Bitterly funny and bitingly insightful with one of TV’s best current ensembles, Mythic Quest’s second season sees the show continuing to richly mature into itself.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Of those initial six months of the Apple TV+ line-up, Mythic Quest was by far the standout in the Ralph Wiggum of streaming services’ original offerings. And whilst that sounds like the backhandiest of backhanded compliments, given that said programming list outside of MQ and maybe Dickinson was Not Good, I don’t intend for it to be. Created by the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia dream-team of Charlie Day, Megan Ganz, and series star Rob McElhenney, the work-com’s debut season was the rare type where each subsequent episode was noticeably, tangibly better than the one prior. After a rocky start trafficking in work-com archetypes and played-out gaming culture gags, MQ soon found itself by more fully rounding out its greatly-performed ensemble cast and shifting instead to a more dramatic focus by refusing to shy away from the bitter conflicts and hurt which come from egotistical creatives clashing on a daily basis.
If said shift could have been smoother in that much of the second half lacked major proper jokes (which is kind of non-optional for a nominal sitcom), it was nonetheless a successful one. Often a legitimately moving one and, though it lacks the off-the-wall zaniness and blistering acidity of the latter, maybe the first major work-com since Better Off Ted to directly grapple with the somewhat unpleasant reality and bitterness of dysfunctional workplace culture so effectively. Its ensemble also turned into one of TV’s most fun to watch, led by McElhenney’s egomaniacal yet wildly-insecure creative director Ian Grimm but stolen by Charlotte Nicdao’s breakout performance as eternally undervalued lead engineer Poppy Li. The foundations for a truly great show were laid across those first nine episodes and, after two between-season specials (including an excellent quarantine episode that’s the only good one of that subgenre), Mythic Quest’s second season smartly chooses to refine those foundations and offer up more and often better of what worked before.
That’s not to say there haven’t been changes, however, especially in the MQ HQ. Poppy’s co-creative director honeymoon with Ian – made official in the S1 finale – is officially over and the pair spend much of the season clashing with their competing visions and more-equal-than-they’d-care-to-admit insecurity and inferiority complexes. The season’s main thematic thrust is one of creative failure. Where egos have to confront the reality of limitations brought about by a lack of ability, and the professional and personal damage which can arise from that. Ian and Poppy struggle to find sufficient inspiration for Mythic Quest’s next expansion whilst being hounded by both their Montreal higher-ups and nagging insecurities over which of the two is the “true” genius, which manifests in a constant casually cruel abusing of their power over their long-suffering underlings.
The show never really calls explicit attention to it, especially since these often get played for funny gags, but the infrequent reminders that Ian works his art department to the bone oblivious to their burnout, or of Poppy’s smug belittling of her programmers and pathological need for sycophants who can mind-read her inability to properly communicate, make for one of the most effective and quietly-cutting takedowns of auteur and abusive game dev culture to come along in a long while. (The irony of this being a Ubisoft co-production only grows by the episode.) The season’s second half boils over thanks to a corporate-mandated personality test long-suffering HR Head Carol (scene-stealing Naomi Ekperigin) has had to dole out which contentiously boxes those who take it into animal archetypes for no discernible purpose; that’s definitely Better Off Ted-y albeit much more dramatically played. Meanwhile, a brilliant pair of mid-season digressions filling in the backstory of lore-writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) skewers the often-ingrained-sexism in the myth of a prodigious creative genius through some surprising reveals and painful character interactions.
Whilst said back-half can still struggle a tad when it comes to finding the right balance between comedy and drama, the show is now a lot more confident at weaving these thematic thrusts into its framework. Ironically, by stepping back from gaming-specific plots driving the episodes into more universal creative issues pushed by the increasingly fleshed-out cast – the pressure to perform when corporate is breathing down your neck, crippling imposter syndrome after finally getting into some position of power, a truly damning rebuke against the entire concept of #girlboss – MQ finally feels authentic to the struggles and realities of modern game development. A lot of that gets best explored via everyone’s favourite disaster lesbians, testers Dana (Imani Hakim) and Rachel (Ashly Burch), the latter of whom aspires to more than testing but doesn’t know what that “more” is and the former of whom wants to design her own games but is an inept novice at programming and receives no help or sympathy from anyone else at Mythic Quest. In particular, their ludicrously overthought pitch in the second episode for what’s meant to be a cheap mobile game is crushingly relatable, and a great example of how the show works its leftist worldview into the comedy and characters rather than self-important moralising.
Also coming into its own are the show’s visual palette and editing rhythms. The cinematic aspect ratio and glossy sheen coated over much of the Mythic Quest offices remains refreshingly striking and the more filmic visual inspirations are helping elevate the visual gags and pacing of many an episode. McElhenney’s excellent, sumptuously golden nostalgic glow direction of the mid-season period flashback will gain the most obvious praise – just as his work on S1’s period flashback and the LARP between-season special did; this man really does have an eye for directing. But maybe the best example of this visual sheen and particularly how the editing knows just the perfect length to hold on a beat for maximum humour or bitter sting comes from the bottle episode beforehand, Community bottle veteran Ganz this time getting behind the camera and, working from Katie McElhenney’s great script, making eight people arguing in circles in one bullpen easily the most compelling half-hour of the season.
Mythic Quest’s sophomore season is great. Funny and biting but never mean or glib, stylish without being showy, and gradually becoming much deeper without sacrificing the fun of the initial work-com outline, powered by one of TV’s current best casts both in terms of character and performances – shoutouts to the not-mentioned-here-for-time-and-flow Danny Pudi, David Hornsby, and especially Jessie Ennis who are also all great. There are still areas to improve, particularly with regards to the overall narrative pacing of a season – those C.W. flashback episodes are excellent but back-to-back with only two eps left in the season following does stunt the momentum of the bottle episode somewhat. But Ganz & McElhenny and co.’s clever writing and willingness to push both themselves and the show out of their genre comfort zones makes for some great television, whilst the examination of creative setbacks and failures comes together super satisfyingly by the intriguing finale.
The streaming service it’s housed on may still lack that killer app to sell to folks (if you don’t get the Ted Lasso hype), but Mythic Quest at the end of its second season is so close to being that for Apple TV+. Here’s hoping they keep getting the space to let it become so.
Callie Petch, don’t stop, forever.