It’s been more than a year since the initial spread of COVID-19 fundamentally shifted American society. The separation between life and work began to blur as most non-essential jobs shifted to remote work from home. Our conceptions of work-life balance began to shift together as non-essential jobs began working remotely. Returning to “normal” doesn’t feel feasible in a society that has transformed this much. Obviously, entertainment and pop culture – which have always served as a reflection of society – need to adapt to these shifts. How can movie and television show producers tell stories about the pandemic with tact?
Mythic Quest is an AppleTV+ exclusive show that aired its first season in February 2020. Created by Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Megan Ganz of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame, Mythic Quest follows a fictitious video game studio responsible for an massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) of the same name, run by creative director Ian Grimm (McElhenney), who frequently finds himself at odds with his lead engineer, Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), executive producer David (David Hornsby), head of monetization Brad (Danny Pudi) and head writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham). In particular, Ian and Poppy’s relationship serves as the core of the show – Ian has fantastical visions of how the game should be, and frequently disregards Poppy as she burns herself out trying to implement these ideas into the game.
By the end of season one, Poppy has just finished working on a major update to the in-universe game of Mythic Quest, working to help meet Ian’s vision for “Blood Ocean” – a pandemic within the game based on World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood incident in 2005 (which was used by epidemiologists to model the spread of COVID!)
This ending leads directly into a special episode, aptly named Quarantine. Quarantine serves as a bottle episode of sorts, filmed entirely through iPhone cameras. Many shows, such as Parks & Recreation, have done special episodes through the medium of video calls, but Mythic Quest is one of the first shows to weave the COVID-19 pandemic into the identity of the show. The reality is that a workplace comedy needs to revolve around the workplace – and for both millions of Americans and the staff at MQ, that place is at home.
The episode, released on May 22nd, 2020, focuses on how the different staff members have transitioned to this new setting. Most of the side cast devote the episode to adjusting to their new environment through Street Fighter tournaments for charity or tutorials on how to use teleconferencing software. However, the crux of the episode depicts how Ian and Poppy have approached work-life balance. Both try to maintain a semblance of normalcy, with Ian making Gal Gadot “Imagine”-esque videos and Poppy throwing herself into her work. As the episode continues, it becomes clearer to Ian that Poppy’s mental state is deteriorating. Over video chat, the pair have a heart-to-heart about their struggles during the pandemic. Poppy uncovers her camera to show her in tears, alone in her room, lit only by the backlight of the computer. She explains that back when she was still working, she had something to do, but when that finished, she didn’t have anything else. Ultimately, she feels soul-crushingly alone. Ian simply responds by telling that she should open her door. Ian shows up outside of Poppy’s apartment, and they hug as Poppy cries into his shoulder.
The pandemic has affected all of us in different ways. On an emotional level, quarantine and work-from-home measures have isolated us from others in ways that make sustained emotional health difficult. In coping with this drastic lifestyle shift, I’ve found myself turning to entertainment. Some of the most meaningful relationships I’ve had in quarantine center around entertainment, such as watching Glee with friends, playing competitive Smash Bros. and Pokemon and talking about my love for albums on Twitter.
It’s important that the entertainment that we consume talks about this real life experience of loneliness propagated by COVID. Earlier this year, NBN Entertainment writer Meher Yeda made her own argument against pandemic themed media, using 2020’s Locked Down as an example. I argue that it’s important that these stories get told correctly. The pandemic has impacted an entire year’s worth of life experiences, and storytelling provides an important medium for helping us process our stress and trauma. On a personal note, I’ve thrown myself into my work during the pandemic. I’ve needed productivity, structure and a way to keep myself busy to stay afloat. Even past schoolwork and career work, I’ve approached my hobbies in a far more structured manner than most. I’m learning fighting games by running drills in practice modes.Poppy’s breakdown resonated with me – I’ve found that my strategy of coping with isolation has been to “have something to do.” I’m happy that I have the people in my life that I’m able to interact with through the internet, but I miss people.
Even past my own experiences, I think the struggle to figure out how to cope with quarantine loneliness is universal, and MQ offers a genuine depiction of the struggles that everyone’s been going through. Ultimately, it imparts the message that whether it be Poppy pushing an update or Hugh-Jay practicing Street Fighter combos, it’s near impossible to simply work through your loneliness.
Quarantine media in general needs to address topics with tact, but I think the past year has created an interesting landscape for storytelling. Over the past year, American society has undergone mostly similar experiences, creating an environment for movie and TV to aptly describe and unpack lifestyle changes such as remote work.The best way to approach quarantine media is to be vulnerable and open with how these life experiences have impacted us.
Many studios are shying away from talking about the events of the past year. Current shows such as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are rumored to have axed entire plot points because of references to viral outbreaks. Mythic Quest is able to address a genuinely difficult topic to touch on – mental health and isolation within quarantine – and leave its viewers with an important message: We might all be struggling in different ways, but the people in our life are here for us, even if it doesn’t seem like it through a computer screen. “Quarantine” succeeds as an episode by highlighting the real problems and issues that society has had to overcome over the past year. Even a year after the original episode’s airing, even after I’ve been half-vaccinated, we’re not okay. But we’re not alone in that – and I hope that other forms of entertainment follow suit by unpacking the events of the past year in a candid but gentle way.