Rob McElhenney directed one of the very best episodes of television I’ve seen in the 2020 Emmy cycle. That episode of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet was called “A Dark Quiet Death.” It abandons the regular Mythic Quest cast of characters in favor of a backstory involving the creation, success, and eventual decline of a video game and that impact on its romantically linked creators (Jake Johnson, Cristin Milioti). The brilliant episode acutely establishes thematic table stakes for the remainder of the Apple comedy’s freshman season. And it was deftly directed in every way by series co-creator Rob McElhenney.
Unfortunately for me, his direction of that episode was not submitted for 2020 Emmy consideration.
I have a purpose for mentioning all of this, of course.
The episode submitted for McElhenney’s direction is called “Mythic Quest: Quarantine.” It’s a fun, breezy episode that aired three months after the series dropped nine episodes in early February. It brings the cast into the real world, so to speak, by exploring the impact of the COVID-19 enforced quarantine. It’s a very strong episode and was considered the best of the first season by many critics.
Here, McElhenney’s direction balances moments of sublime comedy with honest moments of emotional depth. Given that, it does make sense that the episode was his sole submission for the series. Technically, the episode is kind of a marvel for a shorter-form comedy series. The filmmakers provided each cast member with equipment and instructions to film their scenes. McElhenney had to then assemble each independently filmed cut and reassemble it to appear as if it all took place on a Zoom-like chat session. The results are seamless and as accomplished as any comedy direction I’ve seen all year.
But what McElhenney especially nails are the moments of human emotion. Yes, there is a lot to laugh at, but “Quarantine” explores how isolation affects those who thrive on human interaction. In the episode, lead developer Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) appears to be sinking into a dark quiet place. Self-centered creator director Ian Grimm (McElhenney) realizes this and breaks quarantine just long enough to give Poppy what she really needs: a long quiet hug. McElhenney’s camera focuses on their interaction just a beat longer than what’s comfortably acceptable. It’s a moment of true gravitas where the effects of the COVID-19 quarantine are realized in a context outside of the evening news. It’s a brilliant, sensitive moment of comedy direction.
The remainder of the episode does focus on the lighter moments of the quarantine. It culminates in a 5-minute sequence where the Mythic Quest team creates a screen-to-screen chain reaction. Compared to the deeper emotional moment described above, this comic sequence may appear frivolous. It is anything but that. It provides us a moment of joy and levity sorely needed in this COVID-19 world, which was the intent of the episode.
And Rob McElhenney pulls it all off with the confidence of a television comedy director veteran. I’m reminded of the great Jim Burrows in McElhenney’s directorial choices and ability to balance emotional beats. He completely excels at telling the story in an intelligent and thoughtful way.
Which leads me to the reason I included “A Dark Quiet Death” in my intro to this song of praise for Rob McElhenney’s directorial prowess. Even if it wasn’t submitted, it will always have my heart as containing my favorite moments of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet. There, he weaved a comedy tapestry that perfectly blended visual appeal with soft human moments and real thematic heft. It is my preferred sample of his directorial abilities. “Quarantine” proves he can expertly handle screwball comic moments. Coupling that episode with the heavier thematic material in “A Dark Quiet Death” proves that Rob McElhenney is quietly becoming one of the greatest comedy directors working in television today.
And he deserves to be celebrated with a nomination for Outstanding Directing For a Comedy Series.
Please consider “Mythic Quest: Quarantine” and “A Dark Quiet Death” in your Emmy voting categories wherever appropriate.