What to Watch Verdict
'Mythic Quest's' ability to portray hilarious and bittersweet in a standalone episode is still a cut above the rest.
⚔️Craig Mazin's script captures the heartache and vulnerability of putting yourself out there creatively.
⚔️Everything about C.W. in the present makes sense.
⚔️Costume designer Sabrina Rosen's period-specific looks and the styles that CW still favors.
⚔️Great soundtrack choices.
⚔️Wonderful performances from the three leads but particularly Josh Brener.
⚔️It is impossible to have the same surprise impact as the first season's "A Dark Quiet Death," but this is a minor quibble.
Two of the first things we learn about C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) in Mythic Quest’s pilot episode is his love of backstory and that he won a Nebula Award. Along with his ability to say something inappropriate regardless of the time or place, the Nebula Award and his insistence on backstory are part of his personality. In the second season, this remains true and just because C.W. isn’t physically in the office* it doesn’t mean the creepy comments and offensive stories have been lacking. He has mastered video chat technology (including the ability to share his screen) and is still a regular feature at MQ. Earlier in the season, Jo (Jessie Ennis) ensured he would retain the rights to his characters, even if the deadline for the final part of his trilogy was due in 1982. For all his talk of his past glories, there is still a lot we don’t know about the veteran storyteller’s rise to science-fiction writing fame, and “Backstory!” is here to fill in the important gaps.
*During my conversation with Abraham he confirmed this was necessary due to the pandemic and Rob McElhenney didn’t want him to risk his health by traveling from his East Coast home.
After last week’s excellent bottle episode within the Mythic Quest office, this outing written by Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin is set entirely outside of this location (and time period). Mazin plays Lou in the present day but also takes on the role of young Carl Longbottom’s (Josh Brener) boss Sol Green in this flashback to 1972. Unlike the Season 1 standalone episode, “A Dark Quiet Death” that introduced a completely different set of characters in the mid-90s — albeit with a link to the same office and industry — this slice of the past follows an established figure and lays bare the regrets that have plagued the writer. If the Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson guest-starring Mythic Quest outing depicted the birth and death of a specific video game (and marriage), then “Backstory!” charts the rise of C.W. and the things he lost along the way. It also reveals that a combination of booze and a storefront display resulted in the writer predicting the future of video games — decades before it would become a reality. The author has always been good at tooting his own horn, however, this bravado shields his deep-rooted insecurity.
Co-creator and star McElhenney directs "Backstory" — he also directed “A Dark Quiet Death” — and demonstrates how this workplace comedy is not content with staying within the lines of one format. The introduction to young Carl is less disorientating than the Season 1 detour as it becomes apparent early on who this young man will turn into after his stint working as a copy editor at Amazing Tales Publishing. Upon his arrival, he meets two other new employees and the three quickly find they have much in common — they have found their “Tribe-pod.” A.E. Goldsmith (Shelley Hennig) and Peter Cromwell (Michael Cassidy) also aspire to become the next sci-fi writing sensation and they agree to give each other notes to improve the short stories that got their foot in the door. It isn’t the content of their work that attracted Sol to them as employees, rather, the fact that delivered clean copy.
The initial introduction in "Backstory" lays the foundation of Carl’s crush, but post-work drinks further emphasize that Carl is sweet on A.E. and a love triangle seems inevitable — the knowledge that he is single in the present also indicates it will not end well. They share their work with each other and to do so is an act of vulnerability. The following day A.E. and Peter have minimal notes for each other, but when it comes to Carl’s “Tears of the Anaren” there are numerous issues to delicately mention. The title is confusing as rather than crying it is referencing the ripping definition of this word and this mistake repeats throughout the episode. In terms of content A.E. points out that because certain aspects like flesh pouches on the Anaren’s backs and robot horses are substitutes for a backpack and a car, his evolutionary changes are insubstantial. “Because they’re robot horses,” is his explanation behind this choice, which reveals how little depth there is to the world-building. “It’s not enough to propose a future where things are just different. They have to be unexpected and inevitable at the same time,” A.E. explains and he struggles to take on board her constructive criticism.
