This Mythic Quest: Quarantine review contains spoilers.
On March 14, just as much of the country began quarantining due to the coronavirus pandemic, writer/musician Rosanne Cash tweeted out a now-viral missive: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.” Since then, Shakespeare and his damned King Lear have loomed over isolated creative types stuck indoors like an unseen, successful older brother. Billy made the best of the bad situation so why can’t your lazy ass? Suffice it to say, living through a global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and completely upended daily life as we know it has proven to be not that conducive to the creative process.
That’s why all pandemic-related entertainment efforts, few as they may be thus far, have come with an unspoken asterisk of “created under difficult conditions – please assess and judge in that context.” Whether it wants to or not, Mythic Quest: Quarantine operates within the confines of that asterisk. Thanks to an Apple press release and a thorough THR interview with co-creators Rob McElhenney and Megan Ganz, we know all the details that make this far different from a usual episode of Apple TV+’s videogame production comedy.
We know that the project was conceived of, written, edited, and released within one month. Furthermore, we know that filming involved the entire cast and crew of the show working remotely with 40 iPhones all while maintaining social distancing. That’s information we cannot unlearn and it exists within an unusual context that we all have no choice but to live in. The miracle of Mythic Quest: Quarantine, however, is that, while watching it, those circumstances don’t matter. Quarantine is about as good and effective as the already good and effective first season of Mythic Quest itself, if not more so. The final result is a near-mythical effort. Quarantine may not be King Lear, but it is the first truly great episode of television to arrive under these extreme conditions.
The truly remarkable thing about Mythic Quest: Quarantine is just how stubbornly unremarkable it is for much of its running time. This is as close to a “normal” episode of Mythic Quest as possible given the circumstances. The half-hour even begins with a cold open of sorts in which the series’ three lead characters, Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), and David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby) engage each other in a video chat call.
We’ve seen this comedic set up countless times in our quarantined lives on shows like Saturday Night Live and A Parks and Recreation Special, but the way in which Mythic Quest handles the cold open video chat is refreshingly new and bodes well for the rest of the episode. The show doesn’t treat its setup like a one-off gag but rather uses it to establish running concepts like Poppy’s stubborn refusal to shower, while also perfectly reacquainting the audiences with the show’s main trio and their quirks. And if that weren’t enough, it also marks the debut of McElhenney’s pale bare ass on the show.
From there, Mythic Quest: Quarantine is damn near dogmatic in its approach to classic sitcom techniques. Rather than bowing to the limitations of video chatting as a narrative device, the show wrestles the concept of remote storytelling into exactly what it wants to do. Never did I imagine that seeing a simple A-B-C half hour story structure again would feel so satisfying.
Quarantine has a few ongoing plot threads just as any “normal” episode of Mythic Quest would. Fittingly Ian and Poppy make up the show’s A-plot, which finds both lead game designers trying to deal with the stress of social isolation as best they can. For Ian that means relentless self-aggrandizement, for Poppy it means working herself to the bone. Over in B-plot land, David and producer Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi) engage in a high-stakes series of Street Fighter games. If David wins, Brad will consent to donating the company’s funds to charity, if Brad wins, David will lose…everything. Notably, Mythic Quest will be replicating that $600,000 charitable donation in real life. Elsewhere, Lou (Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin, who is apparently just part of the main cast now) drops in to annoy Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim), and Jo (Jesse Ennis) tries to teach C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) how to operate his computer.
The humor throughout Quarantine’ is undeniably effective. The concept of David losing one eyebrow, all eyelashes, and his mustache plays out perfectly. As do little details like Jo’s home office having a portrait of Ronald Reagan and Ian telling Poppy that a muscular man on the street “called his bluff.” Even the requisite “old man accidentally enables” filter technology trope comes across quite nicely, though of course C.W. Longbottom has to animoji-ize his face, this being an Apple production and all.
For much of its runtime, Quarantine proves itself to be a coherent, recognizable, and funny episode of Mythic Quest, which is in and of itself a huge achievement thanks to the aforementioned asterisk. But in the end showrunners McElhenney, Hornsby, and Megan Ganz decide to go for something even deeper and emotionally resonant. It’s important that Mythic Quest: Quarantine isn’t merely a “Very Special Episode” of Mythic Quest. But that doesn’t mean that those final couple of scenes aren’t truly special.
Through Poppy’s cat-like aversion to showering and her work addiction are played for laughs throughout the special, the end reveals that they are symptoms of a larger problem. Poppy is quite simply: not doing too well. And there isn’t an intensely dramatic reason for that beyond why any of us would not be doing too well. Granted, Poppy has the added stress of being extra isolated since her family is in Australia. But the weight of this whole experience bearing down on her shoulders is intensely relatable. Mythic Quest’s solution for acknowledging Poppy’s pain, if not solving it, is beautifully simple.
Ian just shows up to Poppy’s place and gives her a hug. That’s it. Just a hug. It’s a small thing, but in the context of our current era it’s quietly revelatory. It helps that there is also a technical artistry at play here with the moment occurring far off in the frame on two different cameras. This is largely a practical decision as, due to the show’s dedication to social distancing, Ian is actually played by Charlotte Nicdao’s absolute unit of a husband, Bayden Hine. But that only enhances the experience in a poignant, Lost in Translation kind of way. It gives the characters some semblance of privacy for this powerful moment of social distancing transgression.
The appeal of many sitcoms throughout TV history is that they present problems that can easily be solved in 22-25 minutes. In the grand scheme of things, Mythic Quest isn’t solving anything here. Nobody made a vaccine, and our own frustrations with the state of the world are sure to return once we close our laptops or turn off our TVs. But for one nice little moment, Poppy got a hug from her friend. And that helps.
In its final scene, Quarantine trades in the private moment between Ian and Poppy for a larger spectacle. It’s admirable how all the various plot threads wrap themselves up and lead into a grand finale of each available character propped in front of their respective screens once again for a marvelous remote Rube Goldberg contraption. It’s particularly wonderful that C.W.’s role in this whole thing is merely figuring out how to operate his camera.
This is not only another impressive technical achievement for the show (one that Ganz and McElhenney said took plenty of practicing but only one take), it’s a cathartic note to go out on. As the characters celebrate their strange group victory, someone calls out “fuck coronavirus!” as the episode’s last line. It’s a cheeky, yet sincere interjection and a fitting conclusion to a cheeky, sincere, and utterly triumphant episode of television.