Undoubtedly, a sitcom is a living organism. It is conceived, is born, grows, weakens, and dies. It can live too long or be cut down unexpectedly in the prime of its life. The sitcom’s lifecycle is as unpredictable, yet ultimately inevitable, as any organic creature. One of the most interesting aspects of the sitcom is its ability to change. Actors age, characters come and go; the tone of the show itself may change. The show is not better or worse for this change. It is simply different.
On March 20, 1998, the 18th episode in the 5th season of Boy Meets World, “Eric Hollywood,” aired on ABC. “Eric Hollywood” perfectly demonstrates the changes a show makes over its lifetime. Indeed, in the case of Boy Meets World, change may not be the appropriate word. Instead the process is more aptly described as maturation. Whereas early episodes of BMW reflect a family sitcom in the classic model, complete with lessons learned for the title character, “Eric Hollywood” reveals a different, bolder manifestation of the form.
A synopsis of “Eric Hollywood” seems fairly standard for the genre. Eric, played by the luminary Will Friedle, stars in a school play and catches the acting bug while Sean and Jack catch a different bug: chicken pox. Barbie Feldman’s script, however, transcends this simplistic plot and reaches postmodern brilliance. The action begins when Eric’s shoddy workmanship in building the set for the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet mortally wounds the production’s Romeo. As paramedics tend to Romeo, a job necessitating a defibrillator, Eric reveals that while building the sets, he has managed to memorize the entire play. Though initially met with skepticism, as Eric recites Romeo’s lines, doubt turns quickly to awe. Eric is brilliant. And so his journey begins.
Eric’s performances garner rave reviews from multiple Philadelphia area newspapers. Based on the buzz Eric generates, his performance of Hamlet attracts representatives from Juilliard and Royal Shakespeare Company. Both organizations feel that Eric has a bright future. Eric, however, turns them both down for an opportunity with ABC (“The number one network alphabetically in the world”), stating, “Me, in the TV?”
At this point, Ms. Feldman’s script transforms into metafiction. Eric travels with Mr. Feeney to Hollywood, arriving on the set of the hit show “Kid Gets Acquainted with Universe.” The show is an exact copy of Boy Meets World, using both the Boy Meets World set and actors. Testing the audience’s suspension of disbelief, Eric and Mr. Feeney do not notice that they are in Eric’s house and that the actors look exactly like Eric's brother and friends. Eric is auditioning for the role of the long lost older brother, “not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but has a heart of gold.” Basically, Eric is completing the current cast of Boy Meets World.
Brilliantly playing against character, in this alternate universe, Ben Savage is Ben Sandwich, the egomaniacal star of the show. Savage (or Sandwich) screams at everyone for ruining his show. Finding the episode he is rehearsing displeasing, Savage/Sandwich storms into the writer’s room and fires everyone. In a joke at her own expense, Ms. Feldman's script dictates that all of the writers are five years old. Savage/Sandwich engages in a rather undignified argument with the five year olds before returning for Eric's audition.
Eric’s audition goes poorly as he realizes he can only perform Shakespeare, making his accent and dialogue hopelessly outdated. Eric employs phrases like “Ouchy McGouchy little bro if I don’t have my lucky tube socks I shall never pass the astronaut test.” When instructed to just act honestly, he tells Sandwich that he is a jerk. Eric is quickly fired and expelled from the studio.
The brilliance of this scene is that it does not merely breach the fourth wall, as Zack Morris does when he addresses the camera in Saved By The Bell. Instead, Ms. Feldman “foregrounds the apparatus” and makes a pointed commentary on Hollywood. The episode ends with Eric back at home looking for his lucky tube socks, the exact situation used in his audition. Like the episode of Kid Gets Acquainted with Universe, Cory reveals that he has shrunk the socks. In response to Cory's line, however, Eric breaks character, becoming Will Friedle, and screams at Ben Savage for changing the line. Eric/Friedle then storms out raving maniacally. The metaficiton is brought full circle in a very satisfying way.
Though it is hardly worth mentioning, and severely detracts from the brilliance of "Eric Hollywood," there is a terrible subplot about Sean and Jack getting chicken pox and Topanga acting as their nurse. Valuable lessons are learned about how Topanga and Cory's break up does not change the fact that Sean and Topanga can still be friends. A delirious Jack, horribly acted as usual by Matthew “Caveman” Lawrence, reveals this tension while Jack is under the influence of his fever. Chicken pox is portrayed as horrible boils accompanied by constant fainting.
Equally alarming, Jack plays Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet at the beginning of the episode. He is remarkably bad. Considering the metafiction elements of the episode, Caveman’s terrible performance of Jack’s terrible performance is either gorgeous commentary or a shitty coincidence. This reviewer will give Ms. Feldman the benefit of the doubt.