This softer, gentler workplace sitcom from some of the “It’s Always Sunny” folks is funny but not without some glitches.
Workplace sitcoms have been an essential part of the television landscape for decades. Cast a bunch of talented comedic actors, give their characters various kinds of quirks, put them together in a work setting of any kind, write hilarious jokes, and boom-you have a fun, breezy way to spend 25 minutes.
Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day brought the workplace sitcom to depraved new heights with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Now, with the help of writer and Sunny executive producer Megan Ganz, comes their latest attempt at reinventing the sitcom wheel with Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet for Apple TV Plus.
This time, instead of a dingy bar, the setting is a tech company that produces a wildly popular World of Warcraft-esque online role-playing game called Mythic Quest. It follows the daily tribulations of its employees, starting from the top with the egotistical CEO and game creator, Ian Grimm (McElhenney, bringing that Mac energy) all the way to the bottom with the lowly game testers and coders.
It definitely shows some promise, and has a few inspired choices from the start, but while Sunny makes a group of degenerate bar owners doing terrible things seem effortless, Mythic Quest feels anything but that.
It’s telling that in the 2nd episode, “The Casino”, one of the funniest jokes is the use of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey myth as a template for explaining the backstory of a NPC (non-playable character) that’s introduced in the game. Instead of putting forth any effort to make the character interesting, Ian and head writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) decide to just make him the father of one of the game’s main characters. They acknowledge that, yes, that’s pretty much Star Wars, and no, they don’t care.
Just like Star Wars uses the hero’s journey to chart Luke Skywalker’s rise from lonely farm boy to Jedi Knight, Mythic Quest tries to use the workplace comedy blueprint to tell its story, but simply plugging in different characters and a modern setting into a classic formula doesn’t always work out for the best. To be even more specific, it’s essentially 30 Rock but with video games.
The overbearing Ian Grimm and his plucky underling, Lead Engineer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) constantly battle back and forth between his self-absorbed bro-iness and her desire for independence and creative expression. This conflict presents itself right in the pilot episode, which revolves around Poppy introducing a shovel into the game. She thinks it opens up a whole new aspect to the world (digging holes) while Grimm just wants to use the shovel to decapitate other players.
They eventually come to a mutual understanding and a begrudging respect by the end of the episode, which is nice, and both actors do have nice chemistry (Nicdao gives an instantly likeable performance). Nevertheless, it reeks of, “Haven’t we seen this before?”, and we have. It’s the same dynamic between Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy and Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, but without the secret charm sauce that made that relationship so special.
The show also attempts to be cleverly satirical in the same way as 30 Rock, but falls short in these early episodes. It’s not lost on Mythic Quest what evil corporation’s streaming service it’s on, but instead of going for the jugular like 30 Rock did with its NBC Universal business overlords, it plays it mostly safe.
Mythic Quest tries to use the workplace comedy blueprint to tell its story, but simply plugging in different characters and a modern setting into a classic formula doesn’t always work out for the best.
Even fun video games are soulless fronts for capitalistic greed, but the closest they get to making any biting statement on the video game industrial complex is through the character, Brad (Danny Pudi). He’s the smug, manipulative Head of Monetization, with a business-first mentality at the expense of his employees and customers that veers into sociopathy. His constant push to get gamers to pay extra money for cool new weapons and armor is a very real trend in modern games.
Acclaimed filmmaker David Gordon Green directs the pilot (and co-directs the second episode with Todd Biermann), and proves again he’s a reliable television director following Eastbound and Down and The Righteous Gemstones. He directs these episodes with a steady. assured hand, but there’s really not much to be asked of him. When it comes to the guy who gave us both George Washington and Kenny Powers in the same lifespan, it’s always a disappointment when Green’s talents are underused.
There are bright spots here though, and it’s mostly from some great casting on the sidelines. First is Academy Award winner Abraham coming off the bench as C.W., a washed up sci-fi writer who hit his peak before most of his coworkers were born. In a cast filled with mostly Silicon Valley and gamer stereotypes, seeing him burst through scenes like he just finished a drunken matinee performance of King Lear is a hilarious treat.
Also, it’s great to see David Hornsby shine as someone not “Rickety Cricket”. Here he plays David, the executive producer of the game, who is best described with the funniest line of the show, “Soy Boy Beta Cuck”. Finally, there’s David’s assistant, Jo (Jessie Ennis), who brings an unhinged, scary-funny energy to the proceedings, and is the closest the show gets to Sunny’s dark, anarchic sense of humor.
It’s tough for a sitcom to be incendiary on a streaming service with a very PG mentality. Hopefully, with their just announced second season renewal, the Sunny masterminds can learn how to navigate things better, and power up in the next level.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet premieres on Apple Plus TV on February 7th.