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Mythic Quest and the Awkward, Forced, Unhappy Art of the Reset
Today’s situation comedies are more sophisticated than examples from the past, but they still adhere to the same awful rules.
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As anyone who ever watched Westworld when it was possible to watch Westworld knows, life is filled with loops. You get up, go to work, come home, repeat. You go out, drink whiskey, wake up to discover you’ve been deported again, repeat. Most of our lives are composed of loops within loops, and our fiction often reflects that. This is especially true in any sort of series—finding new stories to tell involving the same characters over and over again is a challenge, especially when you’ve spent the early going setting up a fictional universe and a conflict engine, because you don’t want to have to do all that work a second time, so you try to keep your characters trapped in those loops.
This is most notable in situation comedies, those stalwart staples of the television world. The hint is right there in the name: These comedies rely on the situation for their stories and laughs, and changing that situation too drastically can be a problem, especially if it alters the character dynamics that are fueling your jokes. And no matter how dressed up with fancy streaming technology and modern-day disdain for tropes and conventions modern sitcoms might be, they still rely so heavily on the loops that drive them they will repeatedly reset themselves to ensure that things never change too much.
Case in point: Mythic Quest, which arrived on the shiny new Apple TV+ platform a few years ago, part of the initial hype around all this damned content we suddenly had at our disposal. It’s a fine sitcom, but it’s still a sitcom, which means we’ve already seen it reset three times in three seasons.
Every Now and Then I Fall Apart
Mythic Quest is set at a modern-day video game company, the sort of place where dozens of programmers create a sandbox fantasy world that players spend far too much time in. It’s lucrative, and the office is populated by a wacky cast of insane people, as situation comedies often are. The central relationship in the show is between Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), the egotistical Creative Director, and Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao), the neurotic head programmer (and eventually Grimm’s business partner). Ian is emotionally damaged and so works hard to constantly puff himself up, Poppy is awkward and terrified and compensates by being, well, kind of mean.
When the series begins, Ian and Poppy are always at each other’s throats. Over the course of the first season, they slowly come to appreciate each other and the value of their deep if unusual friendship. This culminates in a surprise Pandemic Eraepisode filmed entirely on people’s phones while they sheltered in place at their actual homes. Concerned about Poppy’s increasingly deranged behavior, Ian puts aside his sheer terror at the thought of getting sick and walks to her apartment, where she has an emotional breakdown out of sheer loneliness. It’s a nice moment, and Poppy and Ian eventually go back to the office with a relationship much closer to actual friendship.
For a little while.
In Season Two, the inevitable power of the rules surrounding situation comedies kicks in, and a wholly artificial and kind of dumb wedge is driven between Poppy and Ian, solely to get the show back to dynamic that works for it: Poppy mocking Ian’s Ayn Randian bullshit, Ian mocking Poppy’s lack of awareness and social awkwardness. The two come to a breaking point where they say terrible things to each other, and almost go their separate ways.
Then the show brings them back together with a rather tortured cliche (the ol’ character has a heart attack and everyone re-evaluates their behavior and then it’s not really a heart attack gambit) and once again Poppy and Ian are besties. They even leave Mythic Quest in order to partner up and launch their own company and are very nice and supportive towards each other.
For a little while.
In Season Three, the inevitable power of the rules surrounding situation comedies kicks in, and a wholly artificial and kind of dumb wedge is driven between Poppy and Ian, solely to get the show back to dynamic that works for it: Poppy spinning out and ... ah, heck, you get the point. We’re once again resetting the central relationship of the show so we can keep using the same engine to drive it.
Here a Twister Comes, Here Comes a Twister
All sitcoms do this kind of reset, it’s in the DNA of the format. For dog’s sake, on Cheers when Shelly Long left the show they brought in Kirstie Alley to specifically re-create the uptight woman/easygoing lothario dynamic with Ted Danson’s Sam Malone—they could have done something, you know, different, but if you want different watch something other than a sitcom.
What’s interesting about Mythic Quest, to me, is how rapidly they’re cycling through these resets. Three resets in three seasons is exhausting. Add in the ability to watch three episodes in one nightand it becomes an energy vampire so powerful you wake up ten years older the next day. The reason successful sitcoms can get away with this stuff is because it’s usually spaced out much more widely. That allows the writers to give the impression of a semi-organic character evolution, to at least let the new dynamic (Poppy and Ian love each other now!) a little time to marinate and become the New Normal before switching back to the previous dynamic (Poppy and Ian hate each other again!). The speed with which Poppy and Ian shift attitudes on this show kind of makes the sausage-making a little obvious: You can absolutely see the not-so-invisible hand of the writer’s room at work.
Of course, this is a pretty close reading of a sitcom about weirdos making a video game. The real question is whether we’re supposed to believe that a major modern AAA video game could be programmed by one woman working all by herself in a matter of months, because that appears to be what Mythic Quest wants us to believe about Poppy Li.
Then again, the last line of code I wrote was in Visual Basic for Applications, so what do I know? Well, I know this: The video game I created in BASIC on my Commodore 64 when I was 12 was not good, and you’re all lucky I discovered liquor a few years later and lost interest.
NEXT WEEK: Ghosted and the reverse shot.
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Personally, I love loops. I am that person who craves routines and ruts. When I find my life has settled into a deep rut, I start decorating that rut. I buy furniture, I hang all art, I change into a robe and put on slippers and I get comfy in that rut. It’s one of my beat features: The Duchess says she knows exactly where I am and what I’m doing at any point during the day, even if we’re thousands of miles apart.
Believe me, if I could write one novel and just sell it over and over again to unsuspecting publishers, I would.
Much the same way I keep getting “accidentally” fired from every full time job I ever get in order to maintain my ability to day drink. In the sitcom world, I’d be a breakout character. In this world … not so much.
If future historians pinpoint the exact moment modern society began to collapse, it will very likely be the first time someone decided that making you spend hours in a video game grinding for resources was a good idea. Ah, time to play a relaxing game: Let me spend six hours making shoes.
Interestingly, I am emotionally damaged and work to put myself down. My way works better, because people feel sorry for you all the time.
The fact that I can use the term “Pandemic Era” without irony blows my mind. Forget flying cars or a replacement social media platform for Twitter refugees, will some genius please stop time or cure death?
To be fair, Nicdao plays Poppy as a monstrous, belligerent weirdo that you can easily see yourself torturing her if she was your co-worker. Whenever Nicdao has to portray Poppy having a moment of clarity about her own awfulness or bad decisions, it is comedy gold.
If I had a heart attack, The Duchess would berate me for not taking better care of myself and literally no one else would notice.
Not that I ever do this, because I am super dynamic and doing great, thanks. Is SUPER DYNAMIC AND DOING GREAT the title of my memoir. Jiminy, I hope so.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the emotional tone shifts in this show are brutal. It often goes like this:
<POPPY enters room>
POPPY: Hey, Ian, I was thinking: Why not install a people-sized pnuematic tube system in the office so we can just be sucked anywhere we need to go?
IAN: Go fuck yourself.
<POPPY tears up>
For the record, that is only a mild exageration of what the emotional turns on this show are like.
It was called TAILGUNNER and it was a crosshairs and a spaceship would go diagonally across the screen and if you hit the FIRE button at exactly the right time you’d hit it and get a point. That’s it, that was the game and it took me 3 months to program the sprite so stop looking at me like that it was quite the achievement.