So there’s this episode of the Disney Channel series Recess that is a hilarious if simple critique of Capitalism’s tendency to create monopolies and a demonstration of why that’s a problem. “2 stickers please.” “It’s water. You can’t charge for water!” “2 stickers!” Given how the words Disney and monopolies are in the headlines a lot these days I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at how a show they themselves produced critiques their current business practices. Aren’t I clever? So first of all, what is Recess? I’ll tell you what recess is. It’s the show that Dan Harmon shamelessly ripped off when he made Community. Seriously, people are always on about how community is so original. Well, think about this… Both shows take place at a school and are about a group of misfits who each fit into a school stereotype. You’ve got the jock, the geek, the rebel, the one who’s really nice, the one who’s a little bit of an outsider and the leader who gives inspiring speeches to rally the group. “That’s it! You guys can sit around here moping and griping all you want but I’m going to do something!” “We’ve known each other for almost two years now and yeah in that time I’ve given a lot of speeches…” There’s an older megalomaniacal villain, a conniving snitch that often wants to be part of the group and a principal/ dean who is obsessed with his own reputation and an absurd number of episodes have the exact same premise. In season two, episode 23 of Recess, Spinelli is embarrassed about having to take dance classes but feels better about it because Mikey is there. In season 1, episode 14 of Community, Troy Lee is embarrassed about taking dance classes but feels better about it because Britta is there. Vince and Gretchen run against each other for class president, and the candidates Annie and Jeff run against each other in Intro to Political Science. Gus is revealed to be an amazing dodgeball player. Shirley is revealed to be an amazing foosball player. The rivalry between two principals/ deans is decided through a game played by their students: kickball and paintball respectively. Mikey becomes a Safety Ranger. Annie and Shirley become on campus security. Spinelli starts a religion around Swinger Girl. Abed starts a religion around himself. The teachers’ lounge in Recess is absurdly luxurious. Community does the same joke. Randall becomes Prince. Chang takes over the school. The gang goes on a field trip but the bus breaks down and they have to fix it to get home. The study group gets stranded in a bus and have to work together to get back home. TJ has to pull a prank on someone who is very good at pranks. The study group has to grift a grifter. The Ashleys make a rating system that assigns a number to every student and the kids are only allowed to socialize with people with the same rating. In Community an app does the exact same thing with the exact same consequences and the exact same message. TJ and Vince compete to become the AV kid the kid in charge of the school’s projectors, which in their minds is super cool and prestigious. In Community the Air Conditioning College is treated like it’s super cool and prestigious and tries to recruit Troy. In both shows there’s a competition to fix one of the machines. Maybe you’re thinking “Oh well, Community loves to riff on other genres. It’s not stealing from Recess directly. It’s stealing from everything.” Wrong! They stole stealing from Recess too! Both shows love to do parody episodes Recess has had a Goodwill Hunting episode, a 2001 a Space Odyssey episode and a Cool Hand Luke episode. In a parody of the Hardy Boys stories, TJ and Vince become the Barnaby Boys and must solve a mystery. In a parody of Law & Order Troy and Abed have to solve a mystery. Gretchen stars in a film noir episode and Chang becomes a film noir detective. In a civil war parody, Gus has to stay clean during a day-long mud fight and one by one the gang gets dirty in parodies of war movies, Star Wars and westerns! The gang has to stay clean during a day-long paintball fight and one by one they get dirty. The timing is also too perfect. Recess is about a group of fourth-graders and started airing in 1997. If you were in the fourth grade in 1997, then you’d be in college in 2009, the year Community started airing! It’s almost like they made community at the exact right time to subconsciously appeal to fans of Recess! “So you guys suddenly just wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons?”
