As Regular Show gets ever deeper into its fourth season, it appears to be mastering the trick of making its episodes feel longer than they actually are. This is a welcome development, considering my criticisms earlier in the season that the show seemed to be telling stories that could not easily be contained in an 11-minute format. But since that standard episode length is here to stay, Regular Show has grown increasingly adept at creating the illusion of longer stories. In its most basic form, the show accomplishes this by packing a greater amount of clearly distinguishable incidents into its running time. Where before it might have devoted a minute to each unique plot development, now it gets twice as many such twists in by only devoting 30 seconds to each. “Skips’ Stress” is a particularly good example of this more compact form of storytelling, and the result is an episode that tells a story worthy of a feature film in just a quarter-hour.
“Sleep Fighter” accomplishes a similar feat, albeit in a markedly different way. “Skips’ Stress” was an extremely linear story, whereas tonight’s episode delights in digressions. While a typical Regular Show episode might establish the threat—namely, Muscle Man’s inexplicable compulsion to beat up his friends while he sleeps—by having all the employees show up bruised and battered to a park meeting, this episode decides that only takes things halfway. As such, the episode has Benson attempt to ignore the problem entirely, claiming that, since it happened after hours, it’s not a park matter. The episode then cuts to Benson sleeping in his bed at his apartment, little knowing that a Muscle Man beatdown is on the way. It’s not only that this Benson cutaway adds another tiny chapter to the larger story, but also that Regular Show undergoes a tonal shift for this scene, presenting Muscle Man as a monster from a horror movie—which, given his Frankenstein-inspired look, isn’t exactly difficult. That scene only lasts ten or so seconds, but for that brief period the audience has had to subconsciously rearrange their storytelling expectations as Regular Show quickly shifts genres.
Such random extra elements add to the richness of the episode, creating the sense of a larger world beyond the confines of the necessarily streamlined main story. The later scene in which Hi-Five Ghost shares what he found in the surveillance footage is another good example. The viral video of an ostrich pranking and punching a human is a wonderfully bizarre moment, and it’s easy to imagine that isn’t the only video Hi-Five Ghost shares before remembering what he’s really there to do. It’s an intrinsically pointless little cutaway, but what it provides the episode is narrative slackness, the sense that not every moment of the episode is given over to the plot. That can be a risky maneuver when the episodes are so short, but 15 seconds strategically wasted here or there can appear to expand a story’s scope.
The other major break from the main action is Muscle Man’s extended flashback to his time babysitting Starla’s infant niece. Many of the details provided are moderately superfluous; Starla doesn’t really need an extended farewell scene when her exit is her sole appearance in the episode. And yet this sequence is allowed to be more than just supporting exposition for what’s going on in the present. It becomes a glimpse into Muscle Man’s private life, and that provides room for some character work. Building on last week’s “Last Meal,” Muscle Man once again means well, and he’s undoubtedly and unequivocally devoted to Starla. But he’s still an idiot, and a bit of a jerk to boot, as seen by his immediate proclamation that television will be the baby’s real sitter and his total inability to understand why the baby is crying when he switches the channel away from The Hugstables. At different points in Regular Show’s existence, the series might well have trimmed the flashback to its barest essentials to make room for a longer fight sequence at the end. That’s not a bad approach, and it’s hardly gone for good—indeed, that more tightly focused storytelling structure might be how the creative team tackles the next episode—but this episode’s looseness is a big part of its success.
“Sleep Fighter” is content to just amble along to the big showdown with the Hugstables at the end, and this means there’s no particular need for any one character to take the spotlight for long. In theory, this is another in an increasingly long line of Muscle Man episodes, but he’s asleep for long stretches of the episode, which allows others to get their featured moments. That includes even usually silent players like Hi-Five Ghost, who shares some key videos with the team, and Thomas, who is the first to realize Muscle Man has begun to dream. These are both quick moments, admittedly, but the important thing is that, for those brief sequences, these usually minor characters aren’t just standing in the background or even just getting in a one-liner; they are actively driving the plot forward in a way they seldom get to do. Ensemble episodes like this usually manage to find such moments for the more important supporting players like Benson, Skips, and Pops, but rarely do stories have the time—or, perhaps more accurately, make the time—for Thomas or Hi-Five Ghost to take on even these quick roles.
Still, it’s Skips who ultimately takes charge of this episode, offering the latest timely reminder that Mark Hamill is a national treasure. His impressive, faintly terrifying array of dreamcatcher-based weaponry is explained with the haunting line that, when one is as old as Skips, one has a lot of bad dreams. Unsurprisingly, this line is never followed up on, but it doesn’t need to be; Hamill gives it just the right mix of action hero grit and quiet terror that it suggests the scariness of Skips’ private world without distracting from the main scene. That’s a good thing, as the Hugstables are a wonderfully creepy creation. They represent a satire of children’s television that likely won’t count as satire for much longer, given the ever increasing insanity of that particular genre. “Sleep Fighter” manages some real body horror in a group of eternally joyous sprites going around hugging people into oblivion, regardless of whether they committed any actual crimes or they were just insufficiently happy. It’s a simple but effective contrast for the swarming Hugstables to sweetly demand hugs as the employees angrily fight back, and Skips gets in a particularly heroic moment when he launches the van off the ramp and captures the final, mega-sized Hugstable. It’s a wonderfully silly conclusion, and one that the audience wouldn’t be able to guess based on the vast majority of what happens in the preceding ten minutes. “Sleep Fighter” isn’t Regular Show at its most focused, but it makes a strong argument for why, at least on occasion, that can be a very good thing.
- Thomas really has no idea how Muscle Man could even know his address. Also, Muscle Man makes it clear at the end that Thomas was not in his dream.
- Poor Rigby. That attack dog suit really didn’t do anything at all, did it?