It almost feels like cheating to declare “The Christmas Special” Regular Show’s best episode ever. After all, its half-hour length affords it a scope that isn’t possible in the show’s normal format, and its Christmas-quest subject matter feels like a departure from a quintessential Regular Show story. But however you want to rank it, “The Christmas Special” remains an unqualified triumph, a thoroughly satisfying, very funny tale that includes great moments for each of the supporting characters (give or take Hi-Five Ghost, but that dude is too cool to care); brings in the perfectly cast Ed Asner and Thomas Haden Church as Santa and the rogue elf Quillgin, respectively; features a nice little redemption subplot for an old nemesis; and gives Mordecai and Rigby their most badass act of heroism yet, complete with musical backing from Savatage’s most righteous heavy-metal Christmas music, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.”
“The Christmas Special” gets off to a rollicking start as Quillgin hijacks Santa’s sleigh and hightails it out of the North Pole with a mysterious present, only to be attacked by a particularly fearsome version of Santa. Taking that jolly old elf and transforming him into an extreme warrior-type isn’t exactly new—South Park, Futurama, American Dad, and the new Rise Of The Guardians have all played around with this idea—and this is one of those concepts where, as the renowned culture critics in Spinal Tap so eloquently put it, there’s a fine line between stupid and clever. While recasting Santa as a ponytailed, fingerless-gloved, trenchcoat-wearing, flying snowboard-riding badass who can command Rudolph to shoot lasers out of his red nose definitely has the potential to be deeply, deeply stupid, Regular Show is perhaps the one show cool enough to pull this off. As goofy as all these elements undoubtedly are, the show has the courage of its convictions to dare us not to find this awesome, and it ends up working far better than if “The Christmas Special” had taken a more winking approach to its portrayal of old Saint Nick.
Of course, the real secret of Santa’s success is the casting of the legendary Ed Asner in the role. His reliably crusty performance lends this very modern conception of Santa an ancient gravitas, making it clear Santa acts like this not simply because a bunch of 20-somethings think it’s cool, but because, well, how the hell else would Santa act, eh, punk? The real highlight is when, with the infinite disdain that is the Ed Asner trademark, Santa recites Mordecai and Rigby’s childhood Christmas letters: “‘Dear Santa, Dude, give me an invisibility cloak.’ ‘Santa, Dude, don’t be a jerk, just give me an invisibility cloak.’” Honestly, I’d be ready to give this episode an “A” just on the strength of Asner’s readings of the word “Dude.”
Just as crucially, Asner nails the big monologue of exposition that explains just why Quillgin is after the box, hitting the right mix of weariness and horror at what Quillgin’s box could do to the world. The flashback itself is a terrific concept, taking the age-old idea of the elves’ workshop and integrating focus groups—Santa’s line about testing Quillgin’s invention in “a Christmas morning scenario” is a particularly deft touch—and decontamination units armed with flamethrowers, while the animation captures Quillgin’s descent into evil in just a few facial expressions. Much like the episode’s conception of Santa, this all could so easily have come across as silly, but the complete lack of ironic detachment from Asner, the writers, and the animators is what makes it work so well.
“The Christmas Special” then takes on a Lord Of The Rings flavor as the entire park staff—minus Thomas, of course, who is busy having his head stuck in the stairway—head deep underground to throw Quillgin’s present into fiery molten lava. It’s not a straight homage, but you’ve got an impromptu fellowship heading off on a quest to destroy a dark magic totem that drives people mad with the overpowering urge to possess it, and which can only be destroyed by being cast into hellish fire—plus invisibility and crossing a collapsing underground bridge are involved somehow. All in all it’s a pretty close match, sort of. Wisely, Regular Show doesn’t get bogged down in a lot of warmed-over parody, instead using the quest format as an excuse to return to the rival East Pines Park and bring back Benson’s archenemy Gene the vending machine, as voiced by the always welcome Kurtwood Smith. The Christmastime redemption of Gene, as he stares at a photo of his family celebrating Christmas while Quillgin seemingly breaks down the door of the command center, is equal parts tense and weirdly touching, with the eggnog-wielding park ranger matter-of-factly mentioning that some crazed elf is outside a great capper for the scene. I might have liked a quick scene where Gene and his rangers actually mounted a resistance to Quillgin, but his respectful handshake with Benson really says it all. Gene’s appearance is a reminder that Christmas and war alike can bring the greatest enemies together as allies, and an actual, honest-to-goodness war on Christmas is doubly good for that.
