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'Mythic Quest: Quarantine' and TV in the Time of – and After – COVID-19
May 29, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Scary as it sounds to say out loud, television has been one of our national unifying and stabilizing forces during this pandemic thing.

Happily, that goes way beyond cable news networks, which, depending on our mood of the moment, either makes us feel fully informed or makes our heads explode.

In truth, more viewers likely have been using television as an escape.

Escaping has been particularly easy with scripted dramas and comedies since everything filmed before March matter-of-factly presents a pre-COVID-19 world.

That will change once production resumes because we can expect a blizzard of COVID-19 and lockdown tales.

In anticipation of that inevitability, we do have some encouraging news: One of the first scripted shows to tackle the virus world, the Apple TV+ comedy Mythic Quest, does it really well,

More on Mythic Quest in a moment. First, it’s worth reflecting on a fact underscored by the pandemic: that scripted shows are the least nimble part of television.

While in real life, we’ve been talking every day about the oddness of isolation, we turn on TV dramas, and we see characters blithely strolling into crowded bars or restaurants as if all the air is fit to breathe.

Then it gets odder. The shows on traditional TV cut to commercials, and suddenly we’re back into the actual world. Pizza companies promise contactless delivery. Lily from AT&T says her best friends now are cartoon characters on her phone or her coffee table.

Now maybe this only proves ad agencies can turn around a 30-second spot faster than CBS or FX can create and film a prime-time series. At the same time, it also reminds us that it’s now a different world than it was way back in, say, February.

There’s also this: A whole boatload of shows had to do some fast tap dancing to camouflage the fact that most productions abruptly shut down right around then.

The unluckiest victim was Fox’s Empire, which was ending its whole run and suddenly didn’t have its planned conclusion. The producers cobbled one together anyway, and unfortunately, that’s how it looked.

NBC’s The Blacklist had the most creative solution after production shut down before the season’s last four episodes could be finished.

The producers took the half episode already in the can and fleshed it out with graphic novel-style illustrations of all the characters.

It was striking, it was more than slightly weird, and it brought the season to a satisfactory cliffhanger conclusion. Fortunately, The Blacklist is a little graphic novel-ish anyhow, so fans presumably accepted this one-off. Even if James Spader does Red Reddington better than the illustrators.

Networks have also shuffled programming. Shows like FX’s Fargo and Nat Geo’s Aretha have been rescheduled for “later,” possibly to ensure there will still be some original programming after the current stock runs out.

AMC indefinitely postponed the season finale of The Walking Dead and the launch of its World Beyond spinoff, presumably in hopes of making them into bigger events in the vacuum down the road.

The big TV pandemic winners so far have been Netflix with Tiger King – the poster program for escapism – and ESPN, which moved its Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance up to fill the void in sports programming. Last Dance became the most-watched doc in ESPN history and has triggered a blizzard of commentary and argument.

Mission accomplished.

But breakout hits are not easily replicable, and at this point, no one knows when production of new TV programming can resume. Or where. Sweden, anybody?

Some have suggested this sudden drought of new scripted shows may hark back to the three-month writers’ strike of 2007-2008. Except that in 2007-2008, networks could still produce shows that didn’t require writers, such as reality programs. Can’t do that now. Even reality and competition shows have been forced into the awkward isolation we saw on American Idol.

That isn’t the long-term look anyone is after.

So who knows, we may welcome endless coronavirus storylines on scripted TV shows because they confirm that some part of life is heading back toward normal.

It is 100% certain that virus storylines are being crafted as we speak. The new HBO Max service just ordered Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020, executive-produced by Laura Benanti, and focusing on all the school musical productions cancelled this spring.

This makes it encouraging that Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet has done a cool job with a new episode built on the virus lockdown.

Logically titled Mythic Quest: Quarantine, the just-released episode was filmed entirely on an iPhone and had the whole cast linked only by Zoom.

Creator/star Rob McElhenney said in a cover note that “It’s the hardest production I’ve ever been part of. It’s also the one of which I’m most proud.”

Consistent with the show’s previous nine episodes, Quarantine explores the manic world of video game creators and marketers.

It touches on questions like how much video game designer geeks like Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) really want actual human contact, or how Executive Producer David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby) can bring all these wild cards to one table, or whether the Head of Monetization, Brad Bakshi (Danny Pudi), is willing to cough up a charitable donation from company profits.

F. Murray Abraham (top) plays C.W. Longbottom, the old guy who knows nothing about computers and keeps pushing buttons to hilarious bad ends. Don’t miss him.

It all builds to a delightful, geek-friendly, interactive project with everyone working together. Separately.

McElhenney isn’t the first creative person to find escapist fun in the pandemic. The Internet is flooded with homemade films, some of them impressive. This is one of the first ambitious enough to work as a scripted sitcom episode.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if this Mythic Quest episode set the bar for what’s coming soon. We all need a break from cable news.

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