Regular Show’s sense of humor has never quite been meta enough for a character like Thomas. When originally introduced way back in “Exit 9b,” Thomas fulfilled a very specific narrative function, as it was his signature that proved instrumental to defeating the nefarious aims of Garrett Bobby Ferguson Jr. Since then, though, he’s been more than a little pointless, a character whom nobody appears to like or care all that much about—and that’s just his coworkers. I’ve seen discussion that Thomas is, to use the obligatory Simpsons terminology, the Poochie of Regular Show, or perhaps the show’s ironic commentary on the whole notion of livening up an already successful show with the addition of a hip new character. The trouble is that Thomas has never really been so clearly defined in either direction; he’s always just sort of been there, a vague extra member of the ensemble that is mostly there to fill out crowd shots.
Indeed, as Benson and Skips reluctantly agree in the opening scene, Thomas is a useless layabout who does nothing, and that’s Mordecai and Rigby’s job. And, I mean, that’s fine, I suppose. It certainly isn’t contradicted by anything we’ve seen of Thomas, but it also isn’t really confirmed by anything we’ve seen, either, beyond the general sense that Thomas only shows up when he’s sitting around and listening to Mordecai and Rigby discuss their latest ridiculous mess. Thomas’ laziness and general unsuitability for life at the park isn’t a logical outgrowth of his personality, like it is for Regular Show’s heroes. Instead, the fact that he hasn’t done anything is merely a reflection of the fact that, nearly 80 episodes since he debuted, Regular Show still hasn’t really come up with anything for him to do.
Again, a different show might be more self-referential about this. “Thomas Fights Back” isn’t just about the title character finally proving his worth to his coworkers; it’s also Thomas’ last best chance to prove himself to the audience. This episode is about Thomas rebelling against the limitations of being the eighth most important character in a seven-person ensemble—six-person, really, given Hi-Five Ghost is also a glorified background character, but that’s also before we consider any of the women in Mordecai and Rigby’s lives. There’s an urgency to this episode that’s missing from other episodes that shine the spotlight on the minor characters. “The Postcard,” for instance, might well have been built around Hi-Five Ghost’s quest to reunite with his soulmate, but it didn’t present him with the kind of existential crisis that Thomas encounters here. He comes one word—one syllable, even—from actually, honestly being fired by Benson, and the boss’ melancholy tone as he prepares to say the fatal word makes it clear this isn’t a joke. Given the episode’s chosen dramatic arc, I didn’t really think that Thomas would be sent away, but “Thomas Fights Back” expends some serious energy to make it feel like a genuine possibility.
Thomas doesn’t come away from this episode with much more of a personality than what he had displayed before. He remains good-natured and competent, and he has a fairly one-sided feud with Muscle Man that recurs throughout the episode. This amorphous characterization isn’t necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it’s crucial to the episode’s ultimate success. Much like in “Exit 9B,” his mere existence as the forgotten extra park staffer allows him to win rival park manager Gene’s trust, something that would be impossible for any better-established character to accomplish. But that’s only part of the reason Thomas succeeds; he proves himself quite the tactical thinker, and it’s an amusing, fitting detail that his plan hinges on him proving himself every bit the industrious worker he has never shown himself to be while working at the park.
It’s not that this episode couldn’t possibly work with a character other than Thomas. If nothing else, Skips is certainly competent enough to pull off a con like this, and either Mordecai or—at a stretch—Rigby could bluff his way through this. But for Regular Show to use any of those characters, it would have to come up with some explanation as to why Gene does not immediately recognize his prank war rival. The only plausible way forward, given the park staffers’ well-established personae, would be a paper-thin disguise that Gene is somehow too oblivious to see through. And, much as it could be pretty damn hilarious to see Skips or Benson go undercover at Gene’s park, all the while hiding behind some incredibly unconvincing mix of fake mustache and wonky accent, there’s no real way to do that without making a mockery of Gene. And, dammit, Regular Show cares too much about its recurring antagonists who just happen to be talking vending machines to do that to Gene. In all seriousness, the show has done a decent job building up Gene as a plausible professional rival for Benson, and so it makes sense to play Thomas’ infiltration relatively straight. Gene gets conned, but it’s not for any particular lack of cunning on his part.
“Thomas Fights Back” isn’t as funny as it could have been if protagonist duties had been entrusted to some other character; again, one of the other staffers could have been used in a more self-consciously ridiculous spin on the material, or the show could have enlisted one of its more sharply drawn supporting players—C.J. or Eileen, basically—to go undercover. The central conceit of this episode swerves between the comedic and something more character-based, as a key takeaway is that Thomas goes to such absurd lengths to prove himself to his fellows. “Thomas Fights Back” is a fairly straightforward riff on a heist movie, but it never points out just how stupid it is that someone as clearly skilled and crafty as Thomas would waste a month of his life on something this ridiculously unimportant. The episode doesn’t deeply examine Thomas’ motivations, perhaps in recognition of his essentially superficial character. Thomas hasn’t been built up enough for him to want or desire anything that he doesn’t explicitly state; he tells his coworkers how much he has come to care about them and how much he wants to prove himself, and that’s about as deep as we can go.
I realize all this may sound a bit negative, but that isn’t really my intention. “Thomas Fights Back” is a fine episode, a welcome return to form after a few shaky entries. At its core, it’s a fairly straightforward heist episode, and the show finds most of its humor on the margins; Thomas’ protagonist duties mean that he effectively spends most of the episode as a straight man with no funny character to bounce off of him. Thomas remains one of Regular Show’s most intriguing characters, if only because there’s still so little to him. That means the emotional arc of this episode doesn’t really land—Thomas is nice enough here, but I don’t care about his continued internship in the same way that I do about Hi Five Ghost finding true love—but it also means “Thomas Fights Back” can have fun turning Thomas into some incredible combination of superspy, conman, martial arts expert, and mama’s boy. Besides, I’m always a sucker for a well-told heist story, and “Thomas Fights Back” is nothing if not that. Thomas’s presence means that this episode isn’t capable of the kind of depth we’ve seen in Regular Show’s best entries, but rarely has it been so much fun to watch this show splash around in the shallow end.
- Rigby’s alien-based plan is so, so delightfully dumb. Also, it’s wonderful how quick he is to abandon the mission at the first sign of trouble.
- Muscle Man is right. Benson does need to work on his networking.
- I feel like this isn’t said often enough, in the sense that it isn’t said constantly: Kurtwood Smith is a national treasure. I love how often he pops up as Gene, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect rival for Benson.