Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Always Sunny crew mines comedy from video games in Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest

Illustration for article titled Thei Always Sunny/i crew mines comedy from video games in Apple TV+’s iMythic Quest/i
Photo: Apple TV+
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Despite the vast number of workplace comedies that have wormed their way across the television landscape over the last few decades, that “workplace” part has typically gotten pretty short shrift. Sure, the cops on Brooklyn Nine-Nine investigate crimes from time to time, and Parks And Recreation occasionally indulged in the nuts and bolts of small town government. But it’s not like you’re going to get a lot of insights on the retail paper business from watching reruns of The Office.

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So it’s to the credit of Apple TV+’s new half-hour comedy series, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet—sharing its name with the multiplayer medieval role-playing game its protagonists spend most of their lives toiling to create—that it doesn’t just take the modern gaming landscaping as its setting; it’s also the major topic on its blood-soaked plate. Streaming culture, toxic masculinity, the evils of crunch, rampant sexism, Nazis, micro-transactions, doxxing, and the tendency of human beings to draw a digital phallus with whatever tools come to hand—all of it is treated with a familiarity that speaks to either actual experience or well-honed research. And it’s all in service of a story about the push and pull of the creative process, which wobbles back and forth between surprisingly affecting, and fodder for frequently funny, if occasionally lazy, jokes.

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That sometimes satisfying, sometimes whiplash-inducing shift in tones is exemplified in the show’s top-billed character, Ian (pronounced “EYE-an”) Grimm, played by series co-creator Rob McElhenney. Comparisons to McElhenney’s other TV show about self-obsessed weirdos trapped in a permanent state of arrested development should probably be dispensed with here—especially since It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Charlie Day and Megan Ganz co-created Mythic Quest, and series regular David “Rickety Cricket” Hornsby is prominent both in front of and behind the camera. Ian unquestionably shares certain traits with Paddy’s Pub’s resident semi-well-meaning doofus Mac, most notably his ability to confidently talk past the well-thought-out objections of others. The difference is that Ian is actually a success; as Mythic Quest’s creative director, shot-caller, and all-purpose “visionary,” he’s almost precisely as narcissistic and insecure as McElhenney’s more famous character, except with real talent and accomplishments to back up his delusions of genius. Just how self-aware Ian is tends to vary from scene to scene, though, and at the beck and call of both comedy and plot. He never descends to full-on Gang-level sociopathy, but there’s never not a hint of caricature in the performance, either, even when the show itself seems to be trying to be sincere.

That divide spans the entirety of Mythic Quest’s cast, which runs the gamut from a game F. Murray Abraham, playing a cartoonish send-up of burnt-out, drug-addled sci-fi authors, all the way to Ashly Burch’s Rachel, a kind-hearted tester nursing the world’s most obvious crush on best friend and co-worker Imani Hakim. Standing at the center of the divide between Looney Tunes and sincere, slow-burn feelings is Australian actress Charlotte Nicdao, playing Poppy, the game’s chief engineer—and, thus, the person forced to flesh out and implement every single one of Ian’s half-thought-out ideas, while being blocked from developing any of her own. Nicdao’s performance is likely to be the revelation here for a lot of viewers. Adept at both indulging in, and expressing endless frustration at, the madness that keeps the game in operation, she serves as a relatable straight person for viewers to latch onto, while also operating as a potent comic force in her own right.

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Illustration for article titled Thei Always Sunny/i crew mines comedy from video games in Apple TV+’s iMythic Quest/i
Photo: Apple TV+

Maybe even more importantly (and despite its general emotional flippancy), the show takes her desires for validation seriously. When it wants to be, Mythic Quest can be a shockingly thoughtful series about the conflicts that arise between ego, collaboration, and money in a swiftly growing field like games. The show’s most resonant moments see McElhenney drop Ian’s shield of obliviousness just enough to acknowledge that his visions would be impossible to complete without Poppy’s help. And while the series blessedly blows off any possibility of romantic connection between the two, it doesn’t shy away from the intimacy of the creative process—even if it’s also always ready to undercut most any moment of actual sentiment with yet another joke.

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Given the pedigree on display, the jokes are, unsurprisingly, pretty damn funny. When Mythic Quest does go full-cartoon, it does so with an eye for satire on both the gaming industry and recognizable types, which leads to moments like Danny Pudi’s soulless monetization manager, Brad, happily reflecting on his desire to build an actual, real-life version of Scrooge McDuck’s Money Bin to fill with the cash he bilks off addicted players, or Jessie Ennis as new assistant Jo, who reveals new layers of fanatical, increasingly violent devotion to the company every time her bosses’ dominance is challenged. (The “free-floating agent of chaos” title she picks up late in the show’s first season essentially codifies her status as the show’s equivalent of self-appointed “wild card” Charlie Kelly.) Among the supporting cast, meanwhile, the most obvious standout is young Elisha Henig as uber-popular 14-year-old streamer Pootie Shoe, who frequently catches a “little piece of shit” nickname from the principals for the amount of power he holds over their game with the patented “four buttholes” system of reviews he peddles to his untold millions of followers. It’s a ridiculous exaggeration of the twists and turns of real-world streaming culture, but not so ridiculous that it’s not also eminently recognizable for anyone who’s spent more than an afternoon hanging out with the lights and luminaries of Twitch.

So, Mythic Quest is funny. And Mythic Quest is capable of real feeling. The show’s biggest demerit, then, is that it can’t seem to find a way to be both at the same time; rather, it frequently feels like a tag-team match between its two sensibilities, with comedy doing the heavy lifting for the vast majority of that time. (The sole exception to this rule is also its strangest departure from format: The show’s fifth episode, “Dark Quiet Death,” which jettisons the series’ entire cast in favor of tapping Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti to play out a remarkably affecting, decade-spanning parable about the ways good games go bad. It’s a huge swing, which might explain why it’s also the only episode McElhenney himself directed.) But that disjointed feeling isn’t enough to sabotage all the things Mythic Quest actually gets right. If a little whiplash is the price to pay for a series so dense with both comedy, and specificity, about a medium that’s frequently been hand-waved or reduced to a grab-bag of Big Bang Theory quips, it’s a pretty low one. If nothing else, the formalization of the soon-to-be-legendary TTD Ratio—the time it takes any player to employ a new building tool to construct a dick in their available environment—will ensure its legacy for at least a few cycles of internet meme generation to come.

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