Monday, February 1, 2010

SMCS Companion Piece #3: Recess



As you may or may not be aware I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with The Walt Disney Company. On the one hand they are a soulless, money grubbing cooperation who has their fingers in way too many pies. Of course now they own Marvel Comics, who are also pretty soulless, so now I literally pay Disney money every week meaning that they won and I lost. Sad. On the other hand Disney has produced some of the best cartoons in American history, both on television and film. I must say that their television cartoons are extremely Hit or Miss but when they hit they are usually fantastic. The seeds of this were, of course, planted by the “Disney Afternoon” era, where the company churned out large numbers of decent cartoons, and its predecessor syndicated cartoons Adventures of the Gummi Bears and Duck Tales. Since then Disney repeatedly experimented with different genres of animation to see what works and what didn’t. This sometimes resulted in gold (Darkwing Duck, Pepper Ann) but sometimes resulted in less than gold (Mighty Ducks, Bonkers) and usually an enjoyable in-betweens that get canceled (Fillmore, Dave the Barbarian). Disney has a very upsetting habit of axing shows for lame reasons or sometimes even no given explanation at all. There’s also an unspoken rule that after three seasons a show must be canceled. This may be done to keep a show fresh, but sometimes I think it’s a waste depending on the series. Gargoyles for example could have gone a few more seasons I think, assuming that the show runner hadn’t been fired of course (Which he was in Season 3, so never mind).

One of the exceptions to this cancellation rule was Recess as it lasted six seasons, a movie and straight to video episodes. We are all better off for it. This week on the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show DJ Mippet and I watched this fine show and as per usual I didn't get to talk much about it, so...

Beta on Recess


Premiering in 1998 Recess on ABC the cartoon had a simple premise: six 4th graders having adventures during recess. I must point out that I was in High School when this show came out and didn’t really watch it regularly until I was something like seventeen years old (Because watching cartoons aren’t cool). This show was fantastic. An ensemble cast made up of interesting and dynamic characters (Something we don’t see much on TV in general), a large yet fun cast of supporting characters, actual continuity between episodes (Meaning when the characters learn a lesson THEY KEEP IT IN MIND IN FUTURE EPISODES) and lessons for kids that were organically told through entertaining storytelling. This is something that never happens! Usually on kids shows they just beat you over the head with “Do’s and Do-Not’s”. Best of all the writing on this sow was clever enough that adults would have as much fun watching as their kids, another rarity.

The show takes place at Third Street Elementary where the core cast deal with the various ins and outs of their school during recess, though they are far from mundane. The school is filled with hyper exaggerated aspects of being in elementary school (Such as unspoken rules being referred to as an unbreakable kids code) and even ruled over by a King (King Bob). Not something I dealt with in school, but whatever. They were just as likely to have an episode focused on kickball as they were to have one where the gang uncovers a conspiracy that threatens recess all over the world.

Let’s look at the cast:

TJ: The leader of the group and the closet thing the show has to a main character, TJ is a friendly well-intentioned schemer who is the embodiment of loyalty and will never abandoned a friend. He is universally liked among the playground, except for a single person (Who turns out not to have a good reason for it). Even his enemies like him. His friends sometimes fight over which one is his best friend but in his own words he has five best friends.

Vince: The token black kid in the group Vince is probably the best athletic in school that spends most of the series dominating the various sports of the playground including basketball and kickball, though it’s made clear that he’s not unbeatable. He has an older brother who he looks up to, but is initially unaware that he’s a big honking nerd. If his pride is hurt he has a habit of falling apart over it.

Spinelli: One of the toughest kids in school Spinelli is a gigantic tomboy taking the archetype to the extreme. She’s fairly violent and can intimidate just about anyone on the playground despite having a small frame. Luckily she does have a good heart, though it’s hidden under layers of bravado. Her first name is “Ashley”, a fact that she is ashamed of in part due to its girly nature but mostly because of a rival group of friends on the playground, the gossiping Ashleys, whom she dislikes being compared to.

Gretchen: Usually portrayed as being far and away the smartest kid in school Gretchen has more than once passed up opportunities for accelerated programs in order to avoid being separated from her friends which probably means she’s doomed herself to a life of mediocrity. She tends to be a voice of reason in the group, usually speaking on the scientific and logical approach of things but is still hampered by the fact that she is just a child.

Mikey: A play on the “Big Guy” archetype Mikey is a gentle giant who rarely loses his temper. If Gretchen is the brains of the group then Mikey is the heart, speaking out for the emotional impact on the situation. The nicest member of the group he is widely known for his incredible singing ability (Provided by Robert Goulet). However, as per “Big Guy” rules he is very a heavy eater.

Gus: An army brat, Gus has a long history of transferring to different schools due his father’s postings with the military. He doesn’t show up immediately in the first episode but once does he’s quickly assimilated into the group and acts as the Point of View character for viewers while the world of Recess is explored. Gus tends to be a worrier and often gets carried away, needing his friends to rescue him from himself. He’s a Butt-Monkey and spends most of the series being the victim of some running gag or another (Though he’s usually not bitter about it). While normally portrayed as being extremely average he possesses an impressive knowledge of military grade vehicles and is a master of dodge ball.

There’s also a large cast of supporting characters but the list is so long that I can’t really list them all here. Most of them have a surprising amount of depth for glorified background characters. My favorite of these is King Bob, ruler of the Third Street playground. Apparently in this world all schools have a king who enforces the rules of the playground. King Bob is a particular interesting a character because, despite the fact he’s usually a noble ruler, he tends to go “crazy-banana”s every now and then thus creating chaos across the playground. My favorite of which was when he declared himself “Pharaoh” and forced all the kids into slave labor to build pyramids out of mud, leading to a bloody muddy civil war. It also had my favorite lines in the series.

King Bob: I guess I just got carried away and, well, what I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry.

TJ: Sorry? Sorry?! After enslaving us and making us work in the hot sun and sicking your guards on us with that big hose?! You say you’re sorry? Why should we forgive you?!

King Bob: I’ll repel the gum tax.

TJ: All hail King Bob!

Ah, if only all slavery ended so amicably.



Henceforth Thursdays shall be known as "Silly Hat Day"
This I command!!!


Anyway long story short this cartoon had great acting, despite most of the main cast were voiced by kids, fun stories, intriguing characters, and managed to produce six seasons worth of good stuff (Though in typical Disney fashion the last few seasons were shockingly short). This is one of the few cartoons that I’m completely 100% endorse. This is as close to a perfect cartoon as you will find.


For more on Recess click here

For the Saturday Morning Cartoon Show podcast check out the SMCS Blog or WIDR Kalamazoo

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