Friday, July 19, 2024

Mythic Quest Season 2 Is Bittersweet, But Occasionally Beautiful

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Some of you might not have heard of Mythic Quest. Or, if you have heard of it, then it’s one of those shows that you’ve definitely been meaning to check out at some point, y’know, when you get round to it. You can be forgiven for that – the series is only available on AppleTV+, Apple’s own on-demand streaming service (because, of course, every mega-corporation needs their own), which itself has been struggling to scrape together any kind of consistent user base. Unlike its competitors, it hasn’t managed to put out any real “breakout” original series, just a handful of relatively strong ones. One of the strongest of these shows is the office-based sitcom Mythic Quest

What is Mythic Quest?

Created by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia alumni Megan Ganz, Rob McElhenny, and Charlie Day, the series centres on a fictional gaming studio, which produces a popular World Of Warcraft-esque MMORPG called Mythic Quest (aka ‘MQ’). McElhenny himself stars as vain but troubled creator Ian Grimm, as does another familiar face from Always Sunny – David Hornsby (aka ‘Rickety Cricket’), as terminally mild-mannered producer David.

This series is like if The Office and the later seasons of Community had a baby, which was then raised by the Always Sunny writers. The set-up is pretty familiar to any workplace comedy – they put a bunch of zany characters into an office, have the demands of the work trigger the plot, and let them play off each other. Mythic Quest gets a lot of mileage out of being set within the gaming industry, with many plots coming about because of issues specific to the gaming world – introducing a new in-game item, handling developers who’ve been forced to work overtime, dealing with alt-right trolls invading the game.

There’s a real sense of sincerity to this, and it’s not just because the writers were obviously interested in gaming. The show also used consultants from Ubisoft to make the set and storylines as authentic as possible. On top of this, every episode includes specifically animated cutscenes from the in-universe Mythic Quest game, used as transitions between scenes. These scenes usually have some thematic relevance to the story of the episode, and lend the series a unique flavour.

An in-game render of a woman with angel wings and magical blue energy in her hands.

Co-creator Megan Ganz cut her teeth writing some of the best episodes of Community before moving over to Always Sunny, and the influences here are obvious. All these shows enjoy featuring deeply flawed characters, to the point of near-unlikability, before pulling back and showing their vulnerability. Ian (Rob McElhenny) and Lead Developer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) are narcissistic and self-centred to the point of delusion, money-maker Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi) and his assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis) are cold and cut-throat in their efforts to get ahead, and F. Murray Abraham does his best Pierce Hawthorne impression as the casually racist, misogynistic, out-of-touch relic of the 70s, Head Writer C.W. Longbottom. 

Not every character is totally toxic – a lot of sweetness is brought in by the will-they-won’t-they relationship between two testers, the socially conscious Rachel (Ashly Burch) and ambitious Dana (Imani Hakim) – but the flawed nature of the cast as a whole gives the show a strong flavour of unpredictable chaos. The show manages to keep these characters sympathetic too, in part thanks to its willingness to take scenes to very sad, emotionally raw places. There are many scenes, and even a couple of whole episodes, that feel more like they came out of a slice-of-life drama than a sitcom. These help to remind us of the very real trauma these characters are dealing with.

A Season of Shifting Dynamics

There are a couple of major shake-ups from the previous season that have a big impact on relationship dynamics. The first and largest of these is the promotion of Poppy from Lead Developer to co-Creative Director. This brings into focus the tenuous relationship between her and Ian. The rivalry between the two of them is great fun to watch, and forms the basis for most of the conflicts this season. They are on the surface two very different people who have very different visions for the future of Mythic Quest. Ian is obsessed with combat and epic conflicts, while Poppy favours creation and exploration, and these styles are reflected in each of their personalities. 

The fun part of this dynamic is that despite their surface differences, they really are two very similar people – far too similar to get along. They are deeply self-centred, egotistical, and single-minded about their goals, prone to dismissing and snapping at everyone around them. Poppy initially seemed like she would be the sugar to Ian’s spice, but several times this season (particularly in Grouchy Goat and Please Sign Here), she proves herself to be just as manipulative and selfish as him. 

