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How ‘Mythic Quest’ Is Breaking the Sitcom Mold

‘Backstory!,’ Friday’s C.W. Longbottom–centric episode, is a spiritual successor to last season’s excellent ‘A Dark Quiet Death.’ But don’t call either of them “departures” for the daring young series.

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In a long-gestating scene toward the end of the second season of Mythic Quest, the Apple TV+ game-development dramedy, co-creative directors Ian and Poppy lay out conflicting visions for an upcoming expansion to the series’ eponymous MMO. Ian envisions making more of the same game: a painstakingly crafted, top-down design that caters to players’ expectations. “Imagine a world built just for you,” he says. “A world for your exploration, for your adventure. Imagine a world built for you to conquer.” It doesn’t require much imagination. Poppy pitches a more emergent, sandbox-style reimagining of what Mythic Quest can be. “Imagine a world not built for you, but built by you,” she counters. “What would you build? What world would you want to see?”

Ian’s concept is boring but deliverable. Poppy’s prototype is bold but unstable. As often tends to be true in game development, the priority is producing a shippable product, so the short-term solution calls for compromise and collaboration. In the long run, though, the goal remains making a game that’s both unpredictable and playable, a blend that may require scrapping a proven formula and starting from scratch. It’s a creative tension that the TV Mythic Quest’s creators can speak to from experience.

“There’s something to the way that both these characters approach their creation that is somewhat rooted in the way that we approach ours,” says Rob McElhenney, who cocreated, executive produces, and sometimes writes and directs Mythic Quest, which he also stars in as Ian. “You’re trying to try to figure out, what’s the alchemy? … What’s the appetite out there for different variations of what the show can be? But then you’re also met with limitations for so many different reasons.”

Those limitations can be budgetary. They can be imposed by a pandemic. And they can come from the weight of TV convention, which puts pressure on creators to stick to certain formats. Mythic Quest is a workplace comedy, an earnest relationship show with a cast composed of the requisite sitcom assortment of quirky characters and big egos. But it’s also a perceptive, touching exploration of the act of creation. As such, the series has been at its best when it’s felt freest to shape-shift—when, like Poppy, it imagines the world it wants to build rather than working within the one it inherited from more traditional TV.

A normal Mythic Quest episode (to the extent that there is one) is a 20-something-minute, single-camera comedy with higher production values than McElhenney’s first sitcom, the deliberately lo-fi It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s set in the present and interweaves plots and subplots focused on multiple characters as they banter, bicker, and have heart-to-hearts in and around the Mythic Quest offices. But the series’ four highest-rated episodes, according to IMDb users—and quite likely its five highest rated by the time this piece is published—are the ones in which it’s strayed from that solidly endearing but less experimental template.

Two “special episodes” bridged the gap between the first season and the second, which was delayed and largely rewritten because of COVID-19. “Quarantine,” which premiered last May, is an entry in the Zoom-meeting-style QuaranTV genre. “Everlight,” which aired this April in advance of Season 2, is a semi-self-contained, LARP-themed installment that covers the Mythic Quest developers’ post-pandemic return to the office. And “Please Sign Here,” the fifth episode of Season 2, is a bottle episode directed by Mythic Quest cocreator Megan Ganz, who wrote “Cooperative Calligraphy,” the beloved bottle episode from Community’s second season. (Like “Cooperative Calligraphy,” “Please Sign Here” features Community/Mythic Quest costar—and bottle-episode authority—Danny Pudi.)

Although QuaranTV episodes and bottle episodes (a staple of Sunny) can be hit or miss, economic and logistical restrictions sometimes spur creativity, turning what could easily be lowlights—as McElhenney puts it, “the shit episode that they made in the pandemic”—into standouts. “We want to make sure that we really spend a lot of time crafting those stories and crafting those episodes to make sure that they feel worthy of the rest of the series,” McElhenney says. “And oftentimes because you’re spending so much time and effort and energy in making them great, they wind up becoming some of the best episodes of the series.”

But Mythic Quest’s true high points aren’t the times when the creators scrambled to compensate for adverse conditions and ended up turning lemons into TV lemonade. They’re the midseason episodes in which the series has taken its two biggest swings: Season 1, Episode 5, “A Dark Quiet Death,” and this Friday’s sixth episode of Season 2, “Backstory!”

