Monday, July 13, 2009

Tales of a Fourth Grade Playground

by Amy K. Bredemeyer

Yeah, yeah. By now you know that most Disney shows get cut off before they have time to fail. I talked about this with The Weekenders, and probably somewhere else along the line as well. This show actually made it 6 seasons, for 128 storylines (but the last two seasons only had a total of 8 episodes). That sounds good, except that the plots are 10 minutes long, meaning only 64 or so episodes were made (there were a few that ran longer, meaning only 1 got into a time slot, etc), and the finale makes it 65, the magical Disney cut-off once again. It ran Saturday mornings, and later got the weekday afternoon slot, which I think is where it came to popularity.

I got hooked on this fantastic cartoon during the afternoon One Too block. The finale (3 episodes) has the kids in the 5th grade (they remain in the 4th grade throughout the rest of the series), and there has been speculation that there was to be a seventh season with the kids getting older, but it was ultimately cut. Though the show has been running in daytime and early-morning syndication for years, the final three episodes have allegedly never been re-aired in the US, which is quite curious. (I read the descriptions of these episodes and none seem familiar, so that could very well be true.)

The show began in 1997, and was clearly character-driven. Without the various (beyond lovable) elementary school stereotypes and the ability of the writers to play out those stereotypes in such a REAL manner, the show would not have been such a success. Given that, let's go over the stereotypes...
The Troublemaker (TJ) was an awesome leader with a great aptitude for speaking to all groups.
The Military Brat (Gus) was naive to the unspoken rules of the playground, and excelled in a single sports area: dodgeball.
The Brain (Gretchen) could do great math problems and science projects, and had a talking, handheld computer.
The Gentle Giant (Mikey) was larger than the others in his grade (and some of the teachers), but wrote poetry, did ballet, and had an operatic singing voice.
The Female Punk (Spinelli) who has to ignore her family (not only do they embarrass her, but they gave her the trendy name of "Ashley") and be tough for her petite size.
The Athlete (Vince) who is naturally popular (as his older brother once was), gifted in all sports, and has concern for others (he won Class President every year until the 4th grade).
The King of the Playground (Bob) is a sixth-grader who makes all the rules governing who can play where and with what during recess.
The girly-girl clique (four Ashleys, who all have brothers named Tyler and sisters named Brittany) who have a clubhouse, a catchphrase ("Scandalous!"), and only wear the most fashionable attire.
The Teacher's Pet (Randall), who often does nothing but rat-out misbehaving peers.
The Mean Teacher (Miss Finster) generally did not like the students doing anything fun.
The Fun Teacher (Miss Grotke) who acted kinda like a hippy, standing up for students and believing in creative projects.

And then there were other fill-ins: a girl who always eats corn chips. A girl who is always on the swings. A girl who is always upside-down on the monkey bars. The kids who always dig holes. The kid who stays inside every recess (this one actually has a name - Menlo). The A/V kids who spend recess in the basement. The Boy Scout. The hustler. The urban legends kid (Butch). The kid who gives advice (Guru Kid). Lastly, there's the Kindergartners (mostly unnamed, but there are Tubby, Hector, and the Sticky Kid), who are crazy, run around, have riots, and are mentored by the older kids. You can see a lot of these characters here.

As you can imagine, storylines range from seeking out hidden water fountains, getting the "good ball," swinging over the top of the swingset, dealing with indoor recess during a thunderstorm, and having various competitions.

I loved the show. The characters were great. The storylines were funny. The jokes were clever. Win all around! They even dealt with semi-special episodes, mostly limited to cultural and socioeconomic differences. Included below is one of my all-time favorite episodes - the one where Gretchen takes up the art of the YoYo. You can also see some of the other kids, but it's not very good at illustrating all of the stereotypes. (But, many episodes are on youtube, so check it out)
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