Almost a full year later, the fictional video game team in the Apple TV Plus comedy is no longer working from home. They’re welcomed back to the office with a live-action role play game that features prop swords, elaborate costumes and red scarves to pull from various body parts to simulate blood.
“We just did the smallest episode, where we pointed iPhones at ourselves in our homes, and let’s do something that’s the complete opposite: let’s blow it up,” Rob McElhenney, co-creator, showrunner and actor, tells Variety of the sentiment behind the episode.
“Mythic Quest: Everlight” is a standalone piece debuting three weeks ahead of the nine-episode second season. It is meant to complete the show’s in-story COVID-19 pandemic arc, as well as remove the “barrier to entry” McElhenney has heard some people have had with the show since its February 2020 debut. Many people who thought it “was a show about video games,” he explains, but really, the team’s intention from the beginning was to make “a show about people working together in an office and they just happened to work in the video game industry.”
“Everlight” expands upon the character dynamics from the first season, most specifically Ian (McElhenney) and Poppy’s (Charlotte Nicdao) growing partnership now that she has been promoted to co-creative director, as well as Brad (Danny Pudi) and Jo’s (Jessie Ennis) shared ruthlessness.
Of the former, McElhenny says, “What he lacks, she has, and what she lacks, he has. But instead of thinking about them as two people who are together, we kind of think of them as the same person: they’re equal halves of a whole and they balance each other out. Every once in a while she’s mean or cruel and he softens that up, and vice versa.”
Although the episode launches ahead of Season 2, it was actually produced in the middle of that season, due to “COVID concerns,” McElhenney says. (The set did experience multiple outbreaks of the virus during production.) This meant the art department built the office set for regular Season 2 episodes and then changed it into the game-themed “Everlight” set “over a weekend,” McElhenney recalls” so they could shoot the first two-thirds of the special episode. Then it needed to be changed into a “magical forest” set for the final battle sequence of the episode before reverting to the regular office, once again over a two-day period. But, that back-and-forth was worth it, he says — and not only to show off what that department can do.
“Having that many people in a room at the same time was just going to take a lot of careful planning and we felt like it was irresponsible to start with something that big. So we started with episodes that were really small, like the episode where everybody’s having dreams — you’ll notice that episode is mostly just two people in a room together, and that was by design. We wanted to see how it was going to go before we started expanding into bigger and bigger episodes,” he says.
McElhenney says they never considered using animation or video game avatars to represent characters in the episode even though it could be easily achieved through CG work. It may have been more complicated to schedule and shoot everyone battling in live-action, but the point is to “see the characters we established in Season 1 go through that catharsis together,” he says. The battle created for the employees is a team-building exercise that Ian always rigs to make sure someone too high up in the company doesn’t win. (His logic is that no one wants to see the boss win.) This time around, that means Poppy can’t win either, and for the first time she is let in on his secret. None of the other employees know he rigs the game, so they are truly letting off steam after the stressful time they had in quarantine.
But “Mythic Quest” is nonetheless set in the video game world and counts Ubisoft among its producers. The special episode is not devoid of an animated game sequence — and this one gets the gift of narration from Anthony Hopkins.
Wanting someone with “some heft” so “right from the very beginning [of the episode] it just feels premium, like a cinematic experience,” McElhenney says, they considered such performers as Dame Judi Dench and Ian McKellan. But when Hopkins came up, it was kismet.
Producer and guest star “Craig Mazin said, ‘Oh I know Anthony Hopkins’ lawyer, let’s just call him up.’ And within 20 minutes I’m talking to Anthony Hopkins,” McElhenney says.
In pre-COVID times it may have been hard to get Hopkins to commit, but with the ability to work from anywhere, McElhenney hopped on the phone with him and the Oscar-winner self-recorded his role.
“He sent me four takes and every one was perfect and that was it,” McElhenney says. “The irony of it was that when we got him on the phone, I said, ‘What time is it over there?’ But he was in Los Angeles. And he said his street and I’m not exaggerating, he lives a block and a half away from me.”
“Mythic Quest: Everlight” streams April 16 on Apple TV Plus; Season 2 premieres May 7.