Aesthetically, tonally, and narratively, “A Dark Quiet Death” and “Backstory!” stand apart from most Mythic Quest chapters. They’re the longest episodes of their respective seasons, and they feature distinct time periods, casts, and visual palettes, which makes them the most obvious examples of Mythic Quest’s commitment to deforming and reforming the sitcom mold. But both serve a purpose beyond establishing the show’s cred as a stylistic chameleon. As far as they stray from Mythic Quest’s standard approach, the poignant digressions of “A Dark Quiet Death” and “Backstory!” encapsulate the series’ central themes, raise the stakes of its overarching story, and deepen the significance of its core characters’ choices in preceding and succeeding episodes. Although they stand on their own as artistic statements, the rest of the show is better because of them.

“A Dark Quiet Death” was written by Katie McElhenney, Rob’s sister and fellow It’s Always Sunny veteran, who also wrote “Please Sign Here” and helped develop and break “Backstory!” The framework for the episode suited her brother’s desire to experiment outside the constraints of Sunny, which will soon set a record as the longest-running live-action scripted comedy. “It was really exciting, I think, for him to be able to try some different things that he wasn’t able to do for all these seasons of Sunny,” she says. “And one of those things would be to have a complete departure episode.”

“A Dark Quiet Death” was conceived as a parable about how industry realities can conflict with creative vision. Originally, the episode was supposed to be set in a single room, whose occupants and decor would change over time as interference from suits and the demands of marketing corrupted the progression of a game’s development. But as the relationships among Mythic Quest’s characters evolved, the episode expanded. “While tracking a single game was still the idea behind it, it just wasn’t enough,” Katie McElhenney says. “And we really wanted to take some time to explore what that does, not only to the game, but to a life cycle of a couple.”

Rob McElhenney recruited Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson to play Bean and Doc, a couple we follow from their meet-cute in a video game store in the early 1990s to their mid-’90s success as the married makers of Dark Quiet Death, a fatalistic title with no means of killing its monsters, no way to win, and no way to avoid death. The seemingly unmarketable game becomes a huge hit for the fledgling developers and their upstart studio, Oubliette. But pressure from their publisher to produce lucrative sequels, spinoffs, and films convinces Doc to strip out the soul of the first game by replacing its flashlight with a shotgun and dropping the dark and the quiet, despite Bean’s objections. Even Doc draws the line at undoing the death, but by then he and Bean are divorced, Bean has left Oubliette, and Doc has lost control of the company. At the end of the episode, which is set in 2006, they meet in a game store again, no longer bitter about their creative differences but—almost worse, in a way—nearly strangers to each other, as they were when the episode started.

The formation and dissolution of a creative and romantic partnership sounds like a lot of ground to cover in 35 minutes, but the collage of funny/sad scenes forms a fully realized (and devastating) arc. And because the episode was the last one shot, the McElhenneys had plenty of time to tinker with the script to ensure that “A Dark Quiet Death” would serve as a companion piece to the rest of the season. Although the episode initially seems like a disconnected side trip, several Easter eggs elsewhere in Season 1 reference the rise and fall of Oubliette.

The most notable link occurs in the Season 1 finale, when Ian shows Poppy (played by Charlotte Nicdao) a few words carved into the wall of his office—the same message that viewers of “A Dark Quiet Death” saw Doc etch into the wall of Oubliette’s office four episodes (and almost 25 years) earlier. As it turns out, the two protagonists are making Mythic Quest in the same supposedly cursed space where Doc and Bean lost their connection to their game and, eventually, to each other. Years later, Ian and Poppy are at risk of repeating the same mistakes, but they learn from the cautionary tale of Oubliette and steer clear of the same fate. Ian elevates Poppy to co-creative director, and the two forge forward together.

For a while, at least. Ian isn’t used to ceding control, and Poppy isn’t accustomed to having any, so their visions (and workspaces) diverge in the second season. The specter of a fallout akin to Oubliette’s arises again, as Poppy appeases the publisher (and goes against Ian’s wishes) by adding a money-making battle royale mode to Mythic Quest. “Please Sign Here” puts them in the same room—another benefit of the bottle episode—but ends with the duo at an apparent impasse. That sets up the second digression, “Backstory!”, the only episode that was shot exactly as it was written pre-pandemic. (Like “A Dark Quiet Death,” however, it was the last episode shot in its season.) Bouncing from the bottle episode’s emotional ending to a story set in 1973, Katie McElhenney says, “gives time to digest what you’ve already seen. … It leaves that out there for people to have an episode or two to think on that, just as we assume our characters are.”

