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5 old-school, back-to-school cartoons that will help you relive your childhood

It’s back-to-school time! If you were like me as a kid, I hated late August to early September, because that meant that I had to get rid of my comfortable summer schedule and head back to the classroom. Unfortunately, lots of kids are doing just that, since many schools around the country are now back in session. As a kid, I knew I needed incentive to make it through the school week, and Saturday morning cartoons were usually what I looked forward to every weekday until the weekend finally came.

Cartoons seemed to understand the malaise of school and sought to give audiences a fun, inventive take on a place they dreaded being. Here are five such cartoons that are set in school or are about school, but were so popular that they were able to teach and/or engage the kids of my generation with ease.

The Magic School Bus

There are so many hidden gems in this show. Little Richard singing the theme song is cool enough alone. But the biggest hidden secret is just how many stars were voices for characters. Grace and Frankie‘s Lili Tomlin starred as Ms. Frizzle, the strange, enigmatic science teacher who took her kids on wild trips that no one would ever believe, and all inside a sentient bus, no less. Other stars provided their talents in either underrated or one-off roles; Malcolm-Jamal Warner voiced one of the unnamed producer characters during the “call-in” segment of the show, and stars like Ed Begley Jr., Cindy Williams, Malcolm McDowell, Tony Randall, Rita Moreno, Edward Asner, Carol Channing, Dolly Parton, Edward James Olmos, Eartha Kitt, Tyne Daly … the list goes on and on.

But if you were a kid, you weren’t really focused on who was voicing whom. You were focused on the fun and adventure this lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you viewed them) class of kids got to have with their teacher, who might have been a Time Lord. Kids could learn about blood platelets, the universe, fossils, you name it, and kids could learn while also enjoying a genuinely good cartoon show. There were fun constants kids could expect, too, such as everyone groaning “Carlos!” when Carlos would crack a stale joke, Keesha’s sarcastic irritation with her class and the field trip, or Phoebe always talking about what they did at her old school. The character who probably became the mascot for the class was Arnold, since he dreaded every field trip and just wanted to learn the normal way. The most hated character, though, was Janet, Arnold’s cousin. She was a piece of work.

Supposedly, The Magic School Bus is getting a Netflix reboot, but I doubt it will live up to the original. There’s was no better way to learn about the human body or the planets than through the original version of The Magic School Bus.


The quintessential Saturday-morning cartoon show in the ’90s, Recess captured the magical essence of that golden 30 minutes of free playtime. Every week, kids would be able to see what kind of strangely mature plot T.J., Spinelli, Gretchen, Vince, Mikey and Gus would find themselves in. Sometimes, T.J.’s friends would have to break him out of punishment (i.e., school jail) à la The Great Escape. Other times, they’d have to fend off the mean-girl supergroup The Ashleys. Other times, they’d have to escape the feral kindergartners, seek relief from King Bob (the school’s highest powered fifth-grader), or ask for guidance from Guru Kid. Whatever happened, you would be transported on a journey that could only happen between the characters’ class and lunch times.

Even though the two shows were created at different times and featured very different styles and storytelling, I personally always considered Recess a bookend to The Weekenders, another show about kids finally getting some sanctuary from the grind of school.

The Weekenders 

So, to continue from that last paragraph, I’ve long considered The Weekenders a part of the “kids being kids out of school” narrative started by Recess. However, in The Weekenders (which has a theme song sung by Wayne Brady), the kids in question are teenagers who have finally been let out of school for the weekend. The entire show was narrated, Zack Morris–style, by Tino, who would literally stop time to give those of us watching his own personal viewpoint of everyone and everything he came into contact with. In many ways, Tino and his friends seemed to have a Saved by the Bell–esque life; they lived in a fictional beach town, they were relatively stylish in their own way (and for the time, which was the late ’90s, that meant a lot of hair clips and chunky shoes), and they were always hanging out at a mall, on the beach, or a local watering hole.

The Weekenders was intensely popular with kids, even more popular than I even imagined. Apparently, The Weekenders was dubbed “the show that killed Pokémon” by TV Guide because it, of all shows, knocked Pokémon out of its number-one spot, which it helf for 54 weeks straight. Seems like there were a lot of kids “livin’ for the weekend.”

Schoolhouse Rock!

I’m too young to have seen Schoolhouse Rock! when it was in its prime in the ’70s, but thanks to ABC’s One Saturday Morning and the existence of TV producers who still saw the value in a ’70s animated educational short, many kids like myself were able to watch Schoolhouse Rock! shorts along with new-fangled shows like Reboot.

Schoolhouse Rock! is a special piece of educational television, and it’s a shame kids today aren’t able to watch it on television or don’t know about it. The delightful period animation was buoyed by songs written by jazz musician and singer Bob Dorough, which helped children learn their multiplication tables, geography, parts of speech, elements of American government, and more. Of course, the most famous songs from Schoohouse Rock! are “I’m Just a Bill,” sung by Jack Sheldon (who also voiced Louie the Lightning Bug from those electricity-safety PSAs) and “Conjunction Junction,” but there are other hidden gems, like “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” “Sufferin’ til’ Suffrage,” “The Great American Melting Pot,” and more.


Fillmore! is another show, like The Weekenders and Recess, in which kids are given much more agency than they typically have in real life, allowing viewers to live vicariously through their exciting lives. Hall monitor Cornelius Fillmore and his partner, Ingrid Third, keep the halls of X Middle School safe by bringing criminals to justice (i.e., the principal’s office). But the stories the show tells expands far beyond that paltry description.

Fillmore!, a show I’ve written extensively about before (which you can read about here or in the sidebar), combines the best of a traditional school-set animated show with the best of Dragnet or Law & Order. In reality, the show’s creator based parts of Fillmore! on his love for ’70s blaxploitation movies. Also: The creator is none other than Scott M. Gimple, the man who’s helped the TV adaptation of The Walking Dead stay at the top of the ratings. Unfortunately, Fillmore! didn’t last as long as fans would have liked. But while it was on, it was a show you couldn’t afford to miss.

What are your favorite back-to-school shows? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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