Ian walks away from Poppy in a dimly lit Mythic Quest office

Inevitably, they can’t agree on anything, particularly in regards to the expected new expansion, so they compromise, taking charge of half an expansion each (titled ‘Zeus’ and ‘Hera’). Naturally, this does not go well. Poppy’s ambitious vision proves to be technically impossible, and Ian fails to come up with anything new of substance. The season is largely about them coming together and realising that they need each other, and this happens finally in the penultimate episode, Juice Box. The episode ends with a gorgeously tender moment, where the two yell at each other for a few minutes, before they finally share their vulnerabilities, and Poppy sings a lullaby to Ian as he lies in a hospital bed.

This event was set up back in episode five (Please Sign Here), where the two are both forced to admit their fears. Ian confesses that he fears he has no good ideas beyond MQ, while Poppy tells him that she fears singing in public – to his great chagrin. Using this moment to display vulnerability is a really nice moment that shows real development in their relationship. It’s also a nice moment of subtle diversity – the song she sings is ‘Sa Ugoy ng Duyan’, a classic Filipino lullaby about a son wishing for the comfort of his mother. Charlotte Nicdao, who plays Poppy, is an Australian actor with Filipino ancestry, and according to an interview, suggested this song to be included in this scene.

Smartly, the writers don’t make the obvious choice of making this relationship romantic. There’s enough ship-teasing there that if you do want to look at their dynamic that way, you can. A lot of jokes play on the framing of them as a married couple – such as David likening their separate expansions as a couple sleeping in separate beds (something that happened before his parents divorce, and also before his own divorce, the poor sad-sack). But the show isn’t hamstrung by presenting this core dynamic as a simple will-they-won’t they, to be resolved with an emotional confession at an airport. The resolution takes genuine hard work.

There is another shakeup for the show’s actual will-they-won’t-they couple at the start of the season – Dana and Rachel. Rachel’s hidden crush on Dana formed a bit part of season one, but in the first episode of this season, the will-they-won’t-they ends. They, in fact, do. This opens up some different storylines and dynamics this year. Dana’s ambition to become a programmer causes tension against Rachel’s aimlessness. Dana wants to apply to Berkeley and build her own game, while Rachel is content to just stay a tester, because she has no big dream, so they have to navigate their differing approaches and the possibility of a long-distance relationship. This pair of characters occasionally felt like spare parts in season one, but this season rectifies that.

The final relationship shift this year comes with Jo (Jessie Ennis), who started as assistant to David, but in the first episode of this season switches her allegiance to Head of Monetisation Brad (Danny Pudi). This pairs together two self-described “sharks”, who aim to manipulate everyone around them with sociopathic precision. Pudi and Ennis have great chemistry and seeing the two most morally grey characters together is always fun.

Naturally though, the two of them clash when one senses weakness in the other. The fourth episode, Breaking Brad, does what the show had needed to do for a while – show Brad’s vulnerable side – as his even more coldly manipulative brother swings into town to make a play against Brad’s position. This prompts Jo to side against Brad, in a bid for power that does not go well for her. Their dynamic plays out similarly to Poppy and Ian, as two people who are too similar to work together, gradually coming to an understanding and mutual respect by the end of the season.

Highlights and Lowlights

Mythic Quest has always had a sense of melancholy, and a willingness to break their own formula. In season one, the show abandoned all its main characters for one episode, telling in flashback the story of an old bargain-bin game, Dark Quiet Death, and the couple who created it. Starring Jake Johnson (New Girl) and Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother), it’s a strange and sad slice-of-life story with no plot relevance to the main story (only thematic relevance, with the starring couple sharing some similarity to Ian and Poppy’s disharmony). It’s also one of the highlights of that first season.

The second season carries on this tradition with the excellent Backstory, which features none of the main actors, and just one of the characters. It tells the story of C.W. in the 1970s, how he became a writer and how he came to win his Nebula award. The character as we know him is fairly difficult to like – a functional alcoholic who can’t be trusted to let out in public in case he says something worthy of being cancelled. This episode makes the interesting choice of showing us even more flaws – how his pettiness soured all his past relationships, and revealing him to be a fraud who stole his prizewinning novel from Issac Asimov. 

