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It's Always Sunny, but for gamers, no Nazis allowed: Inside Apple's Mythic Quest
The ancestry is unmistakable, the DNA unarguable. Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet was created by two of the creators and three of the current executive producers of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the long-running FX sitcom satire, and the new show shares a basic format and deep irreverence. But there are some key differences.
Like Sunny, Mythic Quest features egotistical and socially dysfunctional people working together in tight quarters, with co-creator/executive producer Rob McElhenney at the center of the misadventures. But instead of a body-obsessed bouncer at a dingy neighborhood bar, he plays Ian Grimm, a body-obsessed visionary computer game designer; Mythic Quest is the name of the MMORPG he created, while Raven's Banquet is its first expansion. His colleagues all have their own personality defects, but they're not quite misanthropes, at least not most of the time, and when they screw up — which they do almost constantly — they try to fix things instead of doubling down.
The most obvious example comes in the third episode of the first season, which was released on Friday on Apple TV+. After two episodes spent legislating the uses of a shovel in the game — lead programmer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) insists on its utility as a building device, while Ian demands it also be used to whack enemies — the tool is adopted by internet Nazis, who infiltrate the game and proceed to carve out gigantic swastikas in the digital hills and mercilessly murder other players. Whereas the gang at Paddy's Pub might have seen dollar signs in those swastikas — the opening of Season 13 of Sunny has them embracing ideological warfare — the crew at the studio work to banish the skinhead gamers (though there is some debate, and their tactics aren't always the most obvious).
"I could very easily see the characters in Sunny just becoming Nazi sympathizers because that's what they do, and you would buy that because they're essentially cartoon characters satire — you recognize that we're certainly not as a show supporting white nationalism but we believe that those characters might," McElhenney told SYFY WIRE's The Fandom Files podcast last week. "The difference is through Sunny we're putting it through the prism of this insane, almost sociological experiment to see how awful we can make these people and still have people love them, right? On this show, we wanted to make sure we're grappling with the same things that [real people] are."
McElhenney went on to outline what he saw as the pressure on companies like Facebook and Twitter, as well as gaming studios such as Mythic Quest producer Ubisoft, to balance First Amendment rights and the rise of far-right hate speech. After 14 years spent watching him play Mac in Sunny, it was more disorienting than it should have been to hear his thoughtful explanation, which is a little bit how viewers may feel at the beginning of Mythic Quest.
Not that there aren't plenty of sophomoric jokes, poor choices, and personality defects to satisfy the Sunny diehards. Take Pootie Shoe, the powerful 14-year-old YouTube game critic who reviews MMORPGs on a scale of one to four buttholes. Or Poppy's decision to abbreviate the name of a new game function, formally called Dinner Party, as "D.P." (Heads up: There are a lot of butthole-centric gags in the series.)
But each of the bits is in service of some real human flaw or problem — be it diversity in gaming, a lack of women in coding, or the endless battle between commerce and art — that is treated with a smidgen more seriousness than what you'd see on Sunny.
Poppy and Ian's relationship — strictly platonic and work-based — is at the heart of the series. It was co-creator and exec producer Megan Ganz who brought their dynamic into focus; initially, Ian was going to be a total buffoon and Poppy a genius, but such an inequitable interplay, given their respective positions in the company's hierarchy, would have made it less funny than frustrating.
"You want him to be talented, you want to understand why he has his job. Not only so that you like him, but more so because of the effect it has on Poppy," Ganz said. "You don't want her working for some guy that doesn't know what he's doing and she's slaving away making his nonsense make sense."
Instead, Ian is a creative visionary whose suggestions, as absurd as they seem, often take off, while Poppy makes the hardest programming fixes seem easy but has trouble connecting with the audience (see the D.P. feature mentioned above).
"Giving them both these huge egos but also this very specific part of them that's missing that the other one fulfills makes you realize why they're locked together," Ganz added. "Also giving her a really big ego as well makes it so that hopefully you can laugh at her when she falls on her face."
The rest of the office provides ample proxy weapons, confidantes, and complicating factors; most crucial among the power players is a congenitally cowardly and powerless executive producer named David Bartlesbee (David Hornsby, who in a flash of meta storytelling is also an Always Sunny producer and producer here) who Poppy uses as both sword and shield against Ian's creative tyranny. David also has to go up against a monetization guru named Brad, played with a goofy chill by Danny Pudi.
And then there is F. Murray Abraham's CW Longbottom, a dripping drunk who was once a best-selling science fiction author and now works as the lead writer and mythmaker for Mythic Quest, despite an utter lack of video game knowledge. He is the extreme comic relief in an out-and-out comedy, allowing Abraham, an Oscar winner for Amadeus and one of the stage greats, to return to his roots as an actor, getting laughs the way he did before playing Salieri in Amadeus changed his career. His delight at the opportunity is obvious, even if gaming is far outside his realm of expertise or even cognizance.
"In my business, you read what comes to you and generally you throw it away," he told The Fandom Files, entirely serious but laughing all the while. "They attach big money to some of them and sometimes it doesn't make any difference. Crap is crap. This is a treat, this is fun."
Longbottom speaks in grandiose terms about storytelling and stealing fire from the gods, providing classic legends and storylines to the much younger Mythic Quest staff, who then spin those yarns into more modern scripts that speak to teenagers raised on the internet and Game of Thrones. Longbottom was based loosely on Thrones author George R.R. Martin, but Murray is more channeling Ray Bradbury, with whom he was friends for many years. He got a big break as an actor in a stage version of Bradbury's The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and became close with the legendary sci-fi/fantasy author.
"Writing is important to me, and it doesn't take long to look at the script and find out if it's a piece of crap or if it's any good — this is good," he emphasized, doubling down on his true affection for both the material and his younger castmates. "It's all human. All of the wildness, the outrageousness and the world that they're living in, the world of games. People don't understand the reality of those games, and I think that that's the value, the principal value of the character I play."