Exposing yourself with a piece of work you have put your heart and soul into and then not getting the praise you expect is hard, but Carl doesn’t completely ignore these ideas in his next draft. However, all he has done is make cosmetic changes and the issues persist. “But I’m not struggling,” he says while wearing a turtleneck is similar to something CW would wear in the present day. This reflects his barely changing sartorial taste levels and costume designer Sabrina Rosen does a wonderful job depicting the earthy tones of the era. Tie and suit silhouettes change over the years, although it is clear Carl is comfortable in various shades of brown. His one flamboyant moment occurs at the Nebula Awards in an eggplant suit and an image of Josh Brener in this garment has replaced the original shot of a young F. Murray Abraham in the pilot episode intro (a photograph that was from when he won his Oscar in 1985). This attention to detail in "Backstory" is quite magnificent, even if the Nebula Award replacing an Oscar photoshop was a nifty idea. Brener’s performance works wonders as he nails C.W.’s mannerism without feeling like he is simply doing an impression of Abraham. The casting is effective as this charts his journey from a fresh-faced writer to someone who lets his ego get the better of him and the dynamic with Henning and Cassidy is equally compelling.
So how does Carl go from a half-baked story to an award-winning writer in the space of a year in "Backstory"? When A.E. gets her story published, he chooses to go home and work, instead of joining his cohorts for drinks. In a feverish sequence, he turns his short story into a novella-length and when he calls A.E. to tell her the news, Peter answers her phone. This confirms the two are a couple and not only have they torn his work to shreds creatively, but they have also been hooking up behind his back. His bitterness spills over when he suggests A.E. is only getting ahead because Sol is attracted to her. He refuses to take this pig-head comment back, adding, “You question my vision, I question your taste.” In an act of desperation, he gives his novella to hit sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov (Chet Grisson) to read — he is sat in the conference room signing stacks of books — and is thrilled when a messenger drops the manuscript off. The enclosed note is positive with Asimov explaining that he has made some edit suggestions in red ink that he can or cannot take on board, no biggie. “P.S. I enjoyed your use of backstory” has a profound effect on the writer and is something he leans into in the present. However, he is aghast when he sees that Asimov’s red ink covers every single line of his pages.
With no friends to turn to, he drinks alone and walks home in the middle of a thunderstorm accompanied by Graham Nash’s “There’s Only One.” A window display featuring Pong unlocks something in his drunk brain and he heads to work to explain his vision of a world-building future. This audience-led construct will be “infused with story” and he comes up with a concept similar to Mythic Quest at a time when computer games had a rudimentary design. “What the fuck are you talking about?” exclaims Sol, while A.E. neither rejects or supports his idea. Departing the office for the last time, he makes a choice to type up “Tears of Anaren” but with Asimov’s notes. Cut to the Nebula Awards and the prize C.W. still flaunts nearly 50 years later. At this event, he runs into Peter and A.E. (who is now going by Anne) and they are still together. The reunion is unsurprisingly awkward and when Peter goes to get C.W. (he has ditched Carl) a drink Anne makes it clear that she knows how his book sounds so much like Asimov. “Jealous Guy” by John Lennon plays during this sequence and while it’s not a subtle song choice, it also sums up C.W.s bitterness and flaws that have made it impossible for him to write his third book. "Backstory!" is another impressive swing from the Apple TV+ comedy that ends with a beautiful coda and some familiar faces.
Similar to “A Dark Quiet Death” is the final scene featuring a young Ian (McElhenney) and instead of pitching a new game, he has brought an unenthusiastic Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) to help sweet talk the drunk, washed up C.W. into joining their endeavor. “Have you ever thought about writing for a video game?” Ian asks, and images of Carl first seeing Pong flash before his eyes. Sometimes the best ideas take decades to manifest. Carl’s journey is a window into burning creative bridges, and both “Backstory!” and “A Dark Quiet Death” double as a cautionary tale for what might become of Poppy and Ian if they let the rift grow deeper.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.