While planning Season 1, the minds behind Mythic Quest had toyed with the idea of doing two early episodes in the style of “A Dark Quiet Death,” but they decided that making multiple detours in a nine-episode season wouldn’t leave enough time to devote to more familiar faces. When it came time to plan the second season, though, the effusive response to the earlier episode made an encore an easy call. Although “Backstory!” is a spiritual sequel to “A Dark Quiet Death,” the second flashback differs from the first by fleshing out the past of an existing character. “Even though it was a departure episode, it was a departure for our departure,” Katie McElhenney says.

In “Backstory!” Josh Brener (“Big Head” from Silicon Valley) guest stars as the younger version of Mythic Quest writer C.W. Longbottom, who’s played in the present by F. Murray Abraham. In his old age, Longbottom is a forgotten fantasy writer, a walking cry for sensitivity training, and a boozehound who’s failed to finish his fantasy trilogy, the first book of which won a Nebula Award long ago. Instead, he churns out florid, hackneyed backstory for the world of Mythic Quest. The episode, which picks up almost 50 years before the first five episodes of the second season, illuminates how backstory became his specialty, and how his own history brought him to his subsequent sorry state.

On his first day as an editorial assistant at science fiction publisher Amazing Tales, the young Longbottom—who still goes by the less pretentious, more authentic “Carl”—bonds with two other new editorial assistants (played by Michael Cassidy and Shelley Hennig) who share his interest in writing. The three colleagues are soon inseparable and have high hopes of becoming the next Asimov, Heinlein, and Le Guin. They decide to share their work with each other for feedback, but Longbottom’s efforts earn poor reviews. Unwilling or unable to take notes from a more gifted colleague (and crush), he turns his back on the trio and becomes further embittered when the other two fall in love. Desperate for validation, he passes off Asimov’s total rewrite of his shoddy draft as his own work, which wins him the Nebula. In one self-sabotaging sequence of events, he’s lost love, friendship, and self-respect, setting a pattern that persists for several decades.

On the day “Backstory!” debuted, Hero Mode hit theaters. In May, the trailer for the film caused a backlash among game makers, who interpreted its apparent premise—a precocious coder waltzes into a studio and single-handedly salvages a floundering game—as a reinforcement of the false notion that games are the work of one brilliant (and often white-male) visionary, rather than a team of developers with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. (The full movie may not be as pat as that.) Although Mythic Quest is only superficially a show about video games, it meets with more approval for its portrayal of the development process (despite a side of sponcon from producing partner Ubisoft). It also does justice to the magic of the medium—never better than in “Backstory!”

At a low moment set to the strains of Graham Nash’s “There’s Only One,” a downcast, sopping C.W. spots a Magnavox Odyssey in a store window. As he stares at the console’s Pong predecessor and Nash sings about taking the tool and changing the rule, an epiphany takes place. With the prescience that usually eludes him when he forecasts the future in fantasy, C.W. suddenly perceives the storytelling potential of video games in the decades to come—an outcome that, unlike his characters’ robot horses and futuristic fondue, seems “unexpected and inevitable at the same time.”

Not only is this a genuinely emotional moment for anyone who appreciates a good game’s capacity to conjure worlds from scratch, but the revelation of C.W.’s early affinity for games makes it more meaningful that he finally finds an outlet in Mythic Quest. Small wonder that Backstory!” captures the appeal of the emerging medium: It’s written by Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, a lifelong gamer and a friend of McElhenney, who hired Mazin as a consulting producer in Season 1. Mazin, who’s adapting The Last of Us for HBO and Borderlands for Lionsgate, also plays a recurring character on Mythic Quest, a tester named Lou. (In “Backstory!” he plays a different, identical-looking Lou, whom McElhenney says is supposed to be the existing character’s grandfather.)

Longbottom is a bold choice to be the backbone of an emotional episode. In prior episodes, McElhenney concedes, he’s “essentially played as a one-dimensional character who comes in and is just, like, the comedic relief.” But “Backstory!” humanizes him without absolving his behavior; as Katie McElhenney notes, “Just because you’ve explained someone’s backstory doesn’t give them a free pass or an excuse.” Longbottom made his bed. But it’s not too late for him to make amends and changes, and much of his “Backstory!” saga pays off in the following episode, with Abraham re-gripping the reins.

It pays off, as well, in the way it reinforces the series’ stance on human nature. “This idea of wholly good or wholly bad people—from our perspective, it just doesn’t really exist,” Rob McElhenney says. “I think that there is a lot of messiness to being a human, and we are certainly presenting some of the darker aspects of the human condition in some of these characters, but also some of the lighter.” As in real life, those aspects sometimes intermingle inside the same character. In the first season, Ian is the antagonist and Poppy the sympathetic proxy for the audience. But in the second season, that alignment is inverted as each adopts facets of the other’s personality.

