in where good old black bars would normally go is pretty distracting, and just leaving them black actually manages to be marginally worse. I think most shows in the Hi-Def era when faced with this problem do exactly what I suggested, a combination of trying to stretch the image and zoom in until that space is filled. It's not perfect, but most of these cutaways are short enough the audience probably won't have time to really notice anyway, and it's less intrusive and obvious than what GMW has done so far (just black bars to start, now "fuzzing" the image to fill that area).

Now I want to pause during Cory's classroom speech because it's actually very interesting. In no small way, the crux of Cory's speech hits at the core of why this very blog exists - or for that matter, GMWReviewed and even Disney Channel itself. If you want to cheat and use the broadest category possible, social media as cultural output - and therefore all forms of cultural output - have common roots (those same ones Cory mentioned, going back to cave paintings), have the same purpose (sharing information, whether it be stories and narratives or raw information like what's the weather like and how many saber-toothed cats are out there to try to eat me) and how and what information to be remembered is determined in large part by popularity, especially contemporary to that information. Lucas and Zay mentioned that this decade is going to be remembered by dancing cat videos and that nobody cares about the discovery of new planets (although despite what Meets Hurricane is trying to suggest Lucas is probably too young to remember the "New Planet Craze" of the 00's and how it got so out of hand it actually contributed to Pluto being smacked down out of planet-hood by the scientific community) but it doesn't necessarily mean that, from a cultural and social media standpoint, one is more valid than the other. Take the 70s for example - a lot of things happened during that decade. It was the decade people thought was going to bring the end of the world as the Soviet Union and United States inched ever closer to the inevitable nuclear war. It was the decade the Vietnam War ended and the US populace started a deep rethink of foreign policy (that unfortunately hasn't lasted into the present day). It was the first decade in the United States when people of color could walk out and apply for whatever job they wanted to anywhere in the United States or go to any place of business with a federal guarantee that they wouldn't be discriminated against from being hired for that job or treated with respect as a customer (at least by legal theoretical). It was the decade when humankind started actually exploring the Moon in person and first sent spacecraft to Mars and even outside the solar system itself. It was the decade of the first U.S. Space Station and when despite that previously mentioned threat of nuclear war the Soviet Union and United States actually put aside their differences and made a space station together - granted it only lasted for a short while before the spacecraft parted ways but it eventually paved the way for Mir and later the International Space Station. It was the decade that saw the birth of the microprocessor and from there, video games, personal computers, phones that you could take with you and talk on while you were walking to work or the store and from all that the social media Lucas just got done talking about where we like to see our dancing cats.

And yet what are the things people actually remember from that decade? Crappy disco songs, crappy disco styles and even crappier cars. 

My point being, there's no point being worried or hung up about what people are going to remember from this generation for future generations, because chances are people are going to think it's crappy anyway. That's the naturalistic inevitability of cultural evolution - things change because tastes change, and we'll inevitably think of past tastes as crappy because being an earlier iteration of what was once popular it must be crappy now, otherwise it'd still be popular. It's like dumping your XB360 in the trash because you just got an XBOne - the XB360 is older, ego it must be inferior, ergo it must be crappier. That doesn't make the XB360 any less valid for what it is. It's the same logic for pop culture - we think disco was crappy because if nothing else it's old, so it must be crappy (just like what you think of everything your grandma likes). That doesn't make disco any less culturally valid, and it doesn't make dancing cat videos any less culturally valid. In fact, on that note, supposedly disco's making a comeback but I've yet to see any proof of that myself.

