May 2, 2020


Every Good Show Needs a Good Stand-alone Episode (Kathryn VanArendonk, 2/21/20, Vulture)

High Fidelity's "Simon's Top Five" and Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet's "A Dark Quiet Death" take a break from the shows' main protagonists to tell stories about someone else entirely. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Hulu and Apple TV+
One of the fundamental truths of great TV storytelling is that all shows should have at least one stand-alone episode, and that has never been more clear than for two of February's most interesting new shows. On Apple TV+, there's Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, a workplace sitcom from the It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia team about video-game developers that's easily 50 percent better than its title makes it sound. On Hulu, there's High Fidelity, a TV adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel and John Cusack movie about an obsessive record-store owner who reconnects with exes. Each show has a solid set of protagonists, a well-established rhythm for how its episodes tend to work, and plenty of compelling story for its main set of characters. And each show is better because for one episode in the season, it abandons those things to tell a story about someone else entirely.

There are lots of variations of the stand-alone episode: bottle episodes, musical episodes, silent episodes, episodes that use a different genre or style, live episodes, episodes that tell a self-contained plot within a bigger serial arc. Most stand-alone episodes fall somewhere between good and amazing (except for live episodes, which almost universally suck), but one version that works particularly well is the character-based stand-alone, the episode that takes a break from the show's usual protagonist(s) and tells a story from the perspective of someone else entirely. That's the format for the stand-alones in both High Fidelity and Mythic Quest. In each case, midway through the season, one episode tells a story from the viewpoint of characters who, until then, haven't been central to the story. Both episodes initially seem like a departure from the real center of the show, but in each case, they become emblems of the series' core ideas. [...]

Mythic Quest's character-based stand-alone works differently. It's a workplace sitcom with several central characters rather than High Fidelity's single protagonist, and in episode five, "A Dark Quiet Death," Mythic Quest ditches all of them. Rather than the "minor character becomes main" strategy, Mythic Quest tells a story about video-game developers in the '90s whose work is the precursor to everything happening in the main story line. Although references to their games appear elsewhere in Mythic Quest, Doc and Beans (played by Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti, respectively) only show up in episode five, which sketches a long, time-jumping arc of how they developed a popular game franchise.

There are risks to this version of the stand-alone. In one case, as TV critic Alan Sepinwall suggested, you fall in love with the stand-alone's new characters and wish the whole series were about them. The other risk goes in the opposite direction: A viewer who likes the characters in the main body of the series gets frustrated by needing to hang out with these new people.

In spite of the risk, "A Dark Quiet Death" does justify its existence. It's a more serious version of the themes other Mythic Quest episodes tackle in goofier, lighter ways. Doc and Beans wrestle with whether to appease a wider audience of players or to stick to the original creative vision. It's about a familiar and constant friction between money and art.

Mythic Quest's title seems almost designed to limit viewership, which is tragic, because it is an archetype of the triumph of conservatism in the popular culture.  For one thing, it's a workplace comedy, so--like Parks & Rec; 30 Rock; and The Office--it's inevitably conservative.  The episode where Nazis invade the game and the company forms an ethics committee to discuss banning players with repellent beliefs stands on its own as well.  But it really is Episode 5 that delivers the gut punch.  While it is ostensibly about what happens when you compromise your art to make money, it is really about what people who love one another do to themselves when they won't compromise.  It's a prolonged depiction of the selfishness of divorce and it's devastating. How one wishes friend Peter Augustine Lawler were here to write about it. 

Posted by at May 2, 2020 10:19 AM