When Rob McElhenney was initially approached by Ubisoft about writing a series set in the video game industry, he was reluctant: He didn’t see a way into that world. But when the company invited him to tour its Montreal headquarters, he figured there was nothing to lose. Once there, he found the inspiration he needed.
“I met a creative director” for one of Ubisoft’s games, McElhenney says — likening the role to that of filmmakers who direct their own screenplays. “He took this very loaded beat, and he took a breath and stared out into the distance and said, ‘I create worlds.’ I excused myself for a second, and I called Charlie [Day, McElhenney’s producing partner] and said, ‘We have to do a show about this because it is amazing.’”
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The resulting series, “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet,” is set to launch on Apple TV Plus on Feb. 7. It hails from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” stars and executive producers McElhenney and Day, with “Sunny” writer and executive producer Megan Ganz serving as co-creator and Ubisoft, Lionsgate TV, and 3 Arts Entertainment producing. The show follows the development team behind “Mythic Quest,” a massively successful “World of Warcraft”-type video game. McElhenney also plays the game’s creative director, Ian Grimm, a bro-ish game-geek savant who fashions a rock-star image for himself.
The show will be Apple’s first straightforward comedy since launching its streaming platform in November — and a successful launch would be welcome. The platform’s flagship series, “The Morning Show,” recently received three Golden Globe nominations but was widely panned by critics. Other Apple shows, like “Dickinson,” “For All Mankind” and “Servant,” have found modest critical success, but it remains unclear if any of them have truly broken through the crowded pop culture landscape. Apple no doubt hopes that gamers, who collectively spent a record $43.4 billion in the sector in 2018 in the U.S. alone, will flock to the series given its subject matter and the pedigree of its creators.
McElhenney and Day wrote the initial drafts of the script, but when Day went off to work on a movie, McElhenney reread their work a few times and felt something was missing. To find out what that was, he turned to Ganz.
A veteran of the shows “Modern Family,” “The Last Man on Earth” and “Community,” Ganz says she found humor in the relationship between Ian and Poppy, the game’s lead programmer, played by Charlotte Nicdao. Poppy is brilliant and a major part of the game’s success, but is consistently overshadowed by Ian.
“This woman will be funny because you can laugh at her but you also care about her story,” Ganz says. “You also don’t mind when she falls on her face because she has a bit of an ego herself. She’s getting jokes and having funny moments. She’s not just there to storm in and tell Rob’s character to stop having all the fun.”
For Nicdao, a native of Australia, the role in “Mythic Quest” will mark one of her first in American television. Another important addition to the cast was Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, who stars as the game’s head writer, CW Longbottom. The character, loosely based on authors like George R.R. Martin, was formerly a hot shot in the literary world who now works on the game despite having never played it. McElhenney says he never imagined Abraham would agree to do the show, but once the actor got the script he signed on within two weeks. Then, when he was on set, it was clear he was enjoying himself.
“He kept walking around the set going, ‘This is marvelous! This is so much fun.’” Ganz says. “What’s great about him is he can do the drama but then ratchet it up to 11 and make it comedy. That is an amazing skill. And any way we can bring more people to ‘Amadeus,’ I’m OK with that being my legacy.”
As with any show as popular as “Sunny,” there’s a fear the new series will simply replicate the old one, with some minor differences. But McElhenney and Ganz insist that “Mythic Quest” will set itself apart.
Most notably, the characters on “Sunny” are awful people that no one is meant to relate to in a real way. In “Mythic Quest,” the audience is intended to care for the main characters and invest in their journeys. In addition, the “Sunny” characters are forced to spend time together because of their failings as people, as no one else would deign to be around them. With “Mythic Quest,” the characters are thrown together because of their success.
“Rob is an incredible creator” says Matt Cherniss, Apple’s head of development. “It’s really rare to find someone who can be a showrunner, a head writer and the star of the show. He is that unique kind of talent.” As for “Mythic Quest,” he adds: “It was really a combination of humor, smart social commentary, great characters and some surprising heart. That made us feel like it was a great show to have on our service.”
Apple’s producers have been vocal in their praise for the company as a creative partner. But a March event in Cupertino unveiling Apple TV Plus and its programming slate was roundly criticized for not showcasing content and leaving many of the producers and stars on hand sidelined. It also prompted entertainment-industry speculation about whether the Silicon Valley company had yet figured out how to launch and market Hollywood product.
“I feel like the campaigns have been really strong,” Cherniss says. “Everyone that I’ve spoken to has been really happy with the launches of their shows. I think that’s been the overwhelming response that’s come our way. I think they’ve done a great job.”
“They’re working out some kinks — but it seems like they have been worked out, at least a few of them,” he says. “I know that getting episodes out to critics was a little tricky, but that’s been ameliorated. Any time we’ve called and said we have an issue, it’s all hands on deck and they fix the issue and we move forward.”
McElhenney goes on to say that Apple was “really helpful” in the creative process. He compares the tech giant to FX in that it will push back on aspects of the show it feels strongly about but will ultimately defer to McElhenney and his team. He adds that pushback is essential to the creative process, as working with no challenges whatsoever is never a good thing.
“Deference would assume we always know what we’re doing and when we walk into the room everyone should just be quiet,” he says. “That is dangerous because then you have no opposition, and it doesn’t make for the best process.”
The show aims to be as authentic as possible in depicting the gaming industry, which can mean focusing on unpleasant truths. One early episode features the game’s executive producer (played by David Hornsby) scrambling to find female employees to speak with a group of young women who visit when Poppy is out of the office.
Ganz says there is work to be done on gender parity in virtually every industry but points to specific conditions that have traditionally kept women out of gaming.
“[There] is a greater barrier to entry since you’re talking about computer science, programming, things that women have been systematically driven away from over the years,” she explains. “It’s getting better, but it takes time to catch up and for the companies to make it a priority.”