A ton of the episode’s funniest moments come during the underground trials, including Muscle Man’s horrified, ignored realization that he almost died in the spike chamber and Skips’ reading of the unexpectedly straightforward final trial: “Wrestle a bear. Don’t lose.” The trials afford Rigby yet more opportunities to be an unhelpful dick, as he pettily mocks Benson for his near-lethal pinball failure and then declares Pops dead before he even starts wrestling the giant bear. Both times Mordecai angrily takes him to task for his comments, and it’s this sense of character that helps elevate “The Christmas Special.” Muscle Man, Benson, and Pops’ trials are all true to who they are—Muscle Man the consummate show-off with unexpected grace, Benson the old-timer determined to prove he’s still got it, and Pops the weirdo whose key to victory is that he doesn’t realize just how overmatched he truly is. Utilizing Skips as the translator and general expert is a good way of incorporating him without allowing him to overpower the story, leaving the door open for Mordecai and Rigby to save the day.
The full scope of Quillgin’s plan only snaps into place at the end, as Thomas Haden Church delivers an impassioned monologue about how he wanted to give everyone their own box containing their heart’s desire, and he was stopped only because such a world would have no further use for Santa. It’s an intriguing moment, and Santa’s denial isn’t entirely convincing, but Quillgin is clearly past caring, as he wishes for the complete annihilation of Christmas forever. The montage of Christmas disappearing, scored with the traditional “Carol Of The Bells,” is a surprisingly chilling sequence, leading nicely to Mordecai heroically throwing himself, Quillgin, and the box into the lava pit. Although “The Christmas Special” establishes that Mordecai and Rigby love Christmas perhaps a bit more than most, the episode doesn’t pitch this as a triumph of the Christmas spirit or that Mordecai and Rigby have some deeply felt personal connection to the holiday that drives them to such drastic measures. Nah, all Regular Show needs us to understand is that Christmas is awesome, and that’s enough for our heroes to spring into action. Their long, long fall into the pit and their eventual hoverboard-aided escape really has to be their finest hour, and it’s richly deserving of Santa’s rule-breaking gift of an invisibility cloak. Which, of course, Rigby and Mordecai use to shirk work and go play video games. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting ending for Regular Show’s Christmas special—except perhaps Ed Asner bellowing the traditional, “Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas!” as Santa’s sleigh zooms off into the night, leaving kickass fire trails behind him. Yes, that’ll do quite nicely.
- “Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum! Santa’s got a six pack.” Hands down, my hardest laugh of the night. Muscle Man does not disappoint.
- I dearly love the cartoon convention that talking animals will continue to walk around naked in the middle of winter—but they’ll put on a scarf.
- Hi-Five Ghost is really just along for the ride in this, but I enjoy how the show keeps putting him in positions that make no sense. Seriously, how did Gene and the rangers tie up a ghost, especially when his high-fiving hand was left noticeably free?
- “I’ll call ya to go bowling sometime.” In an episode that generally spotlights the characters at their best, Skips’ farewell to Santa is pretty much the perfect Skips line.
- Nice to see Mr. Maellard pop in for a quick cameo. Ed Asner, Thomas Haden Church, Kurtwood Smith, and David Ogden Stiers is one hell of an impressive guest cast.
- So, yeah, this show is just openly mocking Thomas’ uselessness at this point, huh? I mean, even more than it does usually.