I almost missed out on watching Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet because I thought my lack of interest in online role playing video games would make the series inaccessible. Oh, how wrong I was! So, if you too are thinking, Do I really have any business watching a show all about people who live and work for gaming? The answer is Absolutely yes! Mythic Quest is a funny, goofy, and thoughtful ensemble workplace comedy that also has the very funniest and most heartfelt pandemic episode I have watched yet. (With the exception of the French show The Hookup Plan, which has a different, but also very excellent pandemic episode.) Side note: If you are super-duper into video games, this review is probably not for you.
The pilot episode begins with the feel of a mockumentary, à la The Office, with some Mythic Quest employees talking about the game, but it turns out what we’re watching is a promotional video for the game’s first update, which is due to launch in the very near future. Or really, what we’re watching is a promotional video of Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), the company’s founder and Creative Director. “When we think about legends, why not think, ‘Mythic Quest’?” says Ian (which is pronounced EYE-on) as he looks earnestly in the camera, his be-ringed fingers interlaced as if to underline the importance of his words. “True indeed,” chimes in C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) in a voiceover—an aging science fiction writer who won a Nebula Award back in the seventies and is now head writer for the game. “And when we think visionary, world building artists,” he adds, “instead of just Speilberg, Lucas, and Cameron, why not think…Grimm.” His voice deepens on the last word, the music crescendos, and the camera circles around Ian as he stares broodily into the distance, his name superimposed on top in giant white letters. And, because that’s not quite enough, it ends with an image of Ian standing on a beach wearing black jeans, several bracelets around each wrist, his hands clenched, and his chest bare. So very, very humble. When it cuts away to everyone in the room watching the video, their expressions are almost universally the facial equivalent of What the Fuck!?!
Personally, this was about all it took to convince me that this show was going to be the right balance of self-aware, goofy, and ironic. But I admit, having watched the first season, I’m saying that with the benefit of hindsight, and perhaps you need more convincing. Fair enough. Much of the first episode is devoted to Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicado), the Head of Engineering, trying to get Ian and the rest of the team to agree to include a shovel in the new update. Poppy (and her team, but mostly Poppy) have done all the coding to make the new world perfect, but most of the big ideas came from Ian. She just wants one thing that’s entirely her creation, and she thinks the shovel is perfect because the players can literally change the landscape of the game. But Brad (Danny Pudi), Head of Monetization—who is only interested in the game making money, doesn’t even like video games, routinely refers to everyone else as nerds, and approaches everything with the dead-eyed calm and cocked head of a lizard stalking an insect—points out that no one will buy it. (Honestly, no one but Danny Pudi could play this role.) C.W. wonders if maybe it needs a backstory. “Who birthed this mysterious terra-spade? The Gods themselves? Did they suckle at the bosom of Hera like babes at their mother’s teat?” But Ian wants to, in his words, “noodle on it,” which strikes fear into everyone because it apparently means that nothing will happen on time.
The Executive Producer, David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby), isn’t there because he’s giving his new assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis) a tour of the office where he’s smugly telling her that he oversees everything at Mythic Quest. Just as he finishes telling Jo how he’ll need her to take copious notes at the staff meeting because he’s in charge of it all, he realizes that they are in fact having the staff meeting without him, because he is not, in fact, in charge of everything, which he very much knows and which plays on all his insecurities. Everyone is largely beholden to Ian’s ideas, whims, noodling, and mostly benignly narcissistic tendencies, which is maddening, but even more maddening is that his instincts are almost always right. Jo, sensing where the real power lies, appoints herself as Ian’s assistant and protector. Poor David will spend most of the season desperately trying to get her to do her job as his assistant, his voice rising octaves as his frustration grows. But above them all, above even Ian, there is one person who truly holds the power. Someone whose opinions can make or break everything for the many people who work for Mythic Quest. That someone is none other than Pootie Shoe (Elisha Henig), a fourteen-year-old streamer with 10 million followers whose rating system is butthole-based.
The great thing about the show, in addition to being extremely funny, is how flushed out and real the characters feel. They seem to know each other extremely well and it’s written so that we learn most of the jokes as we go along, rather than things being explained to us. And the times they are explained—like when David educates a roomful of people on what TTP means—it’s made into a joke. (TTP is time to penis. The amount of time it will take a player to turn an item into a penis.) Even less central characters have depth. Like the two testers Rachel (Ashly Burch), a Women’s Studies major who wants more say in the company, and Dana (Imani Hakim), who goes home after a full day of work playing video games and…plays video games. Or Carol (Naomi Ekperigin), who works in Human Resources and just wants people to understand that Human Resources does not offer free therapy. Or Sue (Caitlin McGee), the frighteningly perky (but also very dark) employee who works in the basement and has the terrifying job of managing correspondence with players. Or Michelle (Aparna Nancherla), a coder who makes apathy and sarcasm look like high art. (Why yes, I do adore her, but I may be biased because I think Aparna Nancherla is hilarious.)
I won’t tell you how the shovel situation is resolved, but it involves discussions of whether penis shapes should be allowed, many watermelons, a lot of arguing, a speech, and Poppy turning Ian into a gnome. Most episodes involve a lot of arguing between Ian and Poppy who definitely see the world differently (not to belabor a tool, but where Poppy sees a shovel, Ian sees a possible weapon), but who also desperately need each other to make their work happen. Like any dysfunctional relationship, it’s probably way more fun to watch than to live. That’s true of all the characters, who constantly chafe at each other, but who also rely on each other to get through all kinds of sticky situations, like Nazis flocking to Mythic Quest, a boycott, Brad wreaking havoc, and orchestrated in-game showdowns. There’s an episode in the middle starring Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti that departs from Mythic Quest to follow a couple from their first meeting in a video game store through their two-decade long rise (and fall) as video game developers. It’s touching and heartbreaking and also adds more layers of understanding to everything that’s happening at Mythic Quest.
But maybe you’re worried that all this lacks any real depth or substance. I mean, if it has good characters and makes you laugh as much as this show makes me laugh, does it need more substance? I’d say no, but also I’d say your worries are likely misplaced because the show tackles things like gender dynamics, power dynamics, commercialization, relationships, and hope. Honestly, it’s hard to explain a lot of what it does without giving too much away about the plot and the characters. So just watch it. But, one of my favorite moments that I can tell you about is when a group shows up from Girls Who Code and David runs around the entire headquarters in a blind panic, trying to find women who work there at all and then who actually have positive things to say about working in tech. He keeps walking into one large, open workspace, looking around and noting that there are no women before herding the girls somewhere else.
And what about that pandemic episode? Look, I was skeptical. Did I really want to watch an episode of people talking over video chat about the pandemic? Would that even work for a show that is so much about the office experience? I wasn’t even going to watch it, which would have been a true loss on my part, because through several video chats and one Rube Goldberg machine it managed to make me laugh until my belly ached and sob with recognition of pandemic isolation and fear. Seriously, it was beautiful, vulnerable, and honest in a way that few shows manage to be even during regular times.
According to several IMDb reviewers, many people found the first few episodes stilted and lacking chemistry. I don’t understand how they felt that way but, if you aren’t immediately sucked in, maybe give it a little more time. Personally, I wrote this review just before the second season dropped, and I’m very much looking forward to sinking back into that dysfunctional, chaotic office experience and seeing where it goes.