“Today is Thursday TJ, on Thursdays we play Daggers and Dragons!” Six seasons and a movie. All right, so I’m kidding around here. I mean the best compliment I can give Recess is that it is nearly as smart, funny and heartwarming as Community is and when I say Recess is funny, I mean it. The jokes still hold up. “What does that little country do? Fight or run away never go to school again? I mean go to the UN!” “Private, let me tell you a little story called World War One.” It’s not just funny though, it’s excellent satire. The show constantly pokes fun at the law, government, school administration and basically any kind of system of power. The satire is almost always about questioning who should have authority over others. Recess takes a lot of inspiration from the 1963 film, The Great Escape, which is about a group of World War Two prisoners of war who will try to escape. The theme song for Recess is ripped right from the movie. And it’s from prison movies that the show gets its extended metaphor that the playground is a prison yard and the school is a prison. The very first episode is about TJ getting locked in detention and the other kids staging an elaborate heist to break him out. Miss Finster is often framed like a prison warden, especially in the Cool Hand Luke parody episode: The Box. “Any man with dirty pants on sitting on a bunk spends a night in The Box!” Any infraction of any rule, no matter how slight, will result in a trip to The Box!” So the school is a prison and the adults in charge are always shown to be cruel or self-serving or idiotic. They are constantly abusing their power in absurd ways. For instance, there’s one episode where TJ is taken to court because he made up a swear word and in another the President of the United States takes it upon himself to cancel recess. But adults aren’t the only source of authority on the playground and the playground isn’t just a prison yard. It’s a microcosm of an entire society. There are different classes, a court police, a place outside the rule of law. There’s a constitution. “Oh, sorry, but according to the constitution of the playground, section 3 paragraph 2…” and at the top is King Bob who is a satire of the upper classes. He’s aloof, insensitive to the plight of others, can’t be argued with and revels in his own luxury and status. No other show captures what it feels like to be a kid quite like Recess does. There are so many people have more power than the kids do. There are so many rules to follow and the rules often feel as arbitrary as they are strict. In several episodes the characters try to live completely freely, like when TJ becomes a kindergartener or when Miss Finster breaks her ankle and can’t keep order on the playground or when the gang are the only ones who don’t get sick meaning that they have the whole playground to themselves. In all of these episodes the characters realize that having complete freedom can be as crippling as total conformity. The episodes that explore these questions, questions of who should have power, how much power should they have, and how should it be used are really what elevate the show for me. Recess also produced some fabulous heartstring-pulling episodes, but it’s the more satirical episodes that make this show truly unique in its genre. Now, the show has been notoriously difficult to find in recent years, but it’s now on Disney+ where you can… hold on a second… wait…Recess has six seasons and one theatrically released movie Where are the other seasons? Where are the other season? “The Economics of Recess”
Season 2, Episode 19 TJ Detweiler returns to school after a week-long absence to learn that the playground has adopted a form of currency: Monster stickers aka Mon stickers. If you want to do anything on the playground, you’ve got to pay with Mon stickers. “Mean they’re like money?” “Only better! Money doesn’t feature blood sucking ghouls from beyond the grave!” Yeah, it’s the chicken finger episode from Community just with stickers. TJ quickly learns that since he doesn’t have any stickers he can’t do anything that he used to be able to do for free. Throughout the rest of the episode TJ moves from the very bottom of this new economic system to all the way to the top. When TJ finds out Mon stickers are sold out everywhere, leaving him destitute, he gives a speech that basically summarizes the American dream: allowing you to work really hard get to the top and be free. “This will have to do for now. I may be down on my luck, but I’m not out! I’ll be back! I’ll wear sweat and toil like no kid before me and one day as I play and breathe… I’ll have enough stickers to buy back my hat, my dignity and maybe even a ball!” We then get a montage of TJ working various jobs for a small sticker wage. He quickly tires of this though since he’s not able to save up any stickers as part of the working class. “Man I’ve been busting my hump for days and I’m still just a working class shmo living sticker to sticker. There’s gotta be a better way. Wait a minute… maybe there is!” Doing the work himself, creating actual value, TJ is getting nowhere. So he’s got to do to succeed under capitalism is find a way to convince other people to do the work for him. He does this by buying a stake in a small business. This guy charges people to enter the school but he’s got a stand there all day to collect. TJ offers to invest 25 stickers up front, do all of the work and in exchange get 50% of the earnings. Then he hires someone else to do the work for much less than he’ll earn from that 50%. “Hey kid! Wanna make a few extra stickers? I’ll pay you two stickers a day to work the door for me. How’s that sound?” “Two stickers just to stand there all day? Deal!” So what just happened here? Well, TJ made an arrangement where he’s adding no additional value to the system. There was a guy watching the door before he arrived and there’s a guy watching it afterwards. Instead he has extracted value for himself and he’s exploited this poor guy who’s not getting paid what he’s worth. TJ continues to do this around the playground. After making a sizable amount of money, he uses his position to secure a monopoly on a valuable resource: the balls of the playground. “300 stickers for all the balls!” This continues until TJ is exponentially wealthier than anyone else. “Excuse me, sir but according to my calculations, you now control 4 of every 5 Mon stickers at 3rd Street school.”
