“Bad Portrait” is an episode that barely even bothers to conceal the predictability of its plotting. The moment Pops mentions that Benson is being inducted into the Park Managers Hall of Fame and that Mordecai and Rigby need to pick up his commemorative portrait, everyone in the audience knows that our bumbling heroes are going to ruin the former by destroying the latter. That basic narrative structure is preordained not just by the Regular Show formula, but also by our most fundamental expectations of what a comedy plot entails, probably going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. (Don’t worry, there ends the admittedly half-assed history lesson.) The point is that there are only so many ways to counteract such intense familiarity with the story about to be told. Some Regular Show episodes disguise their actual stories until the last possible moment, relying on plot twists and the show’s generally bizarre, freeform universe to twist the narrative in unexpected directions. Here, the plotting is resolutely straightforward; the only real deviation from what we expect to see happen is when Mordecai and Rigby show up just as the art gallery is about to close, as the show briefly suggests and discards another potential way the pair could have screwed up.
But mostly, everything just happens because the story requires it to: Pops assigns Mordecai and Rigby their latest doomed task, and then Rigby ruins everything because he insists on eating mustard-covered hot pretzels. Part of what elevates “Bad Portrait” is that it never hides the creakiness of its storytelling. Benson asks Pops why he would ever trust Mordecai and Rigby with such a task—actually, Mordecai and Rigby themselves ask Pops the exact same question—and Rigby reacts to spill hot pretzel all over the photo slides by bemusedly observing that something usually happens at that point. The episode doesn’t go overboard with the meta gags, but such self-awareness comes in handy when there’s really no choice but to anchor the story in familiar plot beats.
More importantly, though, “Bad Portrait” plays such predictability as character moments. Sure, Pops is a fool for giving Mordecai and Rigby the umpteenth opportunity to make a mess of everything, but that’s who Pops is. He’s an indefatigable optimist, someone whose eternally rosy view of the world makes him trust people he really, really shouldn’t. Rigby destroys the original painting not just because he’s an idiot, but because he’s an idiot with an ethos. That ethos, for the record, mostly consists of eating lots of hot pretzels and only using one finger to do hold the things. This pretzel-centric lifestyle combines Rigby’s three great loves: eating snacks, having partial motor control, and declaring that people just deal with whatever truth he’s bringing this week. Even Benson gets some quick bursts of characterization, as when he favorably responds to Mordecai’s paint-spattered, abstract portrait of him, and when he foolishly has Mordecai and Rigby hang the painting in his office. When he wonders to himself why he ever asked them to do this seemingly simple task, there are really two answers. One, because the episode needs a gag to end on. Two, because even Benson still wants to believe in those two lovable idiots, even if he’s not as open about it as Pops is. The episode’s jokes work that much better when there is some real character work underpinning them.
Indeed, “Bad Portrait” is fundamentally a character study for Mordecai, tortured artist. His history as an art school dropout is something the show doesn’t touch on nearly as much as it probably ought to, and tonight’s episode gets tremendous mileage out of exploring Mordecai’s creative fears and frustrations. There’s something oddly refreshing about the moment where he inspects the ruined portrait, considers the situation carefully, and decides he is just going to have to repaint the damn thing. Where the show would usually send our heroes on some mad quest to replace or repair the painting, here Mordecai realizes that he has the talent to fix the mess himself. This realization gives Regular Show an opportunity to look inward, centering the episode on Mordecai’s insecurities as an artist. The episode deftly portrays the procrastination of the struggling artist, as Mordecai looks for any excuse to avoid actually having to put paintbrush to canvas. But his creative paralysis isn’t just down to a fear of not being good enough; instead, Mordecai feels deeply the responsibility of capturing someone else’s essence in art, and he can’t bear the thought of letting Benson down in this way, even if not painting at all will get him fired. (I probably wouldn’t go so far as to consider these reviews works of art, but I’ll admit I can sympathize with this kind of trepidation and the delays it can cause; I mean, just look at the wildly varying publish times on these things.)
Because this is Mordecai we’re talking about, his insecurities are rooted in his romantic frustrations, as his mind’s eye is dominated by memories of the cute art school girl who was horrified by his portrait of her. But I want to focus on another line in that flashback; when the student asks whether Mordecai is an artist, he says that he must be, since he goes to art school. With that line, Regular Show taps into a self-doubt that most people probably experience at one point or another but is particularly acute among would-be creative types: At what point does a person become the thing he or she aspires to be? Back in art school, Mordecai wasn’t fully comfortable accepting the title of “artist,” accepting only insofar as it was a byproduct of his position in life. All these years later, Mordecai barely draws or paints at all, so it isn’t surprising that he still doesn’t consider him an artist. But, in his mind, he will only definitively know that he is not an artist when he tries and fails, and that’s part of the existential dread he experiences with this task. That’s why the pseudo-Bensons are able to get the upper hand in the climactic battle; when one points out that Mordecai is just a slacker who went to art school to feel like he accomplished something, Mordecai is genuinely shaken.
And that’s where Benny Harris comes in. This eternally mellow Bob Ross stand-in offers some laidback wisdom, offering Mordecai a basic but all-important bit of reassurance: “What’s more important is that you made something. That’s more than most people can say.” Benny then points out that Rigby probably never created anything in his life, and what’s interesting is that, even just in the context of “Bad Portrait,” he’s technically wrong: Rigby painted the original replacement portrait (and, frankly, he did a far better job than I could have). But really, Benny is right, because Rigby didn’t think anything of the painting he threw together in 10 seconds. As Rigby said, “At least I did something.” Not “created,” not even “made.” Rigby only did that quickie painting so that he wouldn’t get fired; he cared about his terrible painting only as a means to an end. If Benny’s point is that Rigby made nothing, that’s true, because that painting meant nothing to him.
That’s the really crucial truth “Bad Portrait” reveals about the creative process. Being an artist isn’t really a function of talent or even effort; rather, it’s a willingness to take seriously the very notion of being an artist. After all, it’s an act of courage to declare oneself an artist, to say that one’s work should be judged not on what it does or what it accomplishes but simply on what it is, and it always take Mordecai a little while to find his courage. Indeed, it was so incredibly presumptuous of Mordecai to assume that he, a no-account art school dropout, could replace the work of a professional, and much of “Bad Portrait” sees him trying to live up to the faith he, in an act of desperation, placed in himself. The mere fact that he could bring himself to show up at the induction ceremony shows that he was right. That Benson ended up loving the portrait is just a bonus. But it’s a very, very lovely bonus.
- “Ha, ha. Penelope sure does love it when I get existential!”
- “Hi Pops.” “Yes, hello, Rigby, it’s Pops, your friend Pops from the park.” This is an old kind of joke, but it immediately puts me in mind of Leslie Knope’s similar introductions of Parks And Recreation; also, Bob’s Burgers had a text-based version of this gag in last night’s episode. So apparently this joke is going to show up in every show I cover. I look forward to seeing it in next year’s Justified.