The show, which follows a zany team of engineers and creatives at a video game studio, has a special episode premiering Friday called “Mythic Quest: Quarantine.”
“The motivation was simple — ‘How do I get people back to work?,’ ” says McElhenney, 43, who stars in and co-created the series with Megan Ganz and Charlie Day. “There’s this unfortunate misconception about Hollywood … that it’s just a bunch of millionaire actors all living in beach houses and on boats and on compounds. The truth of the matter is, that represents about .01 percent of the community.
“The vast majority are working-class people,” he says, “and I wanted to figure out a way that we could alleviate some of the anxiety and economic concerns by getting people back to work, if only for a couple of weeks, and see if we could pull it off.”
Apple+ has already renewed “Mythic Quest,” which premiered in February, for a second season. “Mythic Quest: Quarantine,” shot completely on iPhones, follows the studio’s vainglorious creative director Ian Grimm (McElhenney) and his team as they attempt to continue their work at their own homes via video conferencing.
“We wanted it to feel like a premium episode of the show,” says McElhenney, who also created and stars in FXX sitcom “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” “We wanted to make sure that if you came back in five year’s time, you could watch the episode and say it stands up in terms of quality with any other episode, and that the interface with which we chose to tell the story was a creative choice and not a limitation.”
As they work remotely over the course of “Quarantine,” the dysfunctional team has a slew of power struggles. Along with Ian, there’s the brilliant engineer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), who’s always being overlooked; insecure producer, David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby); and senior team member C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham), who struggles with the video conferencing technology. While Ian and Poppy often clash, they also make a surprising emotional connection as isolation takes a toll on each of them.
“We didn’t want to just do a bunch of jokes for 45 minutes. We wanted to be authentic to the experiences people are really having out there,” McElhenney says. “One of those experiences, unfortunately, is isolation and loneliness and despair. So how can we do that in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative, that feels like we’re respecting and honoring that, and presenting it in a way that makes people feel less alone?”
The episode was filmed over the course of three weeks. By comparison, a standard episode before lockdown took around two months to create, he estimates. No cast member left their house or apartment, which provided some challenges.
“Part of the experience that was so profoundly moving for me wasn’t just how the crew came together, but the support system of the crew — whether it was spouses, partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, children or roommates,” he says. “We were asking a lot of people to help out, whether it be help out by simply, ‘Could you hold a camera?’ or ‘Could you press a button for me? or ‘Could you keep it down?’ All the way up to what I asked my wife [‘It’s Always Sunny’ co-star Kaitlin Olson], ‘Hey, sweetie, would it be OK if I disappeared for three weeks and made an episode while you’re homeschooling our children and feeding them 17 times a day?’ and of course she said, ‘Absolutely.’ This simply could not have been done without the people in our lives.”
McElhenney describes it as the most difficult production of his entire career.
“But it was also the episode of television of which I am most proud,” he says.