Top 10 Episodes of the Nostalgic Disney Children’s Show ‘Recess’
In 1997 the American animated television series Recess was first broadcast in the United States. After initial success it was aired in more countries, and eventually it reached the United Kingdom, where in 2001 it caught my attention.
The show followed the mishaps and adventures of a gang of six close knit 9- 10 year old friends, set in an elementary school environment. The title of the show refers to the time of the day when students are temporarily free of studying in lessons and can play sports in the school-yard or generally hang out with their friends. This is otherwise known as ‘break time’ or the British term I’m most familiar with (from my school days) – ‘playtime’.
The show cleverly encapsulated stereotypes, evident in the roles of the main characters. For example there was:
- Gretchen Grundler – the geeky girl/bookworm
- Vince LaSalle – the sporty superstar jock
- Gus Griswald – the unlucky military inspired kid
- Ashley Spinelli – the tough tomboy
- Mikey Blumberg – the poetic gentle giant
- T.J Detweiler – the protagonist and leader of the gang, an adventurous prankster and the amiable everyman.
The show had a social hierarchy and the school-yard was governed by the 6th grader King Bob who resided at the top of the yard’s jungle gym on his sofa (throne), with the support of his aides (other 6th grade pupils). T.J and his gang of 5 friends were supposedly in the centre of the school’s unwritten class system, with Kindergartners who were perceived to be reckless and wild placed towards the bottom of this hypothetical social ladder.
The show embraced cliches whilst simultaneously creating entertaining characters. Reoccurring characters like The Ashleys who were a group of spoilt girls obsessed with image and fashion. There were characters that were unique and suited to roles in the school-yard such as The Guru Kid – an advisor, The Diggers -twins Sam and Dave who loved to dig holes in the school lawn, Upside Down Girl -a female who amusingly was perpetually hanging upside down from a frame in the yard.
As central to any good television show there was an abundance of antagonists and T.J’s gang were frequently compelled to fight against threats by adults and authority figures such as the Mayor and even the Government. Fellow student Lawson (and his crew) often challenged T.J and the gang and whenever the opportunity arose Lawson’s crew would try to achieve superiority over T.J’s gang and embarrass them.
The children attended ‘Third Street Elementary School’, presided over by Principal Prickly who was a cantankerous, stubborn man who occasionally showed a more understanding side and believed that ‘kids will be kids’. His fellow staff member Muriel P. Finster better known as Miss Finster was an archetypal domineering disciplinarian old lady who was always vigilant of troublesome students. She was assisted by student Randall Weems who spied on the children and reported their plans to Miss Finster. Often it appeared that some of the teachers were intentionally against the students, I felt that this mirrors a few of my own experiences of school.
The viewer was shown only a few members of the teaching staff. We were introduced to Miss Grotke, the class teacher who was peaceful, kind and had a hippy like manner which was suggested by her clothing, demeanour and the use of the peace sign.
There were 127 episodes of Recess, each lasting around 15 minutes possibly representing the shortest allotted time of recess. Here, in my opinion are the Top 10 Episodes of Recess that (if possible) are well worth watching.
10. The Substitute (Series 2, Episode 37)
Miss Grotke becomes ill and a mysterious substitute teacher called Mr E takes over her class while she is away.
T.J and some of the gang get excited and plan many small pranks and tricks on the teacher. I can identify with this as when I was in school and my class had substitute teachers most students saw it as a chance to relax and not take things seriously. T.J decides he is going to tell the teacher that his is name is ‘Hugh Belcher’. Gretchen is going to re-read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and as she exclaims ‘this time I won’t have to rush’.
Their plans are ruined when they are introduced to Mr E who is strictly no nonsense and determined to control the class. He makes the children do Push Ups and Star Jumps (Jumping Jacks) at recess and then sets them an independent study project, which they are due to present on Friday.
Mr E has a cool, gravelly voice and a slick manner. T.J’s gang like Mr E, Gus is especially fond of him because Mr E helps Gus deal with bullies. The Ashleys imitate his style and wear the same type of glasses he wears. It seems everyone likes Mr E, except for T.J. On Friday most of the presentations are well received, and T.J unexpectedly gives a presentation. His presentation is based around supporting Miss Grotke with a ‘Get Well Soon card ‘ and he expresses that he feels like the class have forgotten Miss Grotke. Surprisingly Mr E likes the presentation, along with the class. Episode Highlight: Gretchen explains her project to the class:
“A machine that produces more energy than it takes in and has the potential to revolutionise the world as we know it…’ she is then interrupted by two secret agents who burst through the door. They photograph her equations written on the chalkboard (and then erase the equations) and steal away her project that was sitting on the desk. Gretchen then says ‘Mr E I hope the fact that the Government have quashed my research won’t hurt my final grade?”
