There was once a time when actors rarely, if ever, were asked to look into the lens of a camera. But here in the Coronavirus age, we’re relying on our screens for human connection, even if it’s with a fictional character — and that’s something captured with unexpected sweetness and empathy by “Quarantine,” the new special episode of Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.
Mythic Quest emerged this year as one of Apple TV+’s strongest offerings (it certainly makes a lot more sense than See, anyway); the workplace comedy about the oddball employees of a video game company greatly benefits from the chaotic energy of creators Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, who previously collaborated together on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But while it was a show with a supporting character literally known as Pootie Shoe, it also proved capable of telling emotional stories, such as the breakout episode “A Dark Quiet Death” starring Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti, or the volatile but often tender dynamic between creative director Ian (McElhenney) and lead engineer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao).
“Quarantine” technically picks up from where the Mythic Quest season finale ended, with the threat of a “blood virus” sweeping through the game and Ian and Poppy at each other’s throats as newly appointed co-creative directors. But the show exists in the same reality as us, and so while video game companies are handling the crisis better than other industries right now, everyone is working from home — and some people are handling it a lot better than others.
That’s basically the plot, as the 25-minute episode (find out how it was made here) does its best to bounce around from screen to screen, giving every member of the ensemble a chance to connect with their fellow co-workers, who are dealing with the same problems many of us are also struggling with: Having to home-school children, or finding their hair color has reverted to its natural state. Or just the aching loneliness that comes with weeks and weeks of isolation, separated from the people you love.
“Quarantine” is not the first scripted television show to produce an episode under these circumstances — The Blacklist employed animated sequences to finish its season finale, with the actors recording voice-over from their homes. CBS’s All Rise wrote a new season finale after production shut down, one depicting the lives of its stuck-at-home characters entirely with video chat, as did Parks and Recreation for a special reunion episode.
What differentiates “Mythic Quest: Quarantine” from those installments is the fact that it exists fully in this moment we’re in, but it doesn’t bother with false hope. It’s packed with jokes, from C.W. (F. Murray Abraham) struggling with the technology that now keeps us all connected to David (David Hornsby) and Brad (Danny Pudi) engaging in a not-so-friendly Street Fighter competition. It also showcases the ways in which we’re all adapting to this new strange normal, and the sort of beautiful creative acts that people are exploring during lockdown.
But it also gets raw about this situation in unexpected ways, anchored largely by a heartbreaking performance by Nicdao, and in these moments it really allows us to feel for these characters, in a way maybe we aren’t even letting ourselves feel right now. I watched this episode for the first time several days ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about the way it managed to say things I’ve been having trouble articulating, and how the final triumphant sequence made me feel better while still remaining truthful to the state of our world right now.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, we’ll probably be able to program an entire year of film festivals with movies made about COVID-19. The question on a number of levels is how far off that future is, both in terms of when production should be allowed to start back up and when, exactly, we as a culture are going to be ready to talk about what’s going on right now. There is a very understandable instinct to believe that trying to make sense of this will be best done with the help of hindsight; that we can’t really know what’s happening until it’s happened. There’s a reason a daily diary isn’t considered a work of literature on the level of a memoir, after all. Truth takes time.
But at the same time, the making of “Quarantine” feels like a really beautiful, necessary thing — a snapshot of a troubled time that doesn’t pander. A year from now, we might struggle to recall what this experience was like. Mythic Quest will be able to help us remember.