In Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, making a video game can ruin your life. The Apple TV+ show, which follows the members of a video game studio as they prepare the latest update to their wildly popular online game Mythic Quest, is a pinball machine of toxic relationships and grating personalities, using the fact that most of these people hate each other — and perhaps even the people they make the video game for — to drive its comedy. They hatch schemes to both please and exploit their players, to support and subvert each other, and desperately hope that the people who work beneath them don’t ever realize what they’re worth. It’s one of the best new comedies so far this year, and compelling even if you don’t know the first thing about video games.
With a slight shift in perspective, though, Mythic Quest could be a horror story. Long hours, bosses who call you at all hours of the night and shout abusive nonsense in your ear, aggressions macro and micro doled out with the casual frequency of an email “just circling back” — it’s amazing no one in this office is eaten alive by the finale. This is the cruel question at the heart of Mythic Quest’s take on workplace comedy: What do you do if even the dream job sucks?
The survival jobs are even worse. In Superstore, an NBC sitcom about employees in a big-box retail store, the indignities are so overt it hurts. The first season finale revolves around a pregnant employee discovering that the company does not offer paid maternity leave and her manager getting fired for trying to find a loophole to give her paid time off. Later seasons detail employees’ struggle to secretly unionize and the fallout from corporate’s decision to call ICE on an employee after learning he is undocumented.
It seems in poor taste to compare the two kinds of situations on display in Mythic Quest and Superstore, but that’s the trap that the modern world of labor has set up for us: Either shut up and stop complaining about the poor conditions of the job others would kill to have or shut up and work the undignified job you haven’t tried hard enough to escape, despite its efforts to keep you exactly where you are. This is where jokes work as an equalizer. The punchline to both of these shows is that modern labor is degrading, and they work because the setup is you don’t deserve this.
Workplace comedies have always been about indignities large and small. Whether it’s the tyranny of middle management (The Office), the misery of having the life you want dangled in front of you while you labor for peanuts (Taxi), or the universal strangeness of being trapped in close confines with a bunch of weirdos you’d otherwise avoid if you didn’t have to make a living (literally all of them), they contour in shape with the anxieties of the times. And in these times, there’s a pervasive sense that there is no longer any way to win, even if your definition of winning is simply a job well done. This is a bleak no-win scenario, but no-win scenarios can be overwhelmingly funny, like a puppy trying to eat a lemon or anyone trying to keep Michael Scott from saying something inadvertently racist.
It’s true in Mythic Quest and Superstore, and it’s also true in shows about very different kinds of work, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine — a show about how there are a million bad ways to be a cop but precious few to be a good one. The show is too big-hearted to fully address the systemic issues of policing, instead choosing to center its moral universe around empathy. Modern policing is about fostering suspicion, and in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the only way to do the job well is to resist that suspicion and continue to remain empathetic in spite of the mandate to make numbers and close cases.
The officers of the Nine-Nine frequently combat their own personal biases (a recent episode has Lieutenant Terry Jeffords attending a party staffed by convicts in a rehabilitation program, but he refuses to eat any of the hors d’oeuvres they serve him) while also fending off the department’s regular efforts to replace their supportive, equitable Captain Raymond Holt with a hawkish crime buster. While the show is a cartoonish exercise dedicated to showing how the TV version of police work is incompatible with actual police work, it’s telling that even in its own goofy universe, the Nine-Nine is an anomaly. The dark implication of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that in any other precinct, with any other team, police doing their jobs well would be worse for the community, because other precincts care about following orders and closing cases more than doing the right thing.
This is the joke that all workplace comedies have in common: Bosses are idiots that make you do idiotic things, and any member of the rank and file could probably do a better job of running the place. One of the best running gags in Superstore is the regular marketing tags employees must regularly announce over the store speaker system. Each one is some inane announcement of a sale no one could conceivably care about, except for (maybe) the account people in the corporate office who would like to see some inventory moved. It’s the sort of thing familiar to anyone who’s worked in retail. Maybe you’re behind a register and expected to upsell some useless bauble to someone who just came to get a phone charger; maybe you have to answer phones with a phrase that changes weekly and eats up ten agonizing seconds before you can even figure out what the caller wants. No one wants to do these things, but you must or you’ll get written up. To do a good job in America is to make everyone’s life just a little bit worse.
It’s telling that Superstore and Mythic Quest, two shows on the opposite ends of the labor spectrum, recently culminated in unionization efforts. In these workplace sitcoms, exploitation isn’t just common, it’s standard, and there’s no retirement you can live off waiting on the other end. In spite of that grim reality, these shows are funny not because they’re dishonest about the workplaces they stand in for (although, sure, they fudge plenty of things) but because they can sidestep the crushing weight of time. Work takes so much of our time, most of it dull, menial, mundane. Compress all that mundanity into 20 minutes, and the absurdity becomes clear: It’s ridiculous, the way work forces us to interact with other people, saying and doing things we wouldn’t otherwise say or do! The escapism isn’t in the setting but in how characters respond to it: What if we could, at the very least, articulate how very stupid this all is?
Unlike real life, TV shows must regularly contemplate endings, and maybe that’s why modern workplace comedies like these are circling around three options: truly loving your job and leaving your less fortunate colleagues behind, letting corporate propaganda brainwash you into “loving” your job, or organizing as a union. Labor, like comedy, is tragedy plus time. We watch these shows because we’d like a punchline, because when it comes to our real jobs it’s looking like no one will survive to get the joke.