Welcome to A Very Spooky… Each week, I will look at and review a classic TV series that is not known for horror but would, on occasion, dip its toes into the waters of terror.
This week we’ll be discussing Boy Meets World season 5, episode 17: And Then There Was Shawn.
Boy Meets World was after my time, I was too old for it by a few years when it aired originally. It was later on, after college, that I would discover the show through reruns on the Disney Channel. I loved it, but I was also pretty high when I watched it. Looking back on it now, it wasn’t that good of a show. Some of you may take offense to this – the show has a strong following, one strong enough to get a second series, Girl Meets World on the air. If you do take offense to me not liking the show when sober, take a cue from Joel Hodgson and repeat to yourself “it’s just a show, I should really just relax”.
Still, one episode that has always stood out to me was And Then There Was Shaun, mainly because when I first saw the episode, I was impressed with how well they played off of classic slasher movie tropes, down to the title of the episode – a lot of early slashers are similar to Agatha Christie mysteries, and the title is obviously a play on Christie’s And Then There Were None.
For those of you who don’t know Boy Meets World, the concept is pretty simple; it is about a boy with the unfortunate name of Cory growing up and learning about life. Sadly for actor Ben Savage, his brother Fred was already the king of the coming of age TV show with The Wonder Years, so Ben would have to settle for a TGiF shift.
When the show started, it was a more innocent, basic family sitcom. By season five, the show had started to make fun of itself more and more. There were still lessons to be learned for young Cory and his friends, but these lessons were becoming more about personal aspects of the characters, and less about the generalities of life.
By this point in the series, coming towards the end of season five, Cory and his long time girlfriend, Topanga, have broken up. This is, as we see at the start of the episode, the talk of John Adams High (which I can only guess is a joke for William Daniels who played John Adams in both the stage and film version of 1776 and was a series regular, playing Mister Feeny) where Cory and Topanga are seniors. Shawn, Cory’s best friend, is having an especially hard time with the breakup, and he lashes out at Kenny, a random kid in class. Sure enough, Shawn, Kenny, Topanga, Cory and, I suppose for good measure, the recurring character of Angela all get detention with Mr. Feeny acting as their warden.
Feeny leaves the classroom for reasons that are his own and locks the jerks in the room. The gang see a Janitor, a creepy looking son of a bitch if ever there was one, outside the classroom and ask him to unlock the door. He refuses and continues on his janitorial way. It is here we get our first jump scare when a map pulled over the blackboard suddenly rolls up revealing a message. There, in blood, is written “No One Gets Out Alive!”
Instantly, Cory and Shawn believe that Mr. Feeny wrote the message in order to teach them a lesson, as Feeny is always trying to teach the boys lessons. The lesson, Cory figures, is “Pay attention or die” the rest of the detention crew isn’t sold. Shawn, confident that he knows what is going on, begins to break down the basics of the slasher genre for the others. The group of teens kept together in one location, the weird old guy suggesting impending doom, the warning that will be ignored, and the first victim. Everyone turns to Kenny, seeing as how he is the only one whose name isn’t in the opening credits. At that moment, a rhythmic thumping begins. Everyone turns to the locked door, slowly moving towards it. Shawn, basically breaking the fourth wall, explains that the sound they are hearing is their hearts signifying their rising fear. Shawn readies himself, telling the others that in a moment, the door will open, and from the other side will come something horrible.
The door opens to reveal Eric and Jack, Cory and Shawn’s respective older brothers. The two have come to John Adams High to use the gym and now find themselves locked in as well. They explain that since finishing their pick-up game, things have been creepy, mainly because of the weird looking Janitor, but also because the blood coming out of the showers.
Shawn is more confident than ever that Feeny is behind it all, and that Kenny will be the first to die. The lights turn off and a moment later turn back on, Kenny is dead, a pencil through his skull.
Welcome to John Adams High
Where you are gonna die
That’s right, fall right this way
For good measure, and to fill some time, the gang runs about looking for an unlocked door to no avail. Shawn stops them all, telling them it is a waste of time before explaining what will happen next – a shrouded figure will pass by, but none of them will see it (this happens), then the lights will flicker and Feeny will show up. The lights flicker, and the song comes back…
Here’s a knife, here’s a gun
There’ll be fun for everyone
Death is on the menu tonight
When the lights go back to normal, Feeny is indeed there, standing still. Shawn, proud of himself, slaps Feeny on the shoulder. Feeny falls forward, a pair of scissors sticking out of his back. Shawn realizes his mistake, and how his mistake caused Feeny’s death. The moment Shawn suspected Feeny of being the killer, he was destined to die – the first suspect always dies.