Mr E replies ‘It happens Grundler, count on an A’.
9. A Science Fair to Remember (Series 4, Episode 83)
For the school’s annual Science Fair Gretchen builds a solar powered generator, she is approached by a young student called Becky Benson who is inspired by Gretchen. Becky asks Gretchen to sign her Young Genius Girl magazine; she is cute and is willing to help Gretchen build her project. They hang out and Becky takes note of their project’s progress.
Meanwhile T.J, Vince, Gus and Mikey create volcanoes (for the fair) that will erupt with the added ingredients of bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. Spinelli makes her volcano battery powered and is sure she’ll win the Science Fair.
Gretchen asks Becky to hand in her application form for the fair, along with Becky’s form. On the day of the Science Fair it is revealed that Becky only handed in her application form and has also stolen Gretchen’s project. Gretchen is visibly upset and when the gang find out about what has happened they storm into the Science Fair to get Gretchen’s project back. Becky tries to explain how the solar powered generator works but doesn’t have enough knowledge about the machine. Gretchen goes to claim back her project and out Becky as a cheat, but she then sees the sign ‘SCIENCE FAIR, TO HELP MANKIND’ and explains how the machine works on Becky’s behalf. Becky wins the Science Fair award but feels guilty and tells the truth about taking Gretchen’s project.
Episode Highlight: Spinelli points at the gang’s volcanoes and shouts ‘look out they’re gonna blow’. The volcanoes erupt, students scream and Principal Prickly says reluctantly (among the mess of the explosion) ‘oh well… I guess the award goes to Detweiler and his friends.’
8. The Challenge (Series 2, Episode 35)
Principal Prickly’s brother is Principal of an Elementary school, the two siblings are rivals and make a bet over which school will win a kick ball game with the gang participating.
In an effort to impress his brother Principal Prickly neatens up the school by having a fresco of himself painted on the ceiling (with him in the role of God) and having cloakroom attendants in the school toilets. His brother arrives at the school and is unimpressed.
Principal Prickly and his brother (Principal) Paul begin to quarrel and make a bet. The bet is both schools play a game of kick ball and the Principal of the losing school has to wash the winner’s car, wearing a bathing suit in front of the other school during recess. Prickly takes the whole situation very seriously and chooses T.J and the gang to represent his school in the game.
The gang go to Principal Paul’s school where they have installed a 50 foot flagpole (to rival Principal Prickly’s flagpole). The school appears to be a clone of ‘Third Street Elementary School’, even the students are similar. There are female Diggers, an obese Guru Kid and an ethnic Upside Down Girl. There are kids in the team belonging to Principal Paul who resemble the gang. There is Rigelli, Vance, Greta Grobler, Rus Grimpole, Mickey and C.J Rotweiler (a female version of T.J).
The kids reach a draw while the brothers squabble in the middle of the game. T.J and C.J negotiate and agree to a draw and then play a game of kick ball just for the fun of it. Pete and Paul roll around fighting on the field while T.J exclaims ‘adults…tsk’.
Episode Highlight: When Mickey sees his counterpart Mickey playing in the kick ball game he yells out,’ Hey no fair, that kids really big!’
7. One Stayed Clean (Series 3, Episode 52)
It’s Picture Day at the school, and is Gus’ first ever Picture Day (due to him moving schools so often).
The gang are informed that the 4th grade will have their pictures taken last, which means they’ll have to spend the whole day avoiding the dirt and the chaos of the school-yard. It’s amusing to see the friends smartened up and loathing the fact that they must have their pictures taken. I recall this feeling as I used to dislike having my picture taken at school.
The gang plans to help keep Gus free from dirt and want to make his first Picture Day a success. Their friendship is vital in this episode because it shows they are willing to put Gus first and get their clothes dirty to ensure Gus looks his best.
The episode plays out like a war film parody, having each kid killed off (being dirtied) at some point in the day. The yard acts as the battlefield and the students as soldiers. Lawson is on a mission to ruin the clothes of the gang, especially Gus’ clothes. T.J tries to protect Gus from Lawson, but Gus courageously jumps in front of T.J and his outfit is splattered with the remains of a can of cheese thrown by Lawson. T.J writes a letter to Gus’ father (a Military Officer) and states that he is proud to be Gus’ friend.
Episode Highlight: Gus and T.J hiding away from the disorder in a hole (made by the Diggers) see Randall sitting in the corner despondently playing his harmonica.
