Poppy Li is one of my favorite characters in all of television.
Poppy, as played by Charlotte Nicdao, is one of the main characters of Mythic Quest, an AppleTV+ comedy set at a video game studio. The studio produces the massively multiplayer online role-playing game of the show’s title, and when the show begins, it is about to release a major expansion for the game named Raven’s Banquet. (In fact, season one is properly called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.) Much of that first season centers on the conflict between creative director Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney), from whose brain Mythic Quest first sprung, and lead engineer Poppy, who has to make all of Ian’s dreams a reality.
(I just want to note here that Ian’s name is pronounced like the word “ion,” which is a perfect joke about his pretension and self-regard that slowly reveals itself to have more layers as the show goes on. That slow unfolding is kind of Mythic Quest’s whole deal.)
It would be so easy for Mythic Quest to make Poppy an underdog hero the audience can root for. She is perpetually overworked and underpraised, and as the series gets underway, she simply wants to program a shovel into the game so players can use it to dig stuff. Ian insists she make the shovel into a weapon, because if it’s only a shovel, the players will use it to dig dicks, plus it will be more exciting if players can use it to wail on people. Ian is right on both counts: They do dig dicks, and the shovel is way more satisfying as an implement of blunt force trauma.
Mythic Quest plays on everything you know about dramatic storytelling to make you think from that very first episode that it is a story about Ian slowly realizing Poppy’s genius and the two of them learning to trust and support each other. And the series sort of is that. But it’s never just that, especially when it comes to Poppy.
Nicdao plays Poppy like she’s a dandelion fighting against her very self to let all her seeds blow away. She maybe should let go of some stuff, but she takes on more and more until it’s too much. She is constantly grabbing hold of new tasks and challenges while also trying to keep an eye on the old ones, and she sometimes seems like the only person working on the game of Mythic Quest who is capable of actually doing her job. There’s a just-subtle-enough throughline about how Poppy would earn more recognition for her achievements if she were a man, and how being a woman who works in video games means always working harder and harder and harder to remain only one step behind male colleagues who aren’t as talented.
Yet Poppy is so much more than a commentary on being a woman in a male-dominated field. She’s also a fairly savage satire of girlboss feminism and its propensity to turn the people who practice it into narcissists who only look out for themselves. The easiest way to make Poppy crumple and do what you want is to call her a genius, so intent is she on getting people to understand how great she is. Poppy is so constantly focused on catching up to Ian that she doesn’t see all of the people she’s stepping on along the way.
In Mythic Quest’s season two premiere, for instance, she corrals two of the handful of other women on staff for a little gossip and girl talk, then threatens to fire them if they spill her secrets. The show plays the scene for laughs, to be sure, but it’s always aware of the razor-thin line it walks between making Poppy too much of a rah-rah underdog and too much of a boss from hell. She’s complicated and self-obsessed and very funny, and it’s telling just how aggressively the series pivoted to be about the unlikely creative rivalry/partnership between Poppy and Ian. It was already trending in that direction in season one; in season two, Poppy and Ian’s friction is the very core of the show.
Mythic Quest is a bit of an oddball show because, for most of its episodes, it’s a very funny workplace comedy with a killer ensemble cast and a surprising amount of heart. (If you watch it, you will not be surprised when I tell you that co-creator Megan Ganz cut her teeth on Community.) But then, every so often, the series will abruptly become one of TV’s most moving dramas about the impossibility of creating art that can match up to the vision in one’s own head, because of market forces, personal failings, or both. The episodes that confront this impossibility largely stand outside of Mythic Quest’s narrative, commenting on it only obliquely. But they always tie into the show’s thematic core.
These more dramatic episodes often become Mythic Quest’s most hyped element — the season two standalone, for instance, garnered probably the most media coverage the series has received in its second season. But that level of attention has also somewhat distorted the view of what Mythic Quest even is, which is a workplace comedy about navigating a world in which small and petty men call most of the shots. Ian is probably the genius his marketing materials make him out to be — he did create a pretty great video game — but he’s also just exhausting to work with. Many comedies would soften him, the better to make him slightly more cuddly. With only 20 episodes so far, Mythic Quest has humanized Ian without losing how annoying he is. That’s an impressive feat.
I have barely touched on the other elements that make Mythic Quest great, like Danny Pudi’s against-type work as a conniving asshole or the show’s frequently inventive visuals. (I will never get tired of little doors popping open in a giant mural of the video game’s characters — it stands multiple stories tall and serves as the flashy focal point of the office — to reveal one employee yelling down to another on the main floor to fetch them something.) Hell, the show has one of TV’s best romantic relationships between two women, and its rotating cast of recurring players is almost as good as its main ensemble.
Mostly, though, Mythic Quest struck me, again and again throughout its first two seasons, as a show about how difficult it is to make anything good, especially when ego stands in the way. But if you want to best someone with an inflated ego, often the only way to do so is to puff up your own ego until it’s larger, and then where does that leave you? Poppy’s on her way there, and I have no idea where she might end up.
Mythic Quest releases new season two episodes every Friday through June 25 on AppleTV+. The first season and most of the second are streaming already.
For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.