Given just how colossal the video game industry is, it’s pretty wild that more TV shows haven’t tried to delve deeper into it (except, of course, when in need of inspiration from some previously established and particularly valuable IP). But it’s maybe for the best that one of the first series to take it seriously — while also making merciless, informed fun of it — is “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet,” a new comedy from the “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” team that has a sly bite behind every hilarious joke.
As conceived by Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” — so named for the long-awaited “Raven’s Banquet” expansion that launches in the pilot episode — is smart to take most of its structural cues from other workplace comedies, including character archetypes including an insecure and unpredictable boss Ian (McElhenney), the not-so-secretly diabolical assistant (Jessie Ennis), and a beleaguered HR representative trying desperately to convince everyone that she is not, in fact, a free in-house therapist. Every character, from Ian to the pair of game testers (Ashly Burch and Imani Hakim) tentatively flirting in the wings, is drawn with specific and vivid detail that gives their individual sense of humor context and drive.
Ian is the chaotic creative mind behind “Mythic Quest,” a “World of Warcraft”-esque collaborative game that steadily generates millions even while fending off constant competitors. The original inspiration for the game came from the novels of C.W. Longbottom (Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham, having the time of his life), an eccentric sci-fi writer who doesn’t need to understand video games to bask in the praise his stories have been getting since Ian got a hold of them. Meanwhile, ostensible righthand man David (“It’s Always Sunny” recurring player David Hornsby) is mostly an anxious mess set to a constant low boil, while resident corporate shark Brad (a measured, scene-stealing Danny Pudi) keeps his cool at all times in the pursuit of finding more ways to bleed their customers dry. All four of these men, collectively played with a calculated grin, are variations on a theme of character that “It’s Always Sunny” has perfected over its 14 (and counting!) seasons: insecure, egotistical men who make life harder for most everyone around them, both by accident and design. There’s even a mini-me in the making with Elisa Henig’s “Pootie Shoe,” a teen streaming sensation who can make or break a game — and, much to everyone else’s annoyance, knows it.
On the flip side is Ian’s real secret weapon Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), a brilliant young programmer who nonetheless spends half her time trying to corral Ian’s more ludicrous instincts. Nicdao gives as good as she gets from McElhenney, making Poppy and Ian a wonderful, compelling odd couple (of friends — there’s never a hint of romance between them, a refreshing and frankly necessary change of pace). But the real key to Poppy, the show’s anchor and immediate standout, is that she isn’t some basic, annoyed voice of reason. She’s ambitious, smart, power hungry, and downright weird in her own right. At her best (or at least funniest), she’s enraged as she constantly has to keep proving herself, and try to make her own mark on Mythic Quest beyond making Ian’s dreams come to life.
Outside of the characters, the show’s also smart in the ways it tackles some of the particular issues facing the industry it’s depicting. One episode, for instance, has David scrambling to give an empowering tour of the office to a group of wide-eyed schoolgirls, only to have the few female employees available confirm that even though they love it, yes, it is very hard to be A Woman in Gaming. Another has the characters attempting to handle an influx of white supremacist players, first by immediately agreeing to ban them, before backsliding into semantic debates all too familiar to anyone unfortunate enough to have frequented Twitter in the past decade. Then there’s the one in which the game get hacked, leading to Ian scoffing that “no one cares about privacy, they just want a good story” — and ultimately, being proved right. One of the best episodes is a complete tonal departure in the form of an extended flashback, starring perpetual sitcom MVPs Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti as partners in life and business whose gaming company quickly buckles under the pressures of cynical corporate demands.
It would be enough for “Mythic Quest” to be funny, and it is. But in taking on the complex, under-examined world of video gaming, the creative team gave themselves a rich area in which their wild, clever, selfish characters can bounce around unlike any other currently on TV.
“Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” premieres Friday, February 7 on Apple TV Plus. 30 mins. (9 episodes; all watched for review.)