Also, Cory's approach is a little bit flawed when he finally gets to his point. You can "lifestyle" the Internet only as much as you can any form of media and "lifestyle" TV - which at that point really resembles a lack of lifestyle. Yes, you can get into gossip culture, but that's gossip culture, not "lifestyling" the Internet. Moreover Cory (or rather the people who wrote this episode) don't really grasp the meaning of "memetic" - you know, where the word meme comes from. The reason why memes work is that they're simple patterns with a few key memetic "hardpoints" that the brain can latch onto, whether it's cuteness or humor, and so it's incredibly easy for it to ingrain into our minds, and things that are easy to ingrain into minds also tend to be easy to spread for the very same reasons. What do I mean by referring to these memes as "simple patterns?" Anything, really, whether they be say character traits or plot or narrative points or even literal patterns like visual or audio patterns. This is why very few, if any, internet memes are more complex than say a minute or so-length video. The sneezing panda is easy to remember because, well, it's a sneezing panda. The "Charlie Bit my Finger" thing Cory references is a great example of that more literal pattern recognition - it's very simplistic, easily repeatable dialogue (it's all there in the meme title itself). When you start going more complex, the memetic recognition starts to break down - what's the one thing people most remember from The Dark Knight Rises - is it Bane's speech to Batman about why the old corruption of Gotham needs to be toppled at any cost, even if it means literally nuking the city, or for that matter is it more complex plot points about why Bane and his master Miranda (spoiler alert for a four-year-old movie) are motivated to do all this destruction in the name of toppling corruption, or is the whole Baneposting speech that culminates with Bane pointing out to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones that he's a big guy for you and that the next step of his master plan is crashing this plane, with no survivors! See, we can remember the whole Baneposting shit because it's a simple pattern with humorous points that serve as anchors for our brain to latch on to. Remembering which pole has polar bears and which has penguins...ok, that one's pretty simple and Cory's class should just be ashamed for not knowing. But memorizing the capitals of all 50 states is much more complex in comparison (not to mention pretty useless, even well before the common use of the Internet).


Anyway, it's really easy for scriptwriters to say that historians are going to remember us as a society obsessed with clicks and likes (and it very well may be true), but remember - popular culture remembers the 70s as being that decade where people drove incredibly crappy cars while wearing incredibly ugly clothes to the disco where they can practice incredibly dorky dance moves to incredibly awful music. Actual historians remember the 70s as that decade where people of color managed to successfully fight for their societal rights, humankind started the first steps towards colonizing space, the Soviet Union and United States began the first steps towards ending the Cold War, and the first microprocessors were slowly starting the inevitable path to this very social media Cory's talking about. Popular culture may very well remember the 2010's as being the decade of Twerking parodies, forced memes and of course cat videos (actually cat videos have been cultural touchstones since last decade but whatever) but actual historians will likely remember this decade as the decade of rising fears about foreign assimilation or lack thereof, renewed interest in space exploration from the private sector and when an explosion in entrepreneurship finally made possible the electric car that can drive itself no less and being able to shoot 1080p video from devices that we can literally hold in the palm of our hand while simultaneously talking to someone, texting to a different person and scoping out Twitter. 

Back to the episode at hand...yeah, Lucas knows it's really Riley. Duh. C'mom Riles. The unicorn thing really gave it away. I mean who else does that?

Oh and here's another thing that distinguishes Jexica from Popular. Just as I predicted, it continues the theme of Season 3 of trying to make Bay Window and Triangle into a whole damn season.



I understand Riley's obsession of Lucas' inevitable choice but c'mon, man. You know that whole lifestyle thing Cory was talking about? Yeah, Riley, you're making your angst about Lucas' inevitable choice become an actual lifestyle now.

Commercial break, and the revelation that everybody's pulling a Spartacus on Jexica is...one of those completely-out-from-left-field-yet-brilliant things that made Boy Meets World a show so well-remembered TeenNick is scrambling to put up 15+ year old reruns of it. I mean, seriously, I thought it was a real wtf? moment but I can see where...whoever wrote this episode...is going with it. Again, memetics.

Ok, more ranting time, using Cory's own argument against him. Yes, Charlie Bit My Finger (you can tell a scriptwriter is middle-aged if memes from four years ago or more are being referenced) isn't valuable knowledge if it's not going to be valued or remembered the next day...but then again is knowing what the capital of Minnesota really that valuable either, unless you either happen to be living in Minnesota or shipping something to St. Paul? There's a reason why kids remember the capital of Minnesota for about as long as they remember the meme-flavor of the hour. It's not particularly useful information. You know what's really useful information? Basic understanding of the core subjects: math, language/literature, science, and history (you should, you know, kind of know a thing or two about that last subject Cory). Beyond that...it really depends on the individual. Cory would probably argue that knowing the ins and outs of an Edelbrock four-barrel carburetor jetted for high output at high RPM speed isn't really that much useful knowledge - but for someone working at a speed shop or custom car shop, yeah, that's going to be pretty useful knowledge to the point where that person's day-to-day livelihood and ability to grab a paycheck is dependent on it. Cory might argue that knowing what district Katniss Everdeen is from isn't important - unless you happen to be, uh, whoever the director of Hunger Games was and having a basic grasp of what you're shooting is going to have a big impact on ensuring the crew working on your movie is actually able to bring home some of their salary. As a history teacher Cory might argue that memorizing Reynolds numbers might not be that much important knowledge, especially if you don't bother explaining to him what Reynolds numbers actually are (a dirty trick but hey it shows my point) - but for aerospace engineers knowing Reynolds numbers are pretty important for making sure airplanes don't just randomly fall out of the sky and start killing thousands of people. Cory would probably consider knowing the NATO phonetic alphabet to be more fluff knowledge, but even something as simple and silly as that could end up being pretty important knowledge, especially for air traffic controllers where even something as little as that could, you know, again, help make sure that whole airplanes randomly falling and killing thousands thing again.

