Any bozo can stumble into success one time. It can be one good idea or a fortuitous set of circumstances or even just dumb luck. Sometimes it’s just magic striking at an opportune moment and, yes, this is where I mention Nick Foles outdueling Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. (Go Birds.) Repeating that success — just once, to bring your grand total of successes to two — is hard. And even then, some people might write you off as a flash in the pan. They’ll say you rode the wave of the first thing, or accuse you of going back to the same well, or whatever else people say, because people can be petty. But do it a third time, and then a fourth, in different ways, with different routes to victory… well, then it gets pretty hard to deny. Then you’re just good. Very good. Possibly even great. This brings us to Mythic Quest.
Mythic Quest dropped its fourth special episode in under two seasons last week. The first one, “A Dark Quiet Death,” featured Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti — not regular castmembers — as video game developers whose project and relationship crumbled over time, and careened between funny and heartbreaking in ways that should be impossible for a half-hour standalone episode. The second one, “Quarantine,” was a freaking triumph, an uplifting and tear-jerking look at a scary early-pandemic world that we were still all coming to terms with. It remains one of the best television episodes I’ve ever seen, regardless of circumstances, but especially given the circumstances. The third one, “Everlight,” dropped between seasons and provided a bookend to “Quarantine” that set things up for the second season, and did some big ambitious work in the field of LARPing, which both a fun thing to watch and a fun collection of words to type.
The latest special episode, titled “Backstory,” flashed all the way back to the 1970s to show one of the supporting characters — C.W., the game’s pretentious and bombastic story maestro, played by F. Murray Abraham — as a young man looking to make a name for himself as a science fiction writer. It was also hilarious in parts and devastating in others. It could also stand alone as its own work, without any knowledge of the rest of the show (although it would help), which, again, is basically a magic trick for a half-hour of storytelling. It featured this line of dialogue, which made sense in context and makes for a terrific screencap without context, too.
That’s Craig Mazin, writer of Chernobyl and the Hangover sequels and freshman-year roommate of Ted Cruz (and possessor of a fascinating life), who swung by to write the episode. That’s some kind of trick, too, swooping into a show in its second season and doing a one-off story that somehow both provides depth for a character previously mined mostly for goofs and sets things up for events going forward. It probably helped that the episode was directed by series creator and star Rob McElhenney. Everyone on this show is almost infuriatingly talented.
Yes, that applies to the guest stars of this episode, too, led by Josh Brener, who you probably recognize as Big Head from Silicon Valley, and who absolutely nailed the elements of the character. The bravado, the pettiness, the hurt, and even, to some degree, the F. Murray Abraham of it all, which is saying something because there’s so much of that to grasp. Brener spoke to Uproxx earlier this week to explain how he pulled that off and provided this glance into the character’s soul.
“I think he crafted a self-image that, no matter what, he is unwilling to relinquish,” Brener said. “You are 100% sure of who you are and are unwilling to change or allow in any other version of yourself. Everybody has to be wrong. That’s the only possibility, is that everybody doesn’t see who you actually are, so you just keep insisting upon and insisting upon it until it’s true. That seems to be what C.W. does, is that he, through brute force, just makes it so by whatever means necessary.”
Yeah, that just about says it. And it explains how a man can go from hopeful idealist to heartbroken loner to shameless plagiarist to Renaissance Fair meat salesman, which, as we learn, is the backstory in “Backstory,” and where C.W. was when he was rediscovered. Again, it’s a lot to pack into 30 minutes. Again, it’s cool that the show is willing to take an extended diversion to add depth to an otherwise minor character. Again, it’s incredible it all worked so well.
(Mazin and Brener aren’t the only recognizable faces in the episode, especially if you are me, or watched all the shows I’ve watched over the last couple of decades. One of his coworkers and eventual rivals is played by Michael Cassidy, who appeared in the second season of The O.C. as a Seth Cohen adversary and comic book collaborator named Zach. The other is played by Shelley Hennig, who appeared in an episode of Justified as a grifter and riverboat gambler named Jackie Nevada. I paused mid-episode to look up why both of them looked familiar and I shouted “WHAT?!” both times I found out.)
This is not the first time I’ve gushed about Mythic Quest. It’s not the second time either. It’s at least the third, by my count, and it could easily be the fourth or fifth. There’s a reason for that: Mythic Quest is a good show. It’s a good show when it’s just going about its regular business of being an office comedy about a collection of weirdos and misfits who care deeply about each other even when they don’t admit it. (Big Parks and Recreation vibes here). It’s a good show when it goes out of its way to give you hope in a terrifying real-world crisis. And it’s a good show when it tosses all of that out the window to tell a story that fills in blanks you didn’t even realize existed.
So, yes, Mythic Quest just retained its title of Special Episode Champion this week. But if it keeps doing that, and keeps being this good at its more straightforward episodes, and keeps pulling off this high-wire act of connecting those two things in a way that makes you laugh and cry a little in the same 30 minutes, well… then we’re back to that discussion about repeating success so many times that it becomes undeniable. At some point, we’re going to have to go right ahead and talk about Mythic Quest as one of the best shows on television. I’m ready whenever you are.