Rob McElhenney on the ‘Ethical and Social Responsibility’ of ‘Mythic Quest’s’ Virtual Episode

Danielle Turchiano

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SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Mythic Quest: Quarantine,” streaming now on Apple TV Plus.

When Rob McElhenney decided he wanted to do a virtual episode of one of his television series during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no question that it would be his new Apple TV Plus comedy “Mythic Quest” and not his long-running FXX sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

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“The thing about the ‘Mythic Quest’ characters is that, like the filmmakers, they believe in science and they respect the law. And so we could make an episode that we felt was socially responsible,” McElhenney tells Variety. The “Sunny” characters on the other hand, do not, he adds, which means the kind of episode the production team would have delivered would have been the opposite of what he did with “Mythic Quest.”

“I don’t know that it would be socially responsible to make right now. Maybe in about six months from now or a year, hopefully we’re going to see what the ‘Sunny’ characters were doing in quarantine, but I have a feeling it’s not what the ‘Mythic Quest’ characters were doing,” he continues.

“Mythic Quest: Quarantine,” the new half-hour, remotely-produced episode of “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” that acts as a special 10th episode in its first season, finds its characters months after its February finale left off, self-quarantining from the COVID-19 pandemic in their individual homes. They are luckier than many, in that their video game work means they can still do their jobs remotely. An immediate concern is the fact that they created a virus for their game, which now looks like it’s in poor taste and should be scrubbed — until Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) gets the idea to create code for a vaccine.

While McElhenney’s Ian seems to be living his best life, alone in his compound, relaxing in his hot tub, working out in an at-home gym and preparing guided meditation in a lush garden, Poppy is throwing herself into her work to keep herself from spinning out into a depression spiral. In truth, McElhenney notes, they are both struggling, just in their own ways.

“He’s such an insane narcissist. He’s making these videos because he needs the attention,” McElhenney says.

After company Zoom meetings where it is obvious to Ian that Poppy has not changed her shirt, let alone showered recently, he worries about her mental health and tells her to log offline and take care of herself. When she begins dodging his calls, he finally leaves his compound for the first time in three months to make sure she is OK.

“There’s this odd uncanny valley phenomenon that happens where we’re not in the room with people and there is the interface in between us and it doesn’t feel as intimate as being with another human being. We had to lean into that aspect that there is this artifice that’s holding us back from real emotional output,” McElhenney says of characters’ communication for much of the episode. “When he goes to Poppy, it’s as much for her as it is for him. There were some selfish motivations. And yet he still gives her the option. I made a conscious decision that my character does not reach out to hug her. He allows her to come to him if she needs it.”

Instead of actually breaking quarantine in his own Los Angeles residence to drive to Nicdao’s, McElhenney directed this scene so that Nicdao’s husband could stand in for him. Shot on Poppy’s computer camera, left on but in a room distant from her front door, the two figures are small in the frame, as well as shrouded in shadows, so it is not obvious that it is not McElhenney embracing her. Still, McElhenney admits the production team had “hours and hours of debate” about depicting someone breaking quarantine because they “wanted to make sure we were making something that was both ethically and socially responsible.”

Ultimately, the team realized it was the most responsible to depict care all kinds of health.

“Physical health is paramount importance, but that should not supersede mental health,” McElhenney says. “If you have someone in your life who you truly believe is struggling to the point where if they don’t receive some level of physical contact things could take a very dark turn for the worse — and I think a lot of people have those experiences — then we have to be rational and we have to be compassionate and we have to be understanding.”

Still, they didn’t want to be “cavalier” about the scene, so they made sure to set up that both characters had been “locked away in their homes for months, not having any contact with anybody else,” McElhenney continues. And once they have this moment together, they literally go back to their own self-isolation.

Taking care of loved ones and extended family is what started the idea for this episode overall, McElhenney shares: “We have 150 crew members who, just like so much of the rest of the nation, are sitting around and really wanting to get back to work, and if we can help people earn a paycheck for three weeks, we wanted to figure out how to do that.”

In order to film this episode remotely in the actors’ real-life residences, they were sent new iPhones, with which to film themselves and new Air Pods, through which to communicate with the other actors in the scene and McElhenney, who also directed. Depending on the scene being worked on, anywhere from 20 to 40 people logged into a Zoom meeting so they could see what was being shot. The various crew members would have their cameras and microphones off, McElhenney says, until one saw something in the frame that wasn’t quite right. Then he told them he trusted them to just jump in and say something so they could adjust as they went.

While McElhenney calls this episode “the most difficult production I’ve ever been a part of in 15 years of television,” he also says it’s the one of which he is the most proud. In preparing for it, he did watch the first “Saturday Night Live At Home” episode and some late-night programming. He also heard about the “Parks and Recreation” special while working on this, so he called Mike Schur for advice and to make sure they weren’t doing anything too similar. (They weren’t, which McElhenney says was great because “I can’t compete with Mike Schur! He’s the high water mark and someone I respect very much.”)

Because he wanted to turn it around while everyone was still in quarantine, and he wasn’t sure how long that would be, the “Mythic Quest” team turned around the episode from conception to delivery within three weeks, with the actual production week the hottest week Los Angeles has had in a while — which posed an additional challenge no one expected.

“Half the cast didn’t have air conditioning and because of sound we had to ask them to close all of their windows and turn off any fans,” he says. “Now, there are people all over the world that are struggling a whole lot more than an actor sitting in a house sweating through their clothing, however it did present challenges insofar as they’re dripping sweat in some of those scenes and it was overheating the equipment.”

While there is a lot of comedy within the special episode — from consulting producer Craig Mazin’s return guest starring role to C.W.’s (F. Murray Abraham) inability to figure out technology to David (David Hornsby) losing a game and shaving his mustache — McElhenney didn’t want the episode to “seem like we were just taking advantage of the situation.” In addition to “wanting to respect and honor people’s stories and what they’re really, truly going through,” McElhenney wanted to raise awareness for a good cause.

Within the story, David proposes that the company give back because it is profiting so much off of people who are looking for entertainment while sitting around at home. Brad (Danny Pudi) doesn’t like to give things away without getting something in return, hence the wager for David’s mustache as they battle it out on a video game. In the end, Brad donates the money on behalf of the company and Ian matches it personally. And life is imitating art because the “Mythic Quest” team raised $300,000 for Mercy Corps’ COVID-19 relief fund, which McElhenney and his wife Kaitlin Olson personally matched.

“As we came up with the conceit of the company donating money, then I thought, ‘Wow this would be really cool if we could figure out a way in which we as a show were doing the same,'” McElhenney says. “The organization is a global one that is doing some of the best work out there for those affected by this pandemic. What we were what we’re hoping is that we can raise awareness for this incredible organization. But we also want to be very respectful of our audience who has been asked to give and give and give and give. And they have responded, and I know because I’ve run a couple of fundraisers over the course of the last three or four months and people continue to give and I know that people can’t afford to give. Of course I want people, if they can, to continue to give, but I also feel like I don’t want to ask anyone for anything else anymore. The audience has had it rough and they’re going to have a rough couple of maybe years. So this is just something we’re putting out in the world and if you can give, great, but we just hope you enjoy the show.”

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