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‘Mythic Quest: Quarantine’ Review: Surprise Pandemic Episode Turns Out to Be Show’s Best Yet

Apple TV+'s latest episode, produced on the fly for these stay-at-home times, is a slick, funny, and even profound exploration of evolving workplace culture.

"Mythic Quest: Quarantine"

“Mythic Quest: Quarantine”

Apple TV+/Screenshot

From the outset, “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” looked like one of the more derivative offerings from Apple TV+’s first episodic slate — dashes of “Code Monkeys” geekery and “Silicon Valley” tech humor crossed with the unapologetic narcissism that gives co-creator Rob McElhenney’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” its subversive kick. As it turns out, the show needed that familiar starting point to stabilize its savvy workplace satire before taking it in fresh directions. The much-ballyhooed Episode 5, an emotional standalone that takes place in the early days of video game culture, proved this seemingly hokey depiction of an egotistical developer and his dysfunctional staff could actually build a much larger world than the MMORPG one of its title. And it could get deep.

Now comes “Mythic Quest: Quarantine,” which wraps a bow around Season 1 with its sharpest episode yet, an accomplishment made all the more impressive because it was conceived in recent history. The surprise pandemic-themed installment shares some DNA with some of the other rapid-fire specials made under the production constraints of the last few weeks, but displays a greater degree of storytelling sophistication, juggling multiple subplots and uniting all the series regulars for an even better finale the official finale. It’s still loaded with run-of-the-mill gags about the travails of neurotic people trapped at home, but uses that mold to continue building several compelling storylines already in play. The concept doesn’t rely on the gimmick; like the rest of the show, the gimmick is the carrot, not the stick.

Unlike the recent “Parks and Recreation” reunion, “Mythic Quest: Quarantine” picks up in the immediate aftermath of the scenarios established at the end of Episode 9, and finds logical ways that quarantine has affected the ensemble on the basis of where it left them in recent history. When “Mythic Quest” wrapped, the game’s creative director Ian Grimm (McElhenney) decided to share his title with workaholic engineer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), despite obvious reservations about sharing power over the online fantasy world he created. That tension continues to simmer in the first video conference that kicks off the episode, as bumbling executive producer David (David Hornsby) tries to wrangle both of them for a call. “I don’t wait for her, she waits for me!” whines Ian, who starts out the scene live-streaming from his hot tub in a wet suit, and somehow ends it in the buff.

“Quarantine” disposes of the most obvious shelter-in-place bits we’ve seen spoofed on “SNL” and elsewhere — gags about showing up shirtless or showerless to Zoom meetings (or, in this case, “MythiCom”) speed by — then builds to a satisfying and even emotional exploration of the psychological toll of coming to grips with living alone. For years, the gaming world was largely understood through popular culture as a distended joke; “Mythic Quest” pokes fun at it, while constructing real personalities in the process. To that end, it brings the existing chemistry between Ian and Poppy into sharp relief, deepening the nature of their bond as it becomes clear that the two loners need each now more than ever. It’s unfortunate that “Mythic Quest” took a few episodes to find its groove, because the payoff in this 10th installment builds on viewers invested in this dynamic across the season. If “Mythic Quest” co-creators McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz want to keep the momentum going, they’ll have to find new ways to deliver shrewd and unexpected affecting bits like this.

It’s heavy stuff, but sandwiched into a hilarious ride through countless zany video calls, from David putting his mustache on the line for charity with an ill-fated “Street Fighter” showdown against obnoxious moneyman Brad (David Pudi) to sci-fi writer C.W. Longbottom (an ever-inspired F. Murray Abraham), the show’s eccentric world-builder, grappling with the simplest communication challenges: “I just Facebooked you!” he shouts to a colleague, sending voice memo instead, before accidentally turning his face into a panda. (Stern assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis), whose home setup unsurprisingly includes a photo of Ronald Reagan in the background, grows exasperated on cue.)

While these circumstances might not sound particularly fresh, “Mythic Quest” radiates with the singular charm and awkward energy of characters it has established in recent memory. It also finds some fresh angles on the “desktop slapstick” routine, probing genuine workplace discomfort when game testers Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim) find their routine monitored by smarmy creeper Lou (Craig Mazin), whose ground rules include “I don’t mute when I eat.”  Yet it’s Lou who comes up with the movie’s grand climactic set piece, an online Rube Goldberg device that brings the entire cast together for an ambitious contraption as rousing as it is clever, which embodies the blend of silly charm and poignance at the center of the show.

Shot with dozens of iPhones and choreographed to a fault, the episode moves as swiftly from scene to scene, while squeezing in the most profound interaction between its main characters yet. On a certain level, “Mythic Quest” was born for this moment: Over the course of Season 1, the show explored the complex nature of online community: moody gamers, online trolls, customer service snafus and more, collectively forming a vibrant ecosystem that only looks like a punchline on the surface. The new episode shows how the ongoing anxiety and communication challenges of this digitized age may be ripe for comedy, but every onscreen face has a bigger story to tell. It ends with an awesome rallying cry so gratifying it could serve as a series finale, but “Mythic Quest: Quarantine” conveys the confidence that no matter what these uncertain times might bring, its own journey is just getting started.

Grade: A-

“Mythic Quest: Quarantine” is now streaming, along with all of Season 1, on Apple TV+.

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