With the Disney Channel reviving the popular ABC sitcom-darling Boy Meets World through its much-anticipated sequel Girl Meets World, the original show (currently in rerun syndication) has nostalgically regained a bit of its social cachet. In one episode of interest, “Cult Fiction” from ‘97 (online HERE; stream it on Amazon), a lonely and belief-less Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) falls into a cult, almost loses a mentor, and then finds God. Even with the blessings of nostalgia, though, many viewers may find this episode to move a bit quickly for its subject matter.
In this episode, the wayward Shawn is invited to join a group of “lost souls” at local gathering The Centre after he is harshly confronted by his mentor and friend Jon Turner (Anthony Tyler Quinn) for not having a direction for his life at the ripe old age of 16. No actualized harm to any youth at The Centre is shown, but the episode asserts that those under the sway of Mr. Mack (Jerry Levine) lose their ability to form individualized thought and perhaps even lose a bit of their cash in trade for a numbing sense of “belonging.”
As David Scott Diffrient points out, most TV portrayals of non-mainstream religious movements are merely routine – TV shows usually depict so-called “cults” as either comically out-there or as dangerously authoritative. In this way, “Cult Fiction” covers typical ground seen elsewhere like in Everybody Loves Raymond’s 2002 “The Cult” episode in which Robert (Brad Garrett) joins a cult at the behest of his idiot cousin Gerard (Fred Stoller) only to find too much groupthink involved.
Of course, sitcoms like Boy Meets World and Everybody Loves Raymond do not have the luxury of sustaining a detailed plot for even a full hour like their dramatic counterparts, simply because of their structure. However, with strong ratings and the blessing of broad and devoted viewing audiences, these shows do actually have the option of revisiting important issues over many episodes, which could (but rarely does) include religious belief.
As Corey (Ben Savage) says to Shawn in the episode, they’ve known each other for years and have discussed everything… except for spiritual belief. “Cult Fiction” seems to be trying to make up for lost time, trying to segue into belief-talk by employing the general umbrella of the stereotypical cult scene.
What makes Boy Meets World’s episode a bit different, though, is that the resolution to Shawn’s cultic dabbling isn’t a generic sense of self-worth or love from friends and family as is the typical remedy, but his rescue is through an actualized belief in a real God. In fact, sitting in the hospital room with a comatose Turner (who had an inexplicable motorcycle accident), Shawn experiences what is best described as a conversion moment.
Talking to the unresponsive Turner, Shawn says he knows Turner’s there even though he’s not responding… and then “God you’re not talking.. but I know you’re here.” Shawn was “more alone than [Corey] ever knew,” but it wasn’t his friends that pulled him out of the loneliness – it was his realization that figuring out his belief in God was what would fix his emptiness, even if that’s not an “easy” task.
Now, to be fair, the episode leaves a lot left unsaid not just with the cult details, but also with Shawn’s conversion. Given the middle-America demeanor of the show, one would expect Shawn’s new-found belief to be a Christian one, but viewers only hear “God,” not “Jesus” or “Christ” or any of those other specificities that TV executives like to steer clear of.
The episode is highly condensed, and obviously highly simplified. That doesn’t mean, though, that there’s not possible meat for viewers to chew on if they are willing to do the unpacking themselves. Certainly what would be more valuable is if the show had let the religious beliefs develop in nuanced, subtle, and even difficult ways over the seasons instead of playing a bit of quick catch-up.
But better quick than never! Perhaps the also-coming-of-age show Girl Meets World will show the girls think about belief in a more sustained fashion. If the success of their predecessor is any indication, they should have plenty of time.
What do you think? Should Girl Meets World skip the question of religion and just stay light in tone? Or is thinking about religion an important part of growing up? Did the episode of Boy Meets World make you cringe with its simplicity and quick-conversion? Or were you thrilled that the sometimes-serious show took on such an important issue? Maybe Shawn’s talk with God seemed like a pretty real depiction of a refreshingly sincere conversion moment?
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