"Recess" is a real surprise. The characters are great, the humor is top-notch, and the writing is absolutely brilliant.
"The Economics of Recess," for example, is a real highlight. In this episode, young T.J. denounces the other kids' obsession with the latest fad on the playground: Monstickers. But when T.J. realizes that Monstickers are being used as a commodity, he sells his prized red cap for just a few of them. Rather than immediately spending his measly allotment as the other kids do, he decides to work hard to earn more. Eventually, T.J. earns enough money to hire other kids to work for him; he then becomes a manager, and over time, builds himself a monopoly. Overwhelmed with avarice, he shuns his friends, abandoning the things that once mattered to him most. Economics, capitalism, work ethic, greed--all subject matters are presented here in a poignant, engaging way. It is television at its best.
In "The Ratings Game," another great episode, the popular girls assign "ratings" to their classmates, which everyone takes quite seriously. Those with the "low ratings" allow themselves to be consumed by isolation and depression, while those with the "high ratings" become condescending and supercilious. Divisiveness results in chaos, which finally allows the kids to recognize the meaninglessness of the labels that were originally assigned to them. Promoted here is the existentialist viewpoint that, regardless of circumstance, we all choose our own individual destinies. Few children's shows manage to be quite this poignant and insightful.
At the heart of "Recess" is a strong, diverse cast of characters, an element of the show that cannot be overlooked. T.J. is a strong leader, Spinelli is outgoing, Gus is shy and inhibited, Gretchen is brainy, Vince is athletic, and Mikey is creative. It's hard not to find somebody to relate to.
Easy to relate to as well are the situations the characters encounter. The subjects of embarrassment, chivalry, displacement, uncertainty, and even profanity are dealt with both sensibly and humorously. Frequently, in fact, "Recess" manages to be far cleverer than its adult-oriented animated counterparts.
It's unlikely we'll find a kids' show quite as smart as "Recess" any time soon. It will certainly be missed.