The video game industry hasn’t really been given a fair shake on television; it’s usually treated as a space for nerds, bros, and Mountain Dew-crushing, pimple-popping, mustard gas-farting, basement-dwelling losers despite its place as one of the most profitable businesses in the entertainment industry. I’m still mad at the 2011 ABC series Man Up! for making fun of some dads who just wanted to play some Call of Duty, perpetuating the stereotype that gamers are mouth-breathing wastes of life and that games aren’t works of art to be appreciated just like a fine film. (Yeah, I took it personally. It’s one-season run was a karmic cancellation.)
But in Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, Apple TV+‘s new comedy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Rob McElhenney (Mac), gaming finally gets the respect it deserves. That is, it only sort of gets made fun of, which seems about right. The comedy is set in the office of the developers of the wildly popular (and fictional) massively multiplayer online role-playing game Mythic Quest (think World of Warcraft) on the stressful eve of the release of the game’s first expansion pack Raven’s Banquet. It’s got some The Office vibes because of its workplace setting, whiffs of Silicon Valley because of the absurdity of the tech industry and corporate living, and, at its best, some cultural statements awkwardly and uncomfortably squeezed out like It’s Always Sunny. (And with Sunny minds McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz on board as EPs and writers, it should.)
McElhenney plays Ian Grimm (pronounced eye-an, because he’s a pompous asshole), the creative director of the game whose idea of brainstorming is dicking around in the motion-capture studio. He’s engorged with a sense of megalomania like many zany sitcom bosses before him, and the expected jokes pour in from his staff trying frantically to keep up with his delusions of grandeur. Thankfully there’s a great cast and division of power within the company to rein Ian in and make that trope work. Danny Pudi goes Evil Abed as Brad, the head of monetization who never saw a loot box or corporate sponsorship he’d pass up. F. Murray Abraham (yes THAT F. Murray Abraham) plays Mythic Quest‘s head writer, a washed-up sci-fi author whose age and cluelessness is a nod to Community‘s Pierce Hawthorne (Ganz wrote some of Community‘s best episodes). David Hornsby, Sunny‘s Rickety Cricket, is David, the spineless doormat executive producer who’s always trying to validate his own employment.
But Mythic Quest‘s best characters belong to its women. Particularly the show’s co-lead, Poppy (Australian actress Charlotte Nicdao), the head of engineering who frequently butts egos with Ian over his grandiose visions, and paddles, often aggressively, upstream in a male-dominated industry. One of the few sane-ish people in the office, Poppy’s ambition and eagerness to be acknowledged for her work pumps the blood in Mythic Quest, without making Poppy the butt of the joke. Like Sunny‘s Sweet Dee, she’s frequently in front of a firing squad of insults shot by her male co-workers, but it only highlights the ridiculousness of office culture and makes the guys look dumber. Yet she’s not the rigid office sitcom wife, and she’s not immune to getting sucked into the silliness of the workspace, like her idea for “Dinner Party,” an in-game mechanic designed to make communication between guilds and players easier that she introduces with wide eyes and a voila! hand gesture. Here’s hoping Nicdao, with her elastic face and infectious energy, sticks around American sitcoms for a long while. She’s terrific.
Elsewhere in the studio, David’s assistant, Jo (Jessie Ennis), is the show’s most quotable, a power-thirsty sociopath prone to one-liners filled with violence and darkness. Caitlin McGee somehow goes from the lead of legal drama Bluff City Law to Mythic Quest‘s wound-up and basement-locked community manager, who’s one user complaint away from a full psychotic break. And the game’s overworked testers, Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), add the show’s lone romantic storyline and a pure sense of love for gaming; putting females into that role is a great subversion of the stereotype and more representative of the gaming audience today.
That’s what stuck out most to me while watching Mythic Quest. Video games and their fans are accurately depicted. No one is disparaging them even when there’s a clean shot at a low blow. But the appropriate playful jabs are there, because the gaming industry is objectively nuts. The ridiculousness of gaming community personalities is highlighted in the form of a petulant 14-year-old streamer whose influence can make or break a game, but a gaming/streaming convention in a later episode isn’t overflowing with overweight nerds or dorks falling over under the weight of their cosplay. Poppy’s idea for an in-game shovel as a tool to dig holes in Mythic Quest‘s land is a great addition to the game, and while Ian wants to weaponize it to make it cooler, the truth is that most users use it to draw dicks in the virtual grass (which would definitely happen). When a group of middle-school female coders comes to tour the Mythic Quest office to be inspired by Poppy, David can only see male employees as far as the eye can see. But that’s done as a sitcom joke, because you’ll remember that half the main characters are female. It’s the common sense to make jokes that gamers would make about games rather than jokes that non-gamers would make about gamers that keeps Mythic Quest harmonious.
At its best, Mythic Quest turns quirks of the gaming industry into social commentary about the larger world. One of the season’s best episodes, written by Ganz, steers closest to It’s Always Sunny territory when a hate group forms inside the game and the producers have to figure out how to solve the problem of getting rid of a bunch of Nazis without alienating parts of its user base. And although Mythic Quest works on an episode-to-episode basis, running stories and jokes pepper the whole season, bringing subplots back in later episodes to become bigger problems or solutions.
The best example of this comes in the middle of the season in a format-busting episode that flashes back to the ’90s and barely features anyone from the main cast. It’s a wonderful one-off featuring two likable stars I won’t spoil here teaching a valuable lesson in creativity versus profitability that rings right through to the very end of the season. It’s barely even funny, but it’s also one of the better and most sentimental episodes of TV I’ve seen this year.
Unfortunately, not everything pans out or holds momentum in the second half of the season, with stories set up by Episode 4 that drop potential as other distractions and episodic stories take up more space. Still, it remains funny with one of comedy’s best new casts and ends on a note that the already-ordered second season can build off of.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
All episodes of Mythic Quest Season 1 premiere Friday, Feb. 7 on Apple TV+.