At its heart, “Play Date” is a bit of rather nifty narrative sleight of hand. The story positions itself as a direct sequel to last month’s “I Like You Hi,” as tonight’s entry features the date that Mordecai and C.J. agreed to go on at the end of that previous episode. The problem is that Regular Show, like the vast majority of television shows, requires some form of conflict to justify spending 11 precious minutes on a given event in its heroes’ lives; there’d be little point in showing Mordecai and C.J.’s first date if the two had a wonderful, uneventful night. In the opening couple of minutes of “Play Date,” there are brief hints of alternative routes this episode could take. The initial scene suggests the makings of a fairly standard Rigby jealousy plot, as he begs Mordecai to spend the night eating pizza and prank-calling Benson, but that isn’t a thread the episode elects to pursue. Quite the opposite, in fact, as this is the rare episode to say unequivocally that Rigby is capable of leading a life away from Mordecai. It’s not just that he goes over to Eileen, to Mordecai’s shocked surprise, but that he goes over to watch a movie on a computer instead of enlist her in his usual ritual of pizza and prank calls. Rigby is evolving, everyone, and he doesn’t need us to see it.
But this episode does need us to see something, and a happy night of falafel, chicken wings, movie, trivia, and disco isn’t going to cut it. Even five activities as varied as that could only barely sustain a plot in the absence of any conflict. Here again, C.J. briefly hints at a potential story when she suggests they try to do all of them and see how far it goes; it’s not hard to imagine an episode in which one or both of the pair get just a little too invested in proving that they can make it through all five events before the end of the night. But for a plotline like that to work, there would almost certainly need to be conflict between Mordecai and C.J., and “Play Date” goes out of its way to make it clear that these two crazy kids are in a really, really good place. Even more so than “I Like You Hi,” the interaction between Mordecai and C.J. feels like an atonement of sorts for the latter’s debut episode, “Yes Dude Yes,” which was built on a string of rather unlikely, vaguely cruel miscommunications. Here, the very worst thing that happens between the two is that each tries a little too hard to look cool in front of the other. But that barely qualifies as an issue, considering both so readily confess to what they were trying to do, and each so quickly says that the other already looks plenty impressive.
This is a nice way for Regular Show to kick off this particular relationship arc, and it’s once again a good way to keep pushing Mordecai closer and closer to some semblance of maturity. But unless Regular Show is ready to commit to making its very own answer to Before Sunrise—which, for the record, yes please, I would love to see that—it needs to import a conflict from elsewhere. Fortunately, this is a universe where about half of the characters can appear literally out of nowhere, and no character is better qualified for such an unexpected entrance than Julian Holloway’s death. And, with that, “Play Date” stops being a sequel to “I Like You Hi” in favor of being a sequel to the third season’s “Dead By Eight.”
All things considered, this storyline works just fine. It isn’t really revelatory, considering it’s following more or less the same beats as “Dead By Eight,” only this time with C.J. taking Rigby’s place—heck, the two stories resolve in precisely the same way, with a heavy object knocking Thomas out and giving an impressed Death the false notion that Mordecai and his friend had gotten the little demon to go to sleep. Now, it’s hard to go too wrong when the story’s antagonist is a recalcitrant, 300-year-old baby, and Regular Show gets some nice mileage out of the character’s generally awfulness; there’s a moment where he knocks over a passing child and the episode rather hilariously elects to keep the fallout of this in the background. Still, for any audience member who has seen “Dead By Eight,” their enjoyment of tonight’s episode will likely depend heavily on how much they liked the previous episode; if Thomas was a fun enough concept to warrant a sequel, then “Play Date” is good. If Thomas isn’t such a welcome presence, then it’s hard to argue that the dynamic between Mordecai and C.J. adds enough to carry the episode.
That said, “Play Date” does do some of its best work at the intersection of these two storylines, as Thomas gleefully admits that he is out to ruin Mordecai’s chances with C.J. Even this doesn’t count as the episode’s true conflict, as Thomas never even comes close to driving a wedge between the two, but it does at least set up the amusing climax, in which a whole bunch of aggrieved demons chase down Mordecai, whom Thomas claims was trying to pick up various married women at the underworld’s park. Mostly, the jokes here work as a straight translation of a familiar scenario; initially, the humor is primarily rooted in the fact that a bunch of hellish beasts are running through the standard angry reactions of a bunch of middle-class parents who are convinced that a pervert is in their midst. The ultimate punchline to this section of the story shifts the episode into more meta territory, as a gigantic minotaur plummets to what I really, really hope isn’t his death, quite rightly yelling that he isn’t the bad guy and that he was just there to play with his kids. He was wrong to chase Mordecai, admittedly, but it’s hard to argue with anything else he points out, and it makes for a more darkly self-aware joke than Regular Show is accustomed to making.
“Play Date” is about as triumphant an episode as Regular Show has had in a good long time, at least in terms of where Mordecai finds himself at the end of the episode. Things are going about as well as they possibly could with C.J., he’s at a place where his natural fumbling awkwardness doesn’t appear to be able to do too much harm to his nascent relationship, and he’s finally square with Death. That triumph doesn’t entirely translate to the story as a whole, because—that last one aside—Mordecai already had all those things at the story’s outset. To split what might be an overly fine hair, the best episodes of Regular Show are about discovery, whereas this episode is more built around a realization. It’s all very sweet, and the Thomas sections are consistently amusing, but it’s all rather slight. And honestly? I don’t have much of a problem with that. Slight means a lack of conflict. And it’s about time that Mordecai embarked on a new phase in his life without everything exploding around him.
- Yet another potential source of conflict that I’m particularly glad they didn’t use is the notion that Mordecai is somehow responsible for ruining his and C.J.’s date. She’s wonderfully understanding about Mordecai’s tendency to get caught up with the most insane corners of this show’s universe, and it’s awesome that she blames Thomas, not Mordecai, for mucking things up.
- I appreciate Rigby’s confusion over why Mordecai would want him to babysit the park’s college-aged intern. Though I’m pretty sure that would be a fantastic episode in its own right.