In the UK: Available on Apple TV+
A few years ago, when I last appeared on Radio 5’s Saturday Edition, there was a challenge to the listeners to name the then best US TV show. Somewhat out of left field, one listener threw me It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and host Chris Warburton challenged me to explain it to him, as he’d never heard of it.
“A bunch of friends including Danny DeVito play tricks on each other in a bar,” was the best I could come up with, since I’d caught about five minutes of it once on FX.
That recommendation piqued my curiosity, but I never actually got round to watching it. I can’t imagine it’s the best US TV show ever, but on the strength of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet it’s probably both funny and sadly overlooked.
Okay. Maybe not.
But Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is at least now my favourite Apple TV+ show. Although, to be fair, there’s not that much competition on that score. But it is good.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is very much a “from the people who brought you It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia“, given that not only does it have a similarly long and unwieldy title, it’s created by that show’s star/writer Rob McElhenney, fellow writer Megan Ganz (Community, Modern Family) and co-star Charlie Day, while also featuring co-star David Hornsby in a lead role.
McElhenney plays the creator of one of the world’s biggest online video games, Mythic Quest, and he’s just about to roll out the first big extension to it: Raven’s Banquet. But he has a very particular vision, something that frustrates lead coder Charlotte Nicdao (Get Krack!n) who would simply like just one thing in the game that she can point out and call hers. Even if that is just boring thing like a spade.
Meanwhile, noted sci-fi author F Murray Abraham (Amadeus, The Name of the Rose) is doing his best to flesh out the storyline with a decent narrative, even if he doesn’t quite get games; sociopathic monetisation guy Danny Pudi (Community) is working out how to extract cash from anything that moves in it; testers Ashly Burch and Imani Hakim (Everyone Hates Chris) are doing their best to squeeze out all the bugs from it, even if Burch’s developing crush on Hakim is impairing her work performance; and boss Hornsby is doing all he can (ineffectively) to keep everyone happy, particularly his bosses in Montreal and his slightly scary, right-wing, McElhenney-besotted assistant Jessie Ennis (Better Call Saul).
Even if all their hard work and late nights pay off, the success of their game could rest in the hands of one person: 13-year-old YouTube reviewer ‘Pootie Shoe’ and his b-hole rating system.
Who’d write a game hey?
Love games? Hate games?
McElhenney says that although he loves games, he had no desire to write a sitcom about one until game developer UbiSoft approached him and asked him to. Even then, despite being annoyed by all the clichés you normally see in shows about the computer industry (cough, cough, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), he didn’t want to write something that would be a simple love letter to the industry that papered over its problems or that was a promo for UbiSoft’s games.
So all credit to him: he’s created something that manages to mingle the standard sitcom with a credible and pretty well researched look at the games industry and all its pros and cons. But ultimately, it’s as much about creativity in any industry and how to balance getting something out the door with realising the idea that exists in your mind and that just needs to be crafted that little bit more to be perfect.
Noodling broad brush strokes
The show is largely big ideas and big characters smashing heads in the workplace, usually with a penis gag or a joke about McElhenney’s ego. But there are considerable layers of subtlety and metaness to the show, as well as some decent research about how you actually develop a game.
After an okay first episode that establishes the characters and their relationships, the show slowly builds to become something much more interesting. And a lot of that comes down to its strikes against the games industry.
Its first really successful, really funny episode is the third, Dinner Party, in which the game has to deal with an influx of Nazis and the various characters try to work out what to do in response. Pudi, naturally, wants to monetise them, while others want to expel them. The result is something that’s occasionally cerebral as it navigates the boundaries of free speech in a commercial context, taking potshots at Facebook and YouTube along the way.
Surprisingly, the show’s most effective episode barely involves the main characters, being a flashback to the 90s and 00s and another games company set up by Jake Johnson (New Girl, Stumptown) and Cristin Milioti (How I Met Your Mother). The double-meaninged A Dark Quiet Death is an almost heart-breaking tale of what happens when you have someone almost totally unwilling to make compromises with their vision and someone too willing to make compromises. Cleverly, not only does it act as a cautionary tale for following episodes, without ever really being mentioned directly, you learn that it’s already been referenced throughout the show in previous episodes without your realising it.
These subtler touches are peppered throughout a show that I must emphasise again to avoid misleading you, largely gets its yucks through broader comedy, such as the episode Blood Ocean in which they invent a virus in the game that makes characters bleed from every orifice. Every orifice.
But the show does have those Community-esque departures from the expected, the self-satire and the love-hate relationships between characters – as well as Community‘s ability to analyse structure and then tell you that structure onscreen (“It’s a bottle episode!”).
Abraham’s most effective moments are when he’s deconstructing the narrative of both the game and ‘real-life’ to point out their deficiencies, and Pudi is at his best when he’s devising whole new ways to be evil to his co-workers and paying customers.
Equally, McElhenney may be an absolute narcissistic dick and a pretty terrible human being, but he’s not absolutely terrible and his worst excesses are because he wants to the game to be perfect. He’s also right a lot of the time.
The show’s also very good at being diverse, while avoiding pandering and also flagging up the game industry’s own issues. Another effective episode sees a bunch of schoolgirls brought to the office to meet inspiring female coders, only for Corporate‘s Aparna Nancherla to explain the competition they’ll face with one another as women in the industry and how badly they’ll be treated. Similarly, the show isn’t shy of dealing with the sexism, racism and doxxing Hakim faces when she becomes the face of Mythic Quest live-streaming. Because it’s all about ethics in games journalism, isn’t it?
While it’s not worth taking out an Apple TV+ subscription to watch just Mythic Quest, in combination with For All Mankind and Little America, there’s a good argument to sign up for at least a month. Mythic Quest is while not quite a classic, certainly the first decent comedy of 2020 in TMINE’s book and also one of the most affecting. It’s also been renewed for a second season already.
Coupled with a credible and occasionally biting take on the games industry, as well as some decent characters and workplace comedy, I’d recommend Mythic Quest to just about anyone. Or at least anyone who doesn’t mind the occasional penis joke.
So does that mean I have to watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia now?