Unlike Doc and Bean or even young C.W. and his unrequited crush, Ian and Poppy aren’t romantically linked (beyond the occasional unwanted sex dream). But in every respect aside from the physical, their relationship is as intimate as a marriage. On Mythic Quest, Rob McElhenney says, “the romantic relationships are probably the least interesting.” That truism also applies to testers Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), who get together early in the second season and discover that nobody else in the office cares that they’re sleeping together. McElhenney hardly does either, compared to the question of where each one will follow her muse. “They still haven’t quite figured out who they are or what they want,” McElhenney says. “And isn’t that much more interesting to explore—what it is to be young in 2021 and have this opportunity to be anything you want, and how do they navigate that? That to me is so much more interesting than, oh, will they wind up together? Who the fuck cares?”

McElhenney hopes that the show’s emphasis on a platonic type of passion can shake up the sitcom status quo in the same way as some of its episodes’ adventurous structures. “There’s this assumption that the only way that [characters] can fully consummate their love for each other and that they can truly express their love for each other is through a romantic relationship,” he says. “And I challenge that. I think there’s an opportunity for us to present a different kind of relationship between a man and a woman or two members of whatever sex are attracted to one another. And maybe we can love each other and not have to take it, or not want to take it, to any step beyond that.” That’s easier to say in Season 2 than it is in, say, Season 6, when the well of ideas starts to run dry. But the lack of a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic between the two leads is refreshing for now.

Like “A Dark Quiet Death,” “Backstory!” has some bearing on the Ian-Poppy power struggle in surrounding episodes. Both flashbacks (which flash forward in their final scenes) chronicle relationships that splinter under the strain of the imposter syndrome and personality clashes that come with collaborating and baring one’s soul to bring something special and personal into the world. Just as the story of Doc and Bean supplied a lesson in sharing creative control, the story of C.W. and his former friends illustrates how not to respond to frank feedback, which Ian and Poppy will have to take to heart before the end of the second season, as they critique each other’s concepts for the Mythic Quest expansion.

All of these echoes make McElhenney—who directed both “Backstory!” and “A Dark Quiet Death” (as well as “Quarantine” and “Everlight”)—describe the flashback episodes and their more conventional counterparts as “organs of the same body,” which matches his sister’s sentiments but not her terminology. “I’ve heard those episodes referred to as either departure episodes or as stand-alones or as episodes that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the series, which I think is really funny,” he says. “And I understand why people feel the need to categorize them that way, because they do stand out. But they’re not departures from anything. They’re a very integral part of the narrative of the show. It’s just not in the micro of the show. It’s only in the macro.”

If “A Dark Quiet Death” or “Backstory!” had aired without warning on a network decades ago, viewers might have wondered whether they were watching the wrong channel or had tuned in at the right time. In the streaming milieu of 2021, though, the amorphousness of Mythic Quest mirrors other recent attempts to reshape an ambitious and malleable medium: Twin Peaks with “Part 8”; The Righteous Gemstones with “Interlude”; Atlanta with “FUBU”; Master of None with “Parents”; The Leftovers with its cold opens. “There are no rules to this,” McElhenney says. “Just because it used to be a certain way doesn’t mean it has to be that way now. Which is of course the way I used to think at 26, but at 44, it becomes a lot harder to think like that. And you have to force yourself out of the rut that we all find ourselves in from time to time.”

Mythic Quest has given both McElhenneys opportunities to stay on their creative toes. “What Mythic Quest keeps asking me to do is ‘Write some comedy, but then break people’s hearts while you do it,’” Katie McElhenney says. Apple hasn’t yet clarified how long Mythic Quest’s fans can expect to keep laughing and crying. Two of the streaming service’s other well-received originals, Ted Lasso and For All Mankind, were renewed for third seasons before their second seasons aired, but Mythic Quest’s creators are still awaiting word of its fate.

If Mythic Quest gets a “game over” screen soon, its audience can take solace in a satisfying end to its second season, and a legacy (if not a large library) of episodes that made risky, rewarding decisions in depicting its characters’ potential to choose a happier path. “That’s 100 percent what we talk about, which is just the cyclical nature of human interaction and human relationships and how it takes people, individuals, to break those cycles,” McElhenney says. Now he’ll hope his show can break another cycle itself: the one where good series get canceled while they still have something to say.