tv review

Mythic Quest Returns, Imperfect But Easy to Love

The second season of Mythic Quest establishes an uneasy new workplace dynamic, with Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) and Ian (Rob McElhenney) on newly equal footing. Photo: Apple TV+

Mythic Quest, the Apple TV+ comedy about a video game production company, is really two ideas sewn together. The first is a familiar workplace hangout sitcom, and Mythic Quest is pretty good at that part. That kind of show isn’t often revolutionary or revelatory, but it can be intensely satisfying. It’s warm bath TV: a group of enjoyable characters who all have their own friendships and rivalries, hanging out and overcoming the regular, low-stakes obstacles of everyday employment. It’s a premise that ripens over time — so much of the appeal is in watching characters you already know and love, and that kind of connection doesn’t happen instantly. In its second season, this part of Mythic Quest gets to lean on the work its first season already accomplished. We like these characters! Ragtag weirdos and their daily frustrations that are just excuses for us to spend more time with them? Great, hit play and keep ’em coming.

But Mythic Quest runs on twin engines. It’s a workplace comedy, sure, but the series is really about creativity and artistic partnerships, about the challenge of making something that needs to be commercially successful and also creatively satisfying. In the first season, that element played out through a power struggle between the company’s creative director Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney) and its lead engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao). As Ian continually came up with fantastic new ideas for what the game should be like, Poppy had to figure out how to implement them, often struggling not just with the engineering but with her desire to make the game a fundamentally different experience for the players. By the end of season one, Ian was forced to recognize Poppy’s creative skill instead of viewing her as just an engineer, and they ended on newly equal footing. Not a boss and a subordinate, but partners.

Season two, which premieres its first two episodes today, has to pick up from that uneasy new workplace dynamic, and once again, the show has to figure out how to tie “let’s all hang out with these people!” together with “it is very hard to make good art.” It’s not easy. The workplace comedy is something that can happen in a gentle, solve-it-and-forget-it world. Problems pop up and we get to watch the game testers Rachel and Dana (Ashly Burch and Imani Hakim), power-mad assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis), limp leader David (David Hornsby), and horny old writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) tackle the issues and resolve them, usually by wrestling with the soulless head of monetization, Brad (Danny Pudi).

It would be one thing to loop that together with a pro forma investment in Ian and Poppy’s rivalry, a Silicon Valley–style season-long arc where everything does not work right up until the moment it does, voilà. Mythic Quest is admirably uninterested in that. The questions it cares about most are all the legitimately harder ones. What do you do when no one else thinks your art is good? How do you remake a personally toxic but creatively fruitful relationship into something more balanced, more healthy? (Can you even do that, without losing the creative success?) What’s the value of everyone loving your art if you secretly hate it?

That’s a lot to tackle in nine half-hour comedy episodes! And Mythic Quest season two doesn’t always pull it off. The pieces are often compelling on their own, but the show struggles to make Ian and Poppy’s ongoing creative challenge seem like it’s happening in the same world as Jo’s silly and unhinged power play between David and Brad, or the interpersonal developments between the testers Rachel and Dana. Those two characters are the biggest tells: they get used as the fix-it glue, shuffled between other plot points in a way that doesn’t fully disguise the fact that it’s a structural mechanism at work rather than plausible character development. Plus, the episodes can be really uneven. There are some early-season episodes in particular that come off as goofy, ineffective wheel spinning, and characters like Jo and David — even a main figure like Poppy — do not always feel like wholly the same person from one episode to the next. The ball doesn’t always get passed smoothly between each half-hour installment, and this is where Mythic Quest’s dual engines tend to sputter.

The back half of the season leans into all those big questions about artistic creation and personal ambition, though, and once that side of the equation really starts firing, it becomes so easy to excuse all the earlier bumps. Like the first season, there’s a midseason flashback episode that becomes the gestalt for all the big resolution gestures, and all of it is rooted in character work rather than too-visible external plot devices. There’s a bottle episode that traps everyone together for a trivial reason so they can hash out all their issues with one another, which is always a good idea for this type of show, please take note of this for the future. (That bottle episode also features great work from Carol, the recurring HR manager played by Naomi Ekperigin. Making Ekperigin a series regular is high on my wish-list for a Mythic Quest season three.)

Especially in the later episodes, Mythic Quest starts to nail the tricky tonal dance it has to do in its treatment of the art at the center of the show. The video gaming elements are sometimes big and dumb. Characters like Brad and Jo laugh at them, openly mock them, all these idiots running around with swords and elf ears, all these creatives who seriously care about backstory and meaning. It’s all a craven ploy for money, all about maximizing the loot boxes and downloadable character skins that will make the game as profitable as possible. That perspective is sincere. It is all laughable dumb video game nonsense, easy to remake as nearly identical derivatives that players will still pay money for, forever. As the show emphasizes, though, the game Poppy and Ian want to make and the stories C.W. wants to write can also be meaningful, thoughtful, careful, sincere works of art. They can be truly lovely stories built on innovative new models, centering ideas that have real weight for their audiences and players.

Even when Mythic Quest slips sometimes, I continue to love the show for how seriously it invests in the hard questions of creative work. That side of the series doesn’t always mesh easily with the different demands of a workplace comedy story, but it makes Mythic Quest a stronger, more compelling series even when the gears don’t always turn smoothly. It’s also not hard to love a show that takes itself this seriously while also laughing at itself. After all, most of its observations about video games could just as easily apply to any TV series. How to make it accessible but original? How to balance creative desire with financial pressure? What do you do when your boss makes something great, but he’s also a real asshole? Mythic Quest cares about those questions even when it doesn’t have the answers, and it’s always rewarding to watch the show try to figure it all out.

Mythic Quest Returns, Imperfect But Easy to Love