'Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet': TV Review

Starts off generic, but finds a solid voice by the end of the first season.
2/7/2020

'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' veterans Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day and Megan Ganz head to Apple TV+ with a gaming comedy that features a breakout performance by Charlotte Nicdao.

Occasional get-rich-quick scheme aside, the gang at Paddy's Pub on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia have rarely found a way to make their perpetual adolescence pay off.

Sunny principals Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, plus longtime executive producer Megan Ganz, have found a different and more lucrative arena for characters trapped in (or blessed with) arrested maturation in their new Apple TV+ comedy. The series , Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet is set in the offices of a video game development studio, where childish behavior is condoned, childlike wonder is commodified, and, over the course of nine episodes, just enough laughs, insights and appealing characters are introduced that I'm assuming a second season might actually become truly funny.

Mythic Quest, the epic fantasy game created by Ian Grimm (McElhenney) and written by burnt-out hippie and formerly successful novelist C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) is preparing for its first narrative expansion, the long-awaited Raven's Banquet, with nobody more excited than head of monetization Brad (Danny Pudi). The expansion is stressing out executive producer David (David Hornsby) and, probably more than anybody, lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), long underappreciated and desperate to have just one portion of the game to call her own. Also part of the chaos are bug-testers Dana (Imani Hakim) and Rachel (Ashly Burch), plus new employee Jo (Jessie Ennis), who's supposed to be David's assistant, but really seems to gravitate toward whoever has the most power.

There's a lot riding on a release that could be torpedoed by a negative review from wildly popular 14-year-old streamer Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig).

It would be wrong to think that the show improves dramatically as soon as it realizes that its male characters are familiar variations on eccentric man-children and its female characters are fresh and vital. I'm pretty sure the series' creators are aware from the beginning that Poppy, Jo, Rachel and Dana are where Mythic Quest has the most to say, whether about the role of women in gaming or just women in male-skewing workforces. And I think the series also knows that egocentric and manipulative Ian, wishy-washy David, matter-of-factly amoral Brad and out-of-touch C.W. are probably best suited as adversarial characters, if not straight-up villains. The struggle isn't a search for clarity — it's the need to establish the story's gaming world before pushing its best characters to the forefront.

The first couple of Mythic Quest episodes are admirably specific, fueled by the vernacular and rhythms of gaming in a way that is packed with jargon and references for those in the subculture, but perfectly accessible even if you haven't actively played a genre game since Zelda or The Black Cauldron. Specificity aside, though, those first episodes are satirically limp. It's perfectly reasonable for the show not to want to mock obsessive gamers — they're the target demo, after all — but the initial alternative is somehow even less committed. Rather than "Let's make fun of wacky gamers," it's "Let's make fun of the studio for not fully realizing how wacky gamers are." So the ridiculing of Pootie Shoe is limited and we're supposed to, I guess, chuckle at how pathetically dependent the game is on his approval. The mockery of gamers for using every in-game tool for penis-related purposes is limited too, and we're supposed to, I guess, laugh at Poppy for not realizing how quickly her vaunted in-game shovel would be used in penis-related ways. 

In these opening episodes, it's easy to point to shows that covered comparable workplace or gaming territory — think Silicon Valley or Corporate or even Future Man — and did it better.

My optimism for Mythic Quest kicked in with the third episode, a Ganz-scripted half-hour in which the game faces a spike in use among white supremacists and the characters generally react in all the wrong ways, despite generally correct intentions. It's basically a great Sunny episode filled with sharp, wonderfully obvious dialogue like "Nazis make excellent villains. Have we considered embracing the Nazis, narratively speaking?" and "Violence is very oftentimes the best answer. But not when you're dealing with Nazis!" It's a smart and perceptive look at how online communities can breed and cultivate extremism, and the challenge to regulate fringe voices, especially if your corporate culture is driven by too many similar voices.

Expect a lot of praise for the season's fifth episode, which continues a recent trend of stand-alone episodes nestled within existing shows, in this case using Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti as a window into a different kind of gaming experience. I'm normally a sucker for such episodes and always a sucker for our resident queen of the anthology, Milioti (Fargo, Black Mirror, Modern Love), but this one to me felt like a choppy attempt to introduce and underline thematic elements that were already plenty evident — the industry's gender divide, the gap between art and commerce — without really telling a meaningful one-off story.

What that fifth episode does, though, is transition to a much richer, more emotional homestretch of the season, marked by a clearer shift into Poppy's story, as Nicdao manages to be more dramatically effective and more hilarious as the show increasingly empathizes with her. Nicdao's treatment of Poppy's gradual and all too plausible unraveling is a pleasure to watch and, in forcing Ian into a defensive posture, it lets McElhenney be vulnerable in a way that has often marked his best Sunny work.

This shouldn't be surprising, but all the male characters are more interesting when paired with a complex female performance, whether it's the grounding of Abraham's pleasantly loopy C.W. when he gets to share scenes with Burch's Rachel, or the way Ennis' Jo, with the series' highest punchline-to-laugh ratio, energizes both Hornsby and Pudi, who otherwise have the show's least necessary characters. Burch, not incidentally, co-wrote the very good seventh episode with the great Aparna Nancherla, whose recurring coder Michelle is Jo's closest rival in the chuckle efficiency department.

It's also notable, and again not surprising, that the first half of the season, in which none of the characters have even whiffs of lives outside the office, is thinner and less interesting than the second half, when we get several important backstory details. 

Ultimately, I think I ended up feeling positive about Mythic Quest: Raven's Quest despite thinking the show is very hit-and-miss on an episodic level. It's not consistent, but it's already trending in the right direction in a story that, unlike It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, features characters who can and should grow.

Cast: Rob McElhenney, Charlotte Nicdao, F. Murray Abraham, David Hornsby, Jessie Ennis, Ashly Buch, Imani Hakim, Danny Pudi
Creators: Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Megan Ganz
All episodes premiere Friday, Feb. 7 (Apple TV+)