What ends up being useful knowledge is what you make of it.

A lesson Cory concludes by telling Maya that she disgusts him, and to just go to the bay window because class is over.

Episode Grade: C+. As much as I was slightly more impressed with High School (part 2 at least I guess?), I think I was slightly less impressed with Jexica than Mike and the GMWReviewed team. Cory's sentiment is important and well-meaning (well, at least the whole "you're determined by the actions of your totality, not just today" thing, and that part certainly bears repeating) but the whole "what's on the Internet and these crazy memes that get your attention are fleeting and don't matter, what matters is actual knowledge" thing has been done before, almost to death (Dog With a Blog did it after all) and if it hasn't been done better than here on GMW, it's only because nobody's really bothered. 

That said on the face of it it's not a bad episode and it would've gotten a B-...except the B-plot is so crappy it legitimately demerits the episode as a whole down into C+ territory. it almost saved itself with Cory telling Topanga that all those annoying and dirty little trick-quirks are what he likes about her after all, but then it goes all dream sequence on us in an incredibly stupid way. 

No wonder the only lessons the writing staff learns from Meets World of Terror and Meets Friendship is to give us only more crap like Meets The Tell-Tale Tot and Meets World of Terror Friggin' 2.

Episode MVP: Yeah, I really have to give it a two-way (technically three-way) tie here with Rowan Blanchard, who was a big part in helping this episode aspire to even a B- grade before the B-plot crushed those dreams into a puddle of sitcom trope despair, and the directing team of Rider and Shiloh Strong (called it!) who probably went as far outside the box as their new Disney Channel overlords allowed them to.

Extra Thoughts

 - I did like the interview/Office/Modern Family-style talking head segment, especially the segment where Zay/Amir played it up (Riley's over here, Zay)

 - Looks like another thing I (partially) called - The Hole does indeed look like it's the school's equivalent of The Bay Window after all, only in having our protagonists gather around The Hole as opposed to being stuck down in it. But hey, there was people watching! Insofar as people watching people through their phones and tablets. 

 - I really can't gush about the new intro enough. So far it really is the best thing about Season 3. I really do feel like it's something they should've done from the actual Meets World episode, but I think part of what makes it effective is how the characters actually come off as credible high school students in the intro, like mini-Friends or indeed when the Boy Meets World cast first did it (actually - and I know this is pure blasphemy - but I think the GMW cast actually pull it off much better). I don't think it would've worked as well back in Season 1 or even in Season 2. The reshot scene of Rowan and Sabs dressed in...whatever top hat getup that was supposed to be - on the lunch conveyor belt from Meets the Forgotten doing the jazzhands was probably as close as they were capable of pulling off at the time.

 - Also, confession time - I've never actually seen the entire Season 2 credits sequence. I always make a point of fast-forwarding through it. I only know of that particular part because it's towards the very end and the fast-forward/rewind feature is never precise.

 - I know I kept saying I was going to explain this weird theory I had of Jexica herself and Disney Channel's relationship with GMW and GMW's relationship with the network and other shows...but, yeah, guess what it's gonna have to wait until tomorrow. 

4 comments:

  1. Good review Mike. I enjoyed Jexica a lot and I'm anxious for more good episodes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It seems when people get good-ness among mediocre/bad-ness they treat it like great-ness, which is fair to an extent. Just remember when something is just surspingly good, or actually great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, the show's been in a slump since the last third of season two so episodes like these are a breath of fresh air, but they definitely don't move the needle like "Texas" did for example.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, I think you might find my review points interesting now that I've bothered to get around to it.

      Delete

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