Cory switches from suspecting the now dead Feeny to suspecting the creepy Janitor. Shawn knows that this means they’ll find the Janitor dead soon enough. Sure enough, the gang finds the Janitor dead, his body stuffed into a trash cart.
Shawn explains that the death of the Janitor signifies the end of the obvious suspects, leaving behind only the characters that would be shocking to the audience, in this case Cory and his friends. One of them is the killer… but who?
Refusing to accept Shawn’s theory, the gang decides to set a trap for the killer by everyone going into one classroom, leaving Eric in the hall alone as bait. It is then that the episode’s very special guest shows up – Jennifer Love Hewitt comes into the hall, explaining that she is a new student who got locked in by accident.
It is in the library that we get our first good look at the killer as he kills Jennifer Love Hewitt, dropping a bunch of books on her. Then the killer kills Eric in the same fashion. His best friend dead, Jack decides to kill himself by jumping out the window, but is stopped by Angela, only for both of them to be pushed out the window by the killer.
With only Cory, Topanga and Shawn left, the killer comes forward. Shawn removes the killer’s mask to reveal… Shawn!
Shawn wakes up, still in detention. It was all a dream brought on by Shawn’s feelings about Cory and Topanga breaking up. To him, their break-up is the death of their friendships. Feeny, seeing that Shawn has learned his lesson, lets everyone out of detention early. No one seems to mind that they all had to sit in detention while Shawn had a dream so he could learn a lesson. What good friends.
The episode really plays out the older format of a slasher, though it never fully connects with them. The whodunit aspect of the slasher would pretty much disappear in the 80s when the killers became the stars of the movies, but came back strong with Scream, which this episode pays homage to as well. Still, the story never quite hit for me, likely due to the show being part of ABC’s TGiF lineup, so they couldn’t really go full out with the slasher aspects. It also doesn’t help that some of the jokes are super dated (there are three South Park jokes in the episode) while most of the others aren’t very funny.
Jennifer Love Hewitt is pretty much wasted in the episode. At the time, she was dating Will Friedle, who played Eric on the show, and it is pretty obvious that she is there as a favor to him. If I was going to guess, I’d say JLH was on set for maybe half a day. The episode may have been better served if instead of having her do a cameo, they spent a few more minutes on the gang suspecting each other of being the killer, but I suppose that, in 1998, if you could get Jennifer Love Hewitt to show up on your show for even a minute, you took it. This episode aired nine months before I Know What You Did Last Summer would hit theaters, so I guess Boy Meets World gets to say that they were the thing that made Hewitt into a scream queen (one of the jokes that does work in the episode is Hewitt and Angela arguing over who gets to be the girl who screams).
Following the logic of the episode, Hewitt should have become a suspect, but never was one. Her sudden appearance after the death of the Janitor goes against Shawn’s warning that all the obvious suspects are gone. Oh well.
The episode is filmed on a closed set and, from what I can figure, there was not a live audience. There are moments where the camera goes handheld, which you didn’t see in sitcoms at the time, so props for trying something there, but I would have liked to see the lighting scheme resemble more of a horror feel and less of a sitcom feel. The two interesting kills, Kenny and Feeney, are kind of hollow, and I think part of that is because of the bright lighting. The episode never really tries to scare the viewer, I guess, instead playing out the comedy of the moments above the fear, to the detriment of both.
The episode also touches on dream logic at certain points, but never fully follows that path, making these moments feel out of place even though the whole episode is a dream in itself. Maybe in Girl Meets World they’ll do an episode that is an homage to Suspiria and we can get the dream logic right in that one.
I guess when you have twenty two minutes to tell a slasher story in, you have to rush through some aspects, and with that in mind, Boy Meets World does an OK job of covering all the bases, I just wish it could have played more in the world. If it had been a two parter or a special hour long episode, maybe they could have really dug into the genre, but at the same time, the last few minutes of the episode kind of feels like they are running low on ideas, so maybe shorter is better in this case.
An interesting note: the director of this episode, Jeff McCracken, got his start as an actor in the Wes Craven TV movie Stranger in Our House. The Janitor, who appears to be named Fred, may be a little nod to Craven. I should mention that while Jennifer Love Hewitt was the special guest star that was advertised for the episode, Fred the Janitor was played by Joe Turkel, who you may remember as Lloyd the bartender in The Shining. Turkel was a favorite of Stanley Kubrick, appearing in three of the director’s films. He looked real creepy in the episode too.
*Photos: Buena Vista Television, ABC Family