One of the ongoing challenges facing any reviewer is figuring out how much one’s own expectations—particularly one’s own unmet expectations—should affect the analysis of a given work. While an “objective” review is a myth, I do think that a fair review requires me to assess how well the episode accomplishes what it sets out to do, not what I wish it would do. I’m engaging in this admittedly self-indulgent preambles because, well, I don’t like “Tent Trouble” very much, but the reasons for that are right on the edge of the divide I just described. In short, the beginning of tonight’s episode sets up an intriguing source of conflict both internal and external, as the accidental destruction of C.J.’s prized tent forces Mordecai to confront the very real possibility of disappointing his girlfriend (or whatever it is that they’re calling their relationship). Considering how perfectly everything has gone between them so far, there’s some real story to be told there, especially when you consider that C.J.’s long-ago debut episode, “Yes Dude Yes,” built its climax around C.J.’s stormy temper. But “Tent Trouble” completely elides that rich, character-based narrative in favor of a mud wrestling match with Muscle Man’s girlfriend Starla and her sister Peggy.
As ever, I wouldn’t spend so much time agonizing about all of this if the episode were really hilarious. And, to be fair, it happens so does have one legitimately inspired sequence with the big montage of Mordecai and Rigby’s failed second jobs. Any one of these sequences could probably have sustained an entire 11 minutes by itself, those some of the gags work best ludicrously accelerated pace at the montage demands. While I could have enjoyed further exploration of our heroes incredible incompetence at making hotdogs and selling mattresses, the perfect amount of time is spent at the diner, where it appears Mordecai and Rigby have actually obtained a modicum of success until the immediate cut to the place burning down.
And, in fairness, this is hardly the first time that Regular Show has engaged in such a dramatic narrative swerve. Indeed, several recent episodes have been particularly ramshackle in their storytelling, moving briskly from idea to idea and story to story without much narrative cohesion. Not all of those have worked, but those that have—something like “Paint Job” or “Skips In The Saddle”—succeeded because they feature a string of equally compelling, often absurd concepts, none of which is really strong enough on its own to develop into the full 11 minutes. That isn’t really what’s going on in “Tent Trouble.” The mud wrestling sequence is the kind of absurdist setpiece that does work best when it effectively comes out of nowhere, with only the most random and disconnected setup.
After all, to get this episode to the mud wrestling match, Mordecai and Rigby need only place themselves in a situation where they are desperate to make 200 dollars. They could have broken some moderately valuable piece of parking equipment and so hit the ring to avoid Benson’s rage. Or perhaps they could have damaged something belonging to one of their coworkers; although it’s hard to imagine that Pops or Skips would hold it against them that they damaged their hypothetical tents, it’s easy enough to imagine Mordecai and Rigby doing something this reckless and foolhardy for friends such as those. Hell, they even could have lost some stupid bet to Muscle Man, or somehow gotten on the bad side of some guest villain and found that mud wrestling was the only way to avoid a still worse fate.
So, why is it different when the tent belongs to C.J., and it’s her disappointment that Mordecai goes to such absurd lengths to avoid? The most basic reason is that we don’t actually know how C.J. would react to the destroyed tent. After five seasons, I can more or less tell you how the story would unfold if that tent had belonged to any of Mordecai and Rigby’s coworkers, or if they had needed the 200 dollars because they had crossed some villain of the week. Such episodes could find previously untold nuances in those established relationships, but the audience is already familiar enough with those storytelling combinations that Regular Show can get away with pushing character work to the side in favor of a little mud wrestling.
But with C.J., the knowledge isn’t there yet. Would she get angry at Mordecai for his sleep-deprived laziness? Would she just be disappointed and lose a little bit of faith and trust in him? Would she laugh the whole thing off and tell him to stop worrying about such ultimately inconsequential matters, reminding him that he can always just tell her when he makes a mistake? All of those are plausible based on what we’ve seen so far—given Regular Show’s tone and its general handling of C.J. this season, I’d guess option three—but this episode doesn’t offer an answer. Really, it doesn’t even bother to ask the question, instead reducing C.J. to the setup for the goofy phone call gag. The part of this story I most wanted to see once the plot was set in motion is whatever comes right after the final gag of the episode, when the battered and bruised Mordecai must presumably tell C.J. the truth about what happened.
If, for the sake of argument, the Regular Show creative team began with the notion of the mud wrestling tournament and reverse-engineered a story that could justify such drastic, silly action, then the mistake lay in picking a buildup more intriguing than the payoff. If this episode’s genesis was with the broken tent and the mud wrestling was only added later, then the show wasted a terrific opportunity for character-building in favor of a relatively tepid climax. That second possibility isn’t the worst thing in the world; after all, Regular Show has dozens of episode to play with every season, so I can excuse a certain amount of slow burn when it comes to developing the characters and their relationships. But in really any scenario, the only way that “Tent Trouble” is going to succeed is if the mud wrestling sequence is the greatest mud wrestling sequence ever.
Now, Mordecai and Rigby’s bout with Starla and Peggy has its charms—Benson’s general glee at the spectacle of his most annoying employees getting hurt is a lot of fun—but it can’t find a good ending; indeed, the actual spectators appear downright shocked by the anticlimax. The funniest thing about the whole mud wrestling section may actually be the very beginning, when Muscle Man rather self-consciously crowbars himself into the story to offer Mordecai and Rigby an opportunity to earn 400, then 200 dollars. It’s a nice little self-aware gag acknowledging the familiarity of the episode’s formula, but it’s a small moment in an episode generally too comfortable with playing everything straight. There’s a decent little throwaway episode buried inside “Tent Trouble,” one that offers some entirely arbitrary excuse for Mordecai and Rigby’s sudden willingness to mud wrestle and then just runs with the absurdity of it all. But by initially feinting toward much richer narrative territory before losing interest in its own best story, this episode can’t help but feel like a wasted opportunity. Part of Regular Show’s charm is that it can so easily pivot from the profound to the profoundly inconsequential, but it’s not wise to try doing that over the course of a single episode.
- This is a minor thing, but even Mordecai and Rigby’s initial sleepiness is the kind of intriguing element that the episode unnecessarily abandons. As soon as their tiredness has fulfilled its narrative function, Mordecai and Rigby are the same as ever they were, when it might well have been more compelling to explore continued sleep deprivation affects their judgment.
- One last thing that goes uncommented upon: By Rigby’s standards, he’s basically blameless here. After all, it’s Mordecai who repeated backs the cart over the tent. Even allowing for Rigby’s unhelpful comments, it’s really not cool just how often Mordecai hits him over the course of this episode, especially when Rigby doesn’t hesitate to jump into the ring despite not really having a stake in all this. This is an episode where Mordecai, not Rigby, is the bad friend, and I hope a future episode expands on the character implications of that.