Television has always had a skewed view of middle class life. The inexplicable affluence of the cast of Friends is the rule, not the exception, and when TV depicts working-class lifestyles — like on The Middle and Bob’s Burgers — it’s almost always in the context of family. There are rare exceptions, like Comedy Central’s Broad City, which portrays the misadventures of single gals Abbi and Ilana as they traverse the outer boroughs in search of better dudes, jobs, and weed. But even they can afford to pay rent in New York City. We may have had The Honeymooners’ Kramdens in the ’50s and the Connors of Roseanne in the ’90s, but the late 2000s and early 2010s have spawned so few shows defined by the economic realities of the recession you’d think it never happened at all.
While there are millions of floundering young people scraping by in their parents’ basements, you wouldn’t know it from the depiction of twentysomethings on TV. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, in 2012, over a third of 18-31-year-olds were living with their parents. But on the small screen, even the title characters of Two Broke Girls get a chic-boho loft.
It all means that we’re left in a surreal reality where one of the few depictions of poor twentysomethings on TV lives on the fringes of a children’s network. The show in question, The Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, follows perennial slackers Mordecai and Rigby as they work dead-end jobs at a park, struggle to afford concert tickets (let alone rent), and spend the rest of their aimless days playing video games and pining for girls they’re too shy to ask out. Regular Show is one of television’s most realistic portrayals of emerging adulthood, a feat that’s all the more remarkable considering Mordecai and Rigby are animated woodland creatures — a blue jay and a raccoon, respectively.
Currently in its seventh season, Regular Show is more ambitious and fully realized than ever before. Its appeal and ambition far exceeds its early time slot and target demographic: According to Nielsen Media Research, more than a quarter of the show’s 2.6 million viewers are over the age of 18. Like its sister show, Adventure Time (the two usually air back-to-back) — which overshadows Regular Show in terms of publicity, popularity, and glowing New Yorker reviews — there are surprising layers of sophistication among the unicorns, ogres, and fart jokes that populate the world of Regular Show. While Adventure Time emphasizes the growing pains of adolescence through its protagonist Finn’s coming of age in the post-apocalyptic Kingdom of Ooo, Regular Show tackles the next phase of development — the transition to adulthood — in a world far more akin to ours.
Regular Show focuses on a demographic of young people that is rarely documented on millennial-aimed TV: the under-educated and working class. Mordecai dropped out of art school. Rigby hasn’t even made it through high school (in a Season 7 episode, he earns his GED). They’re trapped in career purgatory, working as landscapers at the local park. Gone are the hip Brooklyn apartments of Girls or the inexplicably massive lofts of New Girl. Regular Show’s twenty-three-year-old man-children, (er, bird- and raccoon-children?) share a bedroom in a house on the park grounds where they work. They don’t have swanky brunches or iPhones, either — just a communal kitchen and a computer they share with their fellow co-workers. Their main mode of transportation is a park-owned golf cart.
On Regular Show, the enemy isn’t necessarily wealth — the park is owned by a rich, benevolent lollipop-headed man and his sweetly naïve son — but greed. Excess and waste is decidedly uncool. While the show doesn’t preach, its underdog narrative has an undeniable socioeconomic subtext: the cool kids may have to work overtime to afford concert tickets, but they are eventually rewarded with front-row seats.
A Season 4 episode finds the park’s beloved (and only) golf cart stolen by a cadre of upper-crust miscreants. Intent on rescuing their only source of transportation, Mordecai and Rigby sneak into the local country club, where they discover the most evil (and most bizarre) of plans: the local millionaires have invented a machine that can convert any object into a gold toilet — yes, even a golf cart — and then shoot it into outer space. Why? Because, apparently, it’s “the richest way to celebrate the summer solstice.”
Eventually, Mordecai and Rigby outwit the country club millionaires by conning their leader into falling into his own machine. The plot is absurd, juvenile, and hilarious, but it’s also deeply telling of Regular Show’s stance on issues of class. The scariest villains are rich, mostly white humans with a greed so vile their only pleasure comes from destroying the belongings of others. As one millionaire exclaims, “The only thing that matters in life is turning other people’s things into toilets.” That sentiment is all too familiar in a world where big box stores and luxury condos threaten the homes and livelihoods of working-class people.
The childlike aesthetic of Regular Show allows it to depict a decidedly working-class lifestyle with a light touch. The squalor of a trailer park becomes a lot more palatable — almost adorable — when it’s inhabited by an overweight ogre, as is the case with Mordecai and Rigby’s co-worker, the ironically named Muscle Man. On this show, scoring free chocolate cake because you can’t afford the one-dollar box of cake mix is a joyous adventure, detached from the depressing reality of the situation. The colorful world of Regular Show is a necessary antidote to the disproportionately wealthy sitcom landscape — one that tempers the bleak financial realities that so many millennials face.