“Excellent, now we just need to figure out a way to get the rest!” As the top dog on the playground he’s able to abuse his position to charge for things he really has no right to charge for like literally standing around. Eventually TJ’s actions impoverish the rest of the students and economic activity has essentially stalled. “TJ! The kids can’t afford to do anything as it is, look around! They don’t have stickers for balls, they don’t have stickers to play on old rusty! They can’t even sit on the grass! Everyone either works for you or just stands around and does nothing!” “Good point. Gus start charging kids for standing around. We’ll call it a loitering fee!” “You can’t charge kids just to stand around!” “Watch me!” With his newfound power, TJ becomes increasingly megalomaniacal and cruel. “But I suppose I could part with one sticker!” “One sticker?” “Take it or leave kooty head. I’m a busy man!” But just as quickly as he rises, he falls. His friends turn against him and introduce a new collectible to the playground, rendering TJ’s fortune worthless. “Two please!” “Two Mon stickers, right?””Afraid not! We’re operating on lick and stick Aliens standard now.” “Alien stickers?” But no, it can’t be! I’m I’m I’m busted!!” They then get him to sign a contract preventing him from owning 10% of any one market. But the episode ends on a foreboding note since TJ immediately reverts to old habits. “Welcome back TJ.” Let’s go play.” “I would love to guys but I don’t have a lick and stick to my name. I got to get to work. Oh good. King Bob looks sweaty.”
“Uh-oh!” Now I love this episode. I think it’s really funny but let’s acknowledge first that it is a very, very, very simplified version of economics and capitalism. Mon stickers are both a commodity and a currency in this story. There are no banks or a stock market and since Mon stickers are sold out of Kelso’s, there’s no way for new money to enter the system. There are a finite amount of stickers on playground. So yeah, this is a 10-minute long cartoon and the purpose of satire isn’t to accurately demonstrate all the nuances of its target but to exaggerate its flaws and ways that reveal a deeper truth and there’s so much here that rings true. Like the idea that it’s basically impossible to get ahead by working for a wage. That you can manipulate the system so that you’re not creating any additional value but extracting it. That monopolies allow businesses to gouge their customers. That making the rich richer does not trickle down to the rest of society since TJ is just hoarding his wealth. That the government, i.e. King Bob, never intervenes because they benefit from the system and really at its core the episode is just trying to show how money can corrupt a good person. What’s most interesting to me about this episode though is this, it starts out by very clearly establishing the rules of this society. Even though it’s an unjust system by charging for things like water, the rules are clear. Everything costs stickers now. TJ then begins to game the system but he’s still playing by the rules.Then once he’s cornered the market, he can just make up whatever rules he likes. He has no right to charge people for standing around but no one else is powerful enough to stop him. Earlier this year Disney bought 20th Century Fox bringing the number of major Hollywood studios from only six to just five. And Disney dwarfs the competition capturing roughly 40% of the box office in both 2018 and 2019. Their closest competitor, Warner Media, has less than half of that. This is a problem. Even if you have a lot of nostalgia for Disney, it is a problem. Here’s why: 1. There are now fewer gatekeepers in charge of which films get made. this could lead to further homogenization of the films that are released as riskier films with different sensibilities are prevented from being made. 2. There are fewer movies in total. Disney didn’t just buy Fox, they kind of dismantled them. They cancelled more than 200 of Fox’s films and will end up laying off about 3,000 peopl.e The film industry is literally smaller as a result of that purchase. 