Young CW enters the lobby of a publishing studio.

It’s a really honest portrayal of a small, petty tyrant of literature, but Josh Brener as young C.W. imbues him with a humanity that it’s difficult not to feel some pity for. This episode also gets marks for being a very creative reaction to the pandemic. F. Murray Abraham’s vulnerability to Covid severely limited his time on set this year; it’s noticeable that almost all his appearances in the first half of the season come in the form of video calls. This episode allowed us to dig a lot deeper into the character of C.W., without having to use the actor at all (outside of one ending scene which was very obviously filmed in isolation).

The follow-up to this episode does feature Abraham, as he goes to meet the older version of a character we met in Backstory, and it’s almost as good, giving us more of his descent into pettiness (almost defecating in his old friend’s writing desk), before ending with a bittersweet reunion between the two men.

Another standout is episode five, Please Sign Here, a bottle episode revolving around put-upon HR Manager Carol (Naomi Ekperigin) trying to get everyone else to sign a personality quiz they all took, but none of them are happy with the (totally arbitrary) animal they were assigned by it. Megan Ganz got her start on Community with the excellent bottle episode Co-operative Calligraphy, and has spoken in interviews since about bottle episodes benefitting from having the most meaningless stakes (in Community it was a lost pen, here a dumb quiz), and from there just letting the natural character dynamics play out.

This episode is a prime example – we see tension between Dana and Rachel over their differing levels of ambition, Jo quitting her role under Brad since she saw his vulnerable side in the previous episode, and finally the aforementioned moment between Poppy and Ian where they confess their respective fears – a moment which forms the basis for their resolution in Juice Box. The strength of this episode is all in the character dynamics that define the season.

Sometimes, a show’s biggest strengths can also be its biggest downfalls. This series has set itself apart from other sitcoms because of these small, sad little stories that it tells, and its willingness to let melancholy take over a scene. If you like this flavour of storytelling, then you’ll love this show. But the series has come into criticism for leaning too hard into maudlin territory. Episodes 5 through 8 are all mainly depressing episodes, or end on very sad/bittersweet notes. It’s an approach that can be exhausting to some, especially if you’re just looking for a light-hearted office sitcom to take your mind off of your depressing reality. It really is reminiscent of the controversial later seasons of Community – which also coincidentally aired on a failing streaming service, the short-lived Yahoo Screen).

While this season does a great job of integrating some of the characters that had less to do in season one, it does leave some others by the wayside. I’ve barely mentioned David in this review, because he is a bit of a spare part this year. He has no character he can be consistently paired with, and so often ends up drifting alongside and commenting on other storylines, rather than having any of his own. His main story this year revolved around his long-distance relationship with a widow from Yorba Linda, who we never met and which ended off-screen. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

The final episode of this season has the air of a possible series finale. Poppy and Ian quit Mythic Quest to create a new video game – a version of Poppy’s failed ‘Hera’ expansion. Rachel realises she wants to become a writer, and leaves to pursue this – her dynamic with Dana now switched, as she failed to get into Berkeley and instead is staying to train at MQ. Brad gets himself sent to jail as part of an elaborate power play, re-earning the respect of Jo, who decides to again work for David. If the show is not renewed, then we would be left with a satisfying ending, hinting at where each of these characters are going next, and leaving the fans to decide the rest. 

If it is renewed though – and several members of the cast have dropped hints that they’re quite positive on this – then season three presents a lot of exciting potential storylines. We could look forward to seeing a whole new version of Ian and Poppy’s dynamic, with the pair now working towards what is specifically her vision. We can see Rachel and Dana attempt to manage a long-distance relationship, and how  a more mature Jo interacts with David again. And what the hell kind of four-dimensional chess Brad will be able to play from prison. There’s a lot of fertile ground to explore, and a lot of areas in which this engaging and ambitious sitcom can still refine itself. Fingers crossed that we get to see where it goes next.

Poppy and Ian raise a glass to their new venture.

Season Grade: A-

Images courtesy of Apple+

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