6. Lord of the Nerds (Series 3, Episode 61)
T.J breaks his collarbone playing kick ball and is forced to stay in Room 51, (Area 51 reference?) which is full of nerds who don’t go outside for recess. He is cautious of them but soon sees that they are quite welcoming towards him.
This episode contains many geek/nerd culture jokes which I unashamedly got the reference to. The nerds do a hand salute and say ‘Live well and thrive’, this is an obvious reference to Star Trek. They also love to play role playing games like Dragons and Daggers (reference to Dungeons and Dragons).
The nerds are colloquially known as ‘The Pale Kids’ and there is an urban legend that a student called Tiny Sedgewick was taken away by ‘The Pale Kids’ and never seen again. The nerds seem to get on well with T.J and leave him to do his own thing – reading comics, while they build their ‘constructo-crystal-roboborg’ toys. They find a common interest in Señor Fusion comics and take T.J to the Worlds Largest Comic Book Store.
T.J finally recovers and brings the nerds outside with him. They play kick ball but don’t really enjoy it mainly because of Lawson’s taunting. Nerdy Frank finally squares up to Lawson and reveals that he is actually Tiny Sedgewick. The nerds go back to Room 51 and T.J rejoins his friends in the yard.
Episode Highlight: The nerds meet Gretchen Grundler and it is apparent they have a crush on her. Nerdy Steve says (of Gretchen), ‘She rocks my planet’.
5. The Library Kid (Series 4, Episode 66)
The gang go to the library to get some books for their newest project, whilst there they speak of an urban legend of a kid who stays indoors all recess, named ‘The Library Kid’.
Gus sees her and they track her down, using Walkie Talkies. They communicate where she is in the aisles of the library for example Vince says ‘she’s coming back towards philosophy’.’The Library Kid’ (clearly inspired by Roald Dahl’s Matilda) explains how she was an avid reader from a young age, and how she looked forward to joining Kindergarten.
On her first day at school she saw her chaotic fellow Kindergartners and ran to the school library where she sought solace forever more. T.J and his friends find her in the corner of the library reading The Pocket (Albert) Camus.
They persuade her to come out for recess, just for the experience. They teach her how to play sports, until she loses control and no longer wants to go inside. She climbs on school property and endangers herself by climbing the flag pole. Gretchen tells the gang to read excerpts from books as they will rekindle her love of literature and she will come down from the flagpole and return to normal. Gretchen finds the gang too engrossed in their chosen books (like Vince reading a book about Sports Trivia). She pulls the fire alarm lever and the fire brigade rescue ‘The Library Kid’. Gretchen encourages ‘The Library Kid’ to read but also to enjoy recess.
I probably like this episode mainly because I can relate to her as I love to read and enjoy the references to literature in this episode.
Episode Highlight: Gus runs toward the gang in the library and yells,’ You guys, you guys… I saw something weird back there!’ Spinelli replies sarcastically ‘ Great Randall followed us’.
4. The Box (Series 1, Episode 17)
Miss Finster is annoyed at students breaking school-yard rules so she creates a new type of punishment called ‘The Box’. It is simply 4 white lines drawn on the floor, but appears to be effective punishment.
T.J is made to stand in the box and he soon loses his sanity and becomes a nervous wreck, scared to do anything. His friends take drastic action to help him return to his usual self.
‘The Box’ becomes solid and claustrophobic to T.J and he sees the school clock melt (possible Salvador Dali reference?). He talks to himself rapidly and has sudden jerky movements. When he is allowed to leave his punishment he is agitated by square shapes as they remind him of ‘The Box’. He fears Miss Finster and does menial chores for her.
The gang intervene, Gretchen explains from her book The Pocket (Sigmund) Freud that T.J must confront his fears and return to ‘The Box’. He goes back to his punishment and soon realises that ‘it’s just four dumb lines painted on the ground’ much to his relief.
Episode Highlight: T.J’s descent into insanity whilst quite disturbing is an interesting glimpse at how quickly anxiety can control a person and make an impact quickly. This is particularly notable as T.J is normally very chilled so this change in behaviour is unexpected. The gang are shocked at the change in T.J but work together to help him overcome his fear.
3. Weekend at Muriel’s (Series 2, Episode 44)
Spinelli’s parents go away leaving her to spend the weekend with Miss Finster.
Spinelli and her parents bump into Miss Finster in the supermarket where it is revealed that Spinelli’s mother was a friend of Miss Finster. The parents unable to get a babysitter, as a last resort accept Miss Finster’s offer to look after Spinelli.
When her friends hear the news at school Mikey flings his arms to his head and dramatically screams ‘Noooo!!’ The gang say their goodbyes to her which sound more like final farewells.
