‘Monsters at Work’ Is Here to Teach Your Kids About Ethics Under Capitalism

‘Monsters at Work’ Is Here to Teach Your Kids About Ethics Under Capitalism

Kids’ TV shows — even ones that are primarily meant to be entertaining — are made to teach their young viewers important lessons they will carry through their lives. Shows like Dora the Explorer teach logic and problem solving. Shows like Barney & Friends teach kindness and patience. Shows like Sesame Street teach everything from tolerance to letters and shapes. Monsters at Work teaches what may be the most important lesson of all: You can’t trust the management class, and your college degree might be useless. 

It’s never too early for kids to learn about the elusive highs and precipitous lows of capitalism!

For those who aren’t conversant with Disney/Pixar’s Monsters franchise: The premise of the 2001 feature film Monsters, Inc. is that monsters are real, and really do come out of kids’ closets at night to scare them. But not out of malice; it’s to collect children’s screams, which are a crucial energy source in Monstropolis. When one little girl crosses from her closet into Monstropolis, her scarer Sulley (voice of John Goodman) and his assistant and friend Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) learn that, despite what they’ve been told all their lives, human children are not toxic to monsters, and furthermore, children’s laughter is a far more powerful energy source than screams. The titular power plant converts from collecting screams from kids to collecting their laughter, induced by jokesters instead of scarers.

This is a happy ending for the movie, but when we all poured out of the theater feeling great, did we spare a thought to how destabilizing it would be to everyone working in Monstropolis’ energy sector? The series premiere of Monsters at Work, which dropped in 2021, picks up very shortly after the events that close out the film. Tylor Tuskmon (Ben Feldman) is not just a brand-new graduate of Monsters University’s scarer program, he was his class valedictorian. And while he was recruited straight from college by now-disgraced ex-Monsters, Inc. CEO Henry J. Waternoose (James Coburn), the shift from scream to laugh power means that Tylor’s record-setting scaring skills are no longer in demand there. 

Mr. Crummyham (Curtis Armstrong), the Monsters, Inc. HR rep who meets with Tylor on his first day, honors his job offer, but obviously has to transfer Tylor to a different department. Since Tylor’s parents own a hardware store, Mr. Crummyham assigns him to be a mechanic on the Monsters, Inc. Facilities Team — MIFT for short. But Tylor finds it hard to jell with the MIFTers and spends the first season figuring out how to work his way onto the laugh floor.

When we rejoin Tylor in the Season Two premiere (the season’s first two episodes air April 5th on the Disney Channel and Disney XD, with two new episodes premiering each Friday night through the rest of the season), he’s completed jokester training and been promoted to his dream job. But considering how long and hard he worked to achieve it, he’s dismayed to discover that it isn’t working out as he had hoped. His signature move — loading up his horns with donuts — may have worked with his roster of kids at first, but one candidly tells him that now he needs new material. 

Tylor’s crisis of confidence coincides with homecoming at Monsters U: Tylor is honored alongside other former Scream Kings and Queens at halftime during the big homecoming football game, but since he’s not actually working in the field he trained for, he doesn’t feel like he belongs, and gets famous for the wrong reasons by awkwardly babbling about his journey from scarer to jokester on live TV. However, the event — and Tylor’s self-humiliation — brings Tylor to the attention of Johnny Worthington (Nathan Fillion), another former Scream King and current CEO of rival energy company FearCo, which still has not switched over to laugh power. If it’s obvious to everyone watching the game that Tylor is uneasy in his new role, that’s doubly true for Johnny, who embarks upon a campaign to poach Tylor and put him to work in the job he actually trained for.

For a show with a primarily tween-aged target audience, the employment story Monsters at Work is telling is remarkably sophisticated. Sure, Tylor has been encouraged to work hard and believe in himself — the usual things we tell kids — but he’s still living in capitalism, so his circumstances can’t escape the darkness inherent in the system. His colleagues openly discuss the likelihood that he’ll be fired for falling short of quotas, he has no expectation that his mentors will protect him, and even as a college graduate, he’s not making enough money to move out of the childhood home he still shares with his parents and grandmother. (In the series premiere, when Tylor is reunited with his former classmate, Mindy Kaling’s Val, she indicates that one of the reasons she dropped out was crushing student debt, so even in this fantasy world, predatory lenders are a scourge.) 

Tylor has always aspired to work at Monsters, Inc., and after nearly a year inside the company, he respects the fact that its leadership worked their way up without any advantages but their talent — unlike Johnny, whose family founded FearCo generations ago — and he knows firsthand that laugh power is reliable. But if he has legitimate concerns about his future at Monsters, Inc., in part because of insufficient guidance from management, can we really blame him for considering a much more generous job offer even if it means working for a company whose extractive activities are self-evidently unethical?

Amid its kid-pitched but frank portrayal of a capitalist heckscape, there are good gags for parents who might be watching with them: the introduction of a “debate”-based news show with a pair of shouting hosts who turn out to be two ends of the same monster; at an energy trade show, Tylor’s former MIFT boss Fritz (Henry Winkler) gets drafted into serving as a restroom attendant for tips; the third episode, set at a fancy French restaurant, tosses off a reference to their famous “phlegm brûlée.” Even gags about scare power being the realization of monsters’ “dream to make human children’s lives a living nightmare” might make an exhausted parent snicker at their beloved kids’ expense. But there are also bits that will work for children of all ages: The second episode features the best extended poop joke I’ve seen in a while. 

Grown-up economic themes aside, the show is as light and sweet as one would expect from a Disney/Pixar production. It just might also make you — and your kids — vaguely anxious about not ending up in a job that’s about to become obsolete.


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