Mythic Quest fine-tunes its epic comedy for strong second season [Apple TV+ review]

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Mythic Quest review: Rob McElhenney leads an excellent cast in a strong second season.
Rob McElhenney leads an excellent cast in a strong second season.
Photo: Apple TV+

In its second season, Mythic Quest doubles down on characters and lets workplace dynamics subsume the work itself. The creative team that drives the Apple TV+ comedy about game developers found the sweet spots that made the first season above average, then worked on them like mechanics.

The result is a season every bit as strong as the first — and one that portends greatness for the future.

Mythic Quest season 2 review

Mythic Quest (which wisely ditched the first season’s subheading, Raven’s Banquet) felt immediately like a show made with care and affection. Created by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia actors and writers Charlie Day, Megan Ganz and Rob McElhenney, and produced by David Hornsby, the show played like a more au currant version of FX’s runaway-hit sitcom with a little more affection for its characters.

It’s Always Sunny remained so beautifully funny for its incredible run because it wasn’t afraid of anything. It could make its characters look like scumbags and sociopaths, and yet all the torments of the world would just roll off their backs.

The first season of Mythic Quest was different. It engaged a little more in contemporary capitalism. It was more diverse, and more open to the divergent identities of its characters. And it liked these guys, even though they could sometimes be ridiculous and self-involved.

Mythic Quest is all about the personalities

Mythic Quest still revolves around the continuing fortunes of the devs behind a major online video game. But this season, the business of gaming takes a backseat to the ongoing personality conflicts between the major fixtures.

Beginning unofficially a few weeks back with a bonus episode called “Everlight” — about a company-wide LARPing event, and culminating in a seismic shake-up in the company — a lot happens in this deceptively breezy season. And a lot of money went into making it feel more solid and expansive.

Like the creators of the in-show game, the writers and producers of Mythic Quest spent wisely. We get a voice cameo from Anthony Hopkins, some wild special-effects shots and more extras than usual. Plus, William Hurt shows up!

Genius behind the scenes

Mythic Quest writer Day doesn’t appear in the show, but his spirit is in the text in spades. Fellow writer McElhenney (who stars as game programmer honcho Ian Grimm) and producer Hornsby (who stars as office punching bag and executive producer David Brittlesbee) also deliver.

This is the work of a crew that knows it will be around for many seasons to come, and the confidence is earned. Though it should be noted not because they spend money well, but rather because the characters as written and performed are interesting enough to warrant repeat visits.

So without spoiling too much, let’s look at what happens with the characters.

Poppy and Ian

Charlotte Nicdao and Rob McElhenney are back to reboot <em>Mythic Quest</em>
Poppy and Ian return to reboot Mythic Quest.
Photo: Apple TV+

This season finds Poppy Li (played by Charlotte Nicdao) and Ian (McElhenney), the co-heads of the gaming empire, struggling creatively with the next step for their game. Their relationship is framed as a kind of marriage, so their ins and outs hurt more. You get the sense that, for all their bickering, they need each other and care what happens to one another. The most devastating moment of the season comes when one of them opens up and, as a power play, the other refuses to.

Suddenly they’re no longer on equal footing. And the look of crestfallen betrayal on their faces at the end of the encounter stays so long, you genuinely wonder how they’ll get over it, even if the show seems to dictate they must.

This is the most important aspect of the show, and it’s handled with evident care. But also, risks are taken left and right. It helps that in Poppy, the show has found one of the most endearing characters in television. Part of it is the performance, a junk-food-eating mess of contradictions and insecurities who fights with two fists to be taken seriously.

McElhenney is by now such a fixture on TV it’s not shocking to see him do good work as the conceited Elon Musk parody that Ian is most of the time. However, he still finds surprising new notes in the character.

Rachel and Dana

Rachel (Ashly Burch, left) and Dana (Imani Hakim) get it together in Mythic Quest season 2.
Rachel (Ashly Burch, left) and Dana (Imani Hakim) get it together.
Photo: Apple TV+

Through the character of the queer testers who work for Ian and Poppy’s company making sure the gameplay is alright, the writers get to tackle a number of ongoing identity issues bound to resonate with contemporary audiences.

Rachel (Ashly Burch) and Dana (Imani Hakim) spend the first bit of the season flirting and wondering how they’re perceived by everyone around them. There’s the somewhat-expected punchline that after worrying for so long about how their relationship will be perceived, people barely look up from their computers to acknowledge that they’re into each other. They both stump for their co-workers to be more tolerant and tend to bring out the best in people. But they still must contend with their low status in the office — and the fact that mores take forever to change.

David and Jo

Personal assistant Jo (Jessie Ennis) abandons David (Hornsby) to go work for the more cynical and calculating Brad over at marketing. But they stay angry at each other all season like jilted lovers. Jo’s character, a stubborn go-getter and self-described “shark,” can sometimes feel like a bit of a dead end. But when the writers really find a good place for her in a dynamic, it feels worthwhile to have her around.

David is, as ever, a self-immolating disgrace — just a mess of a man. His brief brush with confidence ends with him stuck in an elevator and everything goes right back to where it started. David’s kind of the perfect sitcom character. He can go through a transformative life experience and still wind up the same bristly, easily shaken wreck. Hornsby is also a marathon runner in these kinds of characters. The actor knows no bounds and will do anything for his art.

C.W. and Brad

Jo (Jessie Ennis, top) and C.W. (F. Murray Abraham, on screen) keep things interesting.
Jo (Jessie Ennis, top) and C.W. (F. Murray Abraham, on screen) keep things interesting.
Photo: Apple TV+

I lump these two together not because they interact all that much but because they have the best moments in the season. Brad (Danny Pudi) remains his usual too-cool self, hoping like hell no one sees or goes looking for his weak spots. Pudi by now can play this character in his sleep, but his exterior cracks in an episode dedicated to his reaction to his brother Zach (Parvesh Cheena) showing up.

Everyone thinks Zach is a beatific sweetheart, but Brad knows the truth. The end of the episode finds Brad vulnerable for once. It’s one of those great cementing moments in a show where you realize that everyone really is in this for the right reasons, even if sometimes they seem like they’re above it. Excellent work from the whole cast helps the episode do its thing.

C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) is the character about whom the least has been offered by the writing staff up until this season. He’s a drunken, formerly drug-addicted party animal who somehow lucked into a lucrative book deal. He’s the author of the books on which the mythology of the Mythic Quest video games are based, and he’s a dinosaur. Every attitude he holds is about 70 years out of date. And a lot of his predilections wouldn’t have flown back then, either. But who is he really?

Another welcome flashback

In what is one of the show’s best decisions, in both seasons (and hopefully henceforth), there’s an episode that’s a flashback to something tangentially related to the Mythic Quest crew. In this season’s episodes, we see C.W. as a young man navigating the world of fantasy fiction and the compromises he makes to become who we know him as in the present. It’s a brilliant decision, and the kind of slow-burn sociopathic character study Always Sunny was famous for.

This beautiful little period piece is followed up with an episode in which C.W. reunites with some figures from his past in the present. Beyond the great work from Abraham and Hurt as old frenemies, it’s a splendidly melancholy half-hour of television.

At its best, Mythic Quest is one of my favorite comedies on television. I can’t even really put my finger on what’s holding it back from true greatness, but I also won’t harp on that because it is such a satisfying experience. Giving McElhenney and Co. carte blanche paid rich dividends this season. I can’t wait for season 3.

Mythic Quest season 2 on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of Mythic Quest season 2 premiere Friday, May 7, on Apple TV+. New episodes will appear on Fridays.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.