Spinelli is forced to do ‘old people stuff’ while at Miss Finster’s house, she feels miserable and calls her friends for help. Miss Finster overhears the telephone conversation and is dismayed to hear that she has become ‘boring’, and tries to do fun things. Miss Finster hosts a ‘Luau’ (Hawaiian party) for herself and Spinelli, just like she used to do with Spinelli’s grandmother back in Guam. Spinelli sees that Miss Finster has made an effort and joins in hula dancing.
Episode Highlight: The gang come to rescue Spinelli and look through the window where they see Miss Finster and Spinelli hula dancing together. T.J then whispers, ‘Guys lets promise to never talk about this’ and the bemused group disperse.
2. The Beauty Contest (Series 2, Episode 51)
Spinelli throws a dirt clod into The Ashleys clubhouse and to get revenge on her The Ashleys enter Spinelli into a beauty contest as a joke.
When Miss Grotke is teaching the class about Amelia Earhart and how ‘in 1932 she flew across the Atlantic and was an outspoken model of rugged feminism’ presenter of ‘Little Miss Blush’ contest Guy McMann bursts in through the door and announces the contestants. The Ashleys are all contestants including Spinelli who is embarrassed and confused at the news. She wants to fight The Ashleys but her friends convince her to beat them at the pageant.
They prepare her by taking away her hat and hair ties and washing her hair. Vince particularly takes it seriously. They rehearse answers for the ‘Question and Answer’ segment of the contest. Vince says the 5 things that need to be mentioned are ‘World Peace’ , ‘happiness’ , ‘unity’ , ‘hair’ and ‘teaching others to read’. Gus and Gretchen help make a dress for Spinelli.
Ashley Q and Ashley A make the finals along with Spinelli. At the ‘Question and Answer’ Spinelli tells the truth and exclaims that ‘this isn’t me’. Vince starts to cry out in the crowd ‘No it’s all over!’, but the judges are impressed by Spinelli’s honesty and she wins.
Episode Highlight: Vince becomes her trainer and shows her how to do ‘the walk’ in high heels (Miss Congeniality reference?) enthusiastically instructing her to ‘Step, step, sashay!’
1. Recess is Cancelled (Series 4, Episode 74)
The Government decide to officially cancel recess as test grades are failing.
When the children hear the news Mikey screams, ‘Noooo!!’ (a recurring gag) and everyone is shocked into disbelief.
The Government secret agents Agent Noble and Agent Barnes monitor the class; Miss Grotke calls the agents ‘The Man’. Finster is restless without recess; even the teachers dislike the change. One teacher says ‘ Good grief man we teachers need time to…to sit and do nothing’, a secret agent replies ‘not on the taxpayers time you don’t’.
As the children slip into boredom, there is usage of black and white tones to show dreariness. The kids start to go slightly crazy and lose their energy constantly talking about pencils, test boxes and unsurprisingly – wanting freedom.
The Government see test scores are going down further, so they create a new pilot programme called Recess (pronounced Reckess) ‘Reversing’, ‘Effects of’, ‘Continuous’, ‘Educational’, ‘Stress Syndrome’. They come full circle and the episode satirizes the ineffectiveness of the Government finishing with the President and his advisor boasting about their great new idea of recess.
Episode Highlight: Principal Prickly over the PA system tells the kids to go outside and a confused Gus asks ‘Is that God?’
Episodes of Recess were of a high quality mixing humour with a perfect blend of trivial issues and juxtaposing these with moralistic story lines. This Top 10 list is purely my opinion and I found it difficult to limit it to only 10 episodes. Here are some honourable mentions (of episodes) that did not make it into my list
- The Big Prank (Series 4, Episode 69) – T.J and King Bob compete against each other to become crowned the ‘Prankster Prince’.
- Mikey’s Pants ( Series 4, Episode 84) – Mikey’s pants split and the gang have to help hide Mikey before he is taken away by Miss Finster to have his trousers sewn up
- Schoolworld (Series 4, Episode 88) – The school installs a new system called SAL 3000 which controls everything (2001: A Space Odyssey parody).
- Outcast Ashley (Series 2, Episode 30) – Ashley A is temporarily thrown out of The Ashleys, she befriends Gretchen with unfortunate consequences.
- Gretchen and the Secret of Yo (Series 2, Episode 38) – Gretchen finds a new talent in yo-yos and she enters a yo-yo competition.
- Pharaoh Bob – (Series 2, Episode 42) – King Bob orders the students to build a Pyramid in honour of him so he will be remembered in later years.
If you have a favourite Recess episode please feel free to write about it below, I’d love to hear your views.
What do you think? Leave a comment.