The series focuses on six elementary school students and their interactions with other students and teachers. One of the many features of the show is how the children form their own society, complete with government and class structure, set against a backdrop of a regular school, giving the show a unique feel.
The show portrays the life of six elementary school students: popular and confident T.J. Detweiler, athletic Vince LaSalle, tough girl Ashley Spinelli, gentle giant Mikey Blumberg, smart Gretchen Grundler, and shy new kid Gus Griswald. The students of Third Street School set up a microcosm of traditional human society complete with its own government, class system, and a set of unwritten laws. They are ruled by a monarch, King Bob, who has various enforcers to make sure his decrees are carried out. The little society has a long list of rigid values and social that impose a high expectation of conformity among the students.
Most episodes involve one or more of the main six characters seeking a rational balance between individuality and social order. They are often defending their freedom against perceived threats by adults or social norms. The group's leader, T.J. Detweiler, tends to have the most complete vision of this struggle, though even he has times when he inadvertently leads the group too far toward an extreme of conformity or nonconformity.
The show began production in early 1996 after Disney bought ABC and the creators had left Nickelodeon. A pilot of the series was created in 1996, which got the show greenlit. The pilot became the first episode of the series, albeit with different character designs. The pilot was never released to the general public, but clips of it were shown on the 1997 VHS of 101 Dalmatians, as well as certain station IDs for One Saturday Morning depending on the ABC station.
The show premiered on September 13, 1997 as part of Disney's One Saturday Morning, along with Doug (which was already running on the channel before that as well as Nickelodeon) and Pepper Ann. A preview of the series aired on August 31, 1997 on ABC in primetime. It was set to premiere on September 6, 1997, but was delayed due to ABC airing Princess Diana's funeral.
Seasons three and four were broadcast in the same year, with season three airing on ABC, and season four airing on UPN as part of Disney's One Too block.
The show was originally going to end with five seasons, with the movie being the finale. However, due to the well performance of the film, the show was renewed for one more season. The sixth season marked the show's first Halloween special (the second would be in Taking the Fifth Grade), focus on minor characters in the show, and the disappearance of popular characters such as Butch and Miss Grotke after the season premiere. The season was the shortest of the show, with only three episodes. The last episode aired on November 21, 2001, with 65 episodes (128 episodes when stories A and B are broken up).
In 2003, Walt Disney Home Entertainment released two direct-to-video movies based on the series: Recess: Taking the Fifth Grade and Recess: All Growed Down. The first is considered the true series finale, while the second is a prequel to the series. In 2006, the Recess gang guest starred in an episode of Lilo & Stitch: The Series, "Lax". This has been the final project for the series to date.
Recess reran on ABC from 2001 to late 2004 when ABC Kids (the block that took over One Saturday Morning after it ended in 2002) converted into an all-Disney Channel lineup. It was reran on Disney Channel from 2003 to 2005, and was reran again from 2008 to 2010. It was also reran on Toon Disney from 2003 to 2009 when the channel ceased operations, and Disney XD from 2009 to early 2010, and briefly returned to the channel in October 2011, but was removed along with Stitch! after four airings. It's unknown when Disney will rerun the series again. There are no plans for the series to be released on DVD season sets, though individual episodes are available on the direct-to-DVD and video releases (with more episodes on the DVDs).
Recess is also still shown in certain countries on their Disney markets, such as Sky Movies Disney in the United Kingdom, and Family (while not being owned by Disney, it still airs many Disney programs) in Canada. In Germany, the complete series is available on iTunes.
While the second season of the show was airing in 1998, the creators began to develop a feature film based on the series. It was finished in February 2000 during the show's fourth season. At the end of the fifth season, Recess: School's Out was released by Walt Disney Pictures on February 17, 2001, and was a success with both critics and box office numbers. The success of the film (and show itself) led to two direct-to-video (and DVD) films: Recess: Taking the Fifth Grade and Recess: All Growed Down. It's the most exciting time of year at Third Street Elementary: the end of the School Year! But boredom quickly sets in for protagonist T.J. Detweiler, as his friends (the other 5 protagonist children) are headed for Summer Camp. One day, while passing by the school on his bike, he notices a green glow coming from the school's auditorium. This is the work of the insidious ex-principal of Third Street, Dr. Phillium Benedict and his gang of ninjas and secret service look-alikes! Benedict is planning to get rid of Summer Vacation using his newly-acquired Tractor Beam, which he stole from the US Military Base in an effort to raise US Test Scores, and it's up to the Recess Gang to stop him
During its airtime, Recess was one of the most popular shows on One Saturday Morning, being popular with children, teenagers, and adults. It was the only show from One Saturday Morning to air for the entirety of the block's run on the air, with Doug removed in 2000 and Pepper Ann in early 2002, as well as the only show on the block to go into the first two years of ABC Kids.
While the show didn't have as many tie-in products as Disney's Doug, which ran in the same block, the show did get a fair amount of merchandise, ranging to stuffed dolls of the main six characters (and various other characters outside the U.S.), various tie-in books, DVDs, and Happy Meal toys of the show were released at McDonald's in 1998.
References to other Disney media
- The gang frequently refer to T.J. as "Teej", similar to how Max refers to P.J. as "Peej" in Goof Troop and A Goofy Movie.
- During T.J.'s nightmare about the never-ending rain causing a flood in "Rainy Days", Pluto appears.
- In "One Stayed Clean", Gretchen's outfit for her school picture is similar to one of the more famous outfits worn by Minnie Mouse: a large pink hair bow and a light blue dress with a pink sash.
- In "Bachelor Gus", Owl makes a cameo appearance when Gus is all alone in the playground at night.
- In "Kurst the Not So Bad", Mikey and Kurst are shown eating from the same spaghetti strand similar to the famous Bella Notte scene in Lady and the Tramp.