I’ve mentioned a few times in my reviews that Regular Show episodes can sometimes feel overstuffed, as some episodes need so much time to tell their chosen stories there’s not enough time to develop the more intriguing side elements. That’s particularly troublesome when the stories themselves are pared down to fit into the 11-minute format, as it doesn’t leave much space for the jokes and character moments. This can sometimes leave the bizarre feeling an episode is rushed, despite the fact that nothing much seemed to happen to the characters. Regular Show is always full of incidents, of crazy, breathlessly absurd things happening, but those incidents don’t always resonate with the characters experiencing them. That’s one of several reasons why it’s a shame the Park staffers have had a relatively minor role this season; outside of Mordecai, Rigby, and Muscle Man, the show’s main ensemble has often been given little more than cameos in the proceedings. Unlike a random guest character, we have some preexisting notion of how Skips or Benson would respond to the latest insanity, and that knowledge helps deepen an episode, even if the story is just another crazy episode without a clear emotional arc. The story is more likely to matter to us when the characters matter to us, and it’s difficult to be a Regular Show fan without caring at least a little about Skips, Benson, Pops, and everyone’s favorite incorrigible scamp, Hi-Five Ghost.
That’s my big theoretical argument as to why “Skips’ Stress” is such a triumph, as it leans heavily on the frequently neglected ensemble to propel the story. Other than one pharmacist, whose role is limited to a single scene, there are no guest characters in this episode, and the big monster is a fundamentally internal threat, as Skips is forced to confront physically his own critically high stress levels. Skips is so often the stoic ally that it’s powerful to see the world through his eyes, as his gruff good nature is worn down by his coworkers’ constant demands. The episode allows characters to bounce off one another, and those interactions aren’t always expected. For instance, Pops helps Skips in much the same way Skips would usually help Mordecai and Rigby, as Pops steps in with useful advice of mystical solutions and then offers the means for Skips to reach the Himalayas and ring the bell.
Rigby appears to be the impediment to success he always is, as Skips makes a point of asking Rigby to repeat back his instructions even after everyone else has clearly indicated they understand. To nobody’s surprise, Rigby disobeys Skips’ instructions, but it’s only because he knows Skips needs his ninja sword to defeat the stress monster. Rigby is the same old disappointment he always is, and yet in doing so he saves the day. It’s a sweet moment, as Rigby proves Skips actually can count on him, after a fashion; Rigby, and by extension everyone else at the park, is worthy of being Skips’ friend, rather than just needy deadweight. Again, because we’re so familiar with all these characters, even little throwaway lines carry an impact, like Benson defiantly yelling at the stress monster to “Leave Pops alone!” Pops can take care of himself when the situation calls for it, but that doesn’t change Benson’s protective streak. Benson and Rigby also get a quiet little mini-plot, as Rigby early on rejects Benson’s thoughts on motorcycle boots by observing, “Yeah, I’m going to listen to the guy who doesn’t ride a hog to work every day.” When Benson later orders Rigby not to try to save him, Rigby ignores this, closes his eyes, and throws the spear right through the monster, freeing a grateful Benson. Seriously, Rigby knows what he’s doing in this episode, just as long as it doesn’t involve making effective stress mixes.
The character work is strong enough that the episode can get away with its heroes blatantly stating the big moral, as Mordecai, Rigby, Benson, and Pops all promise that they won’t force Skips to do as much for them in future. Mark Hamill—who, in case nobody has said it today, is a damn national treasure—hits just the right note of earnestness when Skips responds, “I enjoy helping my friends, but, uh… that might not be such a bad idea.” Skips tends to be a forthright, honest character, but that’s not always the case when he’s talking about himself and his needs, as is made clear throughout this episode. As such, it’s a big deal for him to so calmly, contentedly admit that helping others is important to his own wellbeing, and it’s an even bigger deal for him to admit he can no longer do everything asked of him. This is a lesson that won’t necessarily be quickly learned, as he immediately volunteers to fix the flat tire before his four friends insist. The final shot, in which Skips quietly smiles as he stands away from the others as they politely cooperate in fixing the tire, is a beautiful capper for the episode, as Regular Show conveys the sort of character moment in a half-second that other shows might need several minutes and a sappy song to get across.
Although, since I’ve careened into the subject of music, I will say that “Skips’ Stress” features some of the best music and sound design in the show’s history. There are two major music-backed montages in this episode, one at the beginning that illustrates Skips’ growing stress and one in the middle that shows the gang’s journey to the Himalayas. The first features light, mildly funky music that emphasizes the mundane drudgery of the park; the music doesn’t really try to sell Skips’ meltdown, but it does establish a low-key mood the rest of the episode can then play against. The second montage is rather more impressive, especially when paired with the animation of Pops’ car fly across various impressive vistas. The music lends the journey an epic quality, but it also adds a wistful tone, as though this might really be Skips’ final travel before his demise. Beyond being entertaining in their own right, the montages also compress key chunks of the story, creating the illusion of far more story than could ever be contained in Regular Show’s normal length; this is the first time I’ve watched something only 11 minutes long that feels so much like a movie. The constant changes in location, atmosphere, and mood—from a day at the park to the Two Peaks Mall and the pharmacist to Skips’ stress dream to the journey to the Himalayas to the final confrontation with the monster—makes the episode feel bigger and grander than should really be possible.
This is what happens when a show plays to all its core strengths. By focusing on Skips and the Park employees, Regular Show is able to glide right past the usual plot explanations and character introductions; instead, the show can get straight to the jokes, character moments, and inventive animation. As much as I’ve enjoyed this season’s frequent storytelling experimentation, this is just about the strongest possible reminder of why back-to-basics episodes are crucial to a show’s long-term success.
- “I’m sorry sir, but if you don’t take immediate action to reduce your stress levels, you will die. Now, can I interest you in any bandages or breath strips?” The pharmacist is a great side character, especially since everyone except Skips treats him like he’s a doctor. His final line just slayed me.
- “Skips, I’ve got to start the show. Where’s my fish? Where’s my fish?” The dream sequence makes great use of color and shadowing, not to mention the surreal transformations from leering versions of Skips’ friends into full-on stress monsters.
- “Skips, we ruptured another gas line!” I have so, so many questions about whatever Muscle Man and Hi-Five Ghost were up to with that chainsaw.