3. Disney can stiff-arm its competitors “But I suppose I could part with one sticker!” “One sticker!” “Take it or leave it kooty man, I’m a busy man!” Earlier this year, negotiations between Disney and Sony broke down over the Spider-man IP and for a while it was reported that spider-man would no longer appear in Disney’s Marvel films. The deal was eventually salvaged resulting in Disney getting 25% of the revenue from future Spider-man movies, up from the 10% that they had before the negotiation. The fact that fan outrage was directed primarily at Sony since people wanted to see the character interact with Disney’s Avengers may have been decisive in renewing the deal. 4. Disney can stiff-arm theaters. Once upon a time a law was passed preventing movie studios from owning movie theaters. The result was an explosion of independent productions, a very good thing. Recently Disney has shown a willingness to circumvent the spirit of that law such as the terms they gave to theaters for showing the Last Jedi. Disney wanted theaters to agree to show the film for four weeks in their biggest auditorium. That’s a bad deal for theaters since after a few weeks it would be more profitable to show a newer film. But since Star Wars is such a huge property, many theaters can’t afford to not show it at all. So the more powerful Disney becomes, the more they’re able to dictate terms to theatres meaning there are fewer screens for everyone else. “Let’s start charging kids for standing around. We’ll call it a loitering fee.” “You can’t charge kids just to stand around!” “Watch me!” 5. The Department of Justice wants to get rid of that law I just mentioned which could lead to Disney-owned theaters that block other studios from even having their films screened.
6. Disney can profit using artificial scarcity. For decades Disney has used this tactic. Films would be put in the vault for years where they were unavailable for purchase. This would inflate sales when the movie is inevitably
re-released. Disney recently stopped using the vault at least for its own original movies but they can easily reimagine the strategy for the streaming era and since buying Fox they’ve prevented theaters from playing old Fox movies, effectively putting them in the vault. And you know what else is seemingly bafflingly in the vault? The fourth, fifth and sixth seasons of Recess? Why is it like this? I mean, you can’t watch the 2001 A Space Odyssey episode or the AV Kid episode or the episode where TJ pranks King Bob with a whoopee cushion. This is a crime! Release the episodes! The show is worth preserving! #AllsixSeasonsAandTheMovies! Now Disney doesn’t yet have a monopoly on the film industry but the rapid pace of their consolidation and the fact that they own all the stuff that’s profitable right now is terrifying. I have no idea how to prevent this trend from continuing but if you value variety in the films you watch, then you should not be cheering them on. I I think it’s fair to describe many of Recess’ episodes as character-driven short stories. Short stories are an excellent way for a writer to hone their craft or launch a professional career. If you want to get better at short fiction then I recommend checking out even Yyun Li’s course on Skillshare the sponsor of this episode. Fittingly, the course is called Writing Character-Driven Short Stories, and I think it’ll be useful for you no matter what medium you’re working in or how long the thing you’re working on is. Or you can check out the thousands of other classes on Skillshare in fields like Creative Writing, Film Production, Productivity and more. You can get two months of Skillshare for free by clicking on the link in the description of this video and get access to all of their classes. Thanks for watching everyone and a big thank you to my patrons for supporting this channel on Patreon! Keep writing everyone!