There’s an idea—passed down from Adorno in a game of telephone—that products of the culture industry must necessarily reflect capitalist values. This is superficially very convincing: if I were a capitalist, I would probably fund works that reassert the status quo, even subconsciously, since if I were a capitalist the status quo would be going pretty well for me. You can find lots of supporting examples if you look around: the valorization of rags–to–riches stories that obscure the near-impossibility of real-life social mobility, particularly in the United States; the entire cop show genre, which essentially functions as propaganda for the police; even the original Ghostbusters, which has a plotline about how the EPA shouldn’t investigate unlicensed nuclear reactors.
But if you take a broad look at mass media, instead of cherry-picking examples, it’s hard to see any coherent ideology at work, even within specific media companies. Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media produced both The Pursuit of Happyness and The Social Network, two biopics about young entrepreneurs that couldn’t be more different in their relative skepticism towards the idea of the self-made man. There’s mainstream, capitalist-made art that espouses anti-capitalist principles, from It’s A Wonderful Life to Robocop to The Big Short. The evil businessman is such a deeply embedded trope that, with the exception of a few billionaire superheroes, it’s a bit weird to see a businessman in a movie who isn’t evil. The villain in Tim Burton’s live action Dumbo remake is a very obvious allegory for Disney. WWE boss Vince MacMahon is a union-busting, Trump-supporting, coronavirus-spreading supervillain, but rich guys on WWE are always heels—Vince MacMahon included. Lots of cultural products—maybe most of them—are internally ideologically ambiguous or just incoherent. The Lego Movie is in no small part an advertisement for Lego and its bad guy is literally called President Business.
The truth is much simpler than a vast effort to indoctrinate. The culture industry only sporadically produces works that correspond to apparent “capitalist” values—competition, individualism, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps—because the only actual capitalist value is generating and accumulating profit. In his 1979 defense of disco, Richard Dyer writes that rather than capitalist modes of production simply reproducing capitalist ideology, capitalists’ interest in cultural commodities is generating a profit, which they can do just as well from something ideologically opposed to capitalism as something supportive of it.
This means that it’s possible for fresh, challenging, weird, fun art to be produced under capitalism, even within extremely corporate environments. As Dyer puts it, “As long as a commodity makes a profit, what does it matter?” But because nothing matters but making money, corporations are at best indifferent and frequently hostile to the actual “art” part. Making things that are fresh and challenging and weird and fun is easily sacrificed to the bottom line, because everything can be sacrificed to the bottom line. Film critics frequently romanticise the 1970s as a period of artistic quality and integrity in Hollywood filmmaking, and justifiably so: the Hollywood studios spent the 1970s letting young, visionary directors—like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, or Robert Altman—make strange, highly personal and frequently brilliant films. But it’s not like the studios suddenly cared a lot about art. Their appetite for risk-taking didn’t expand to women directors, no matter how visionary, as Elaine May can attest, while black directors mostly worked outside the studio system. When antitrust cases (remember those?) against the studios meant they no longer had a vertical monopoly, which combined with competition from television created a perfect storm of flops, films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider still managed to make profits, and so the studios tried to emulate their success. When Jaws and especially Star Wars revealed a new, more profitable business model, the director-driven filmmaking of the 1970s collapsed. The studios’ motivation—making as much money as possible—remained constant. The profit motive both enabled a great period of creativity and innovation in film and brought it to an abrupt end.
Television is a basically unique artform in that it is definitionally made only in corporate environments. There’s public television, sure—although shows on public broadcasters are usually made with a private production company at least involved—but unlike films or music, there is no indie television. It’s hard to even imagine what independent television would be like, because if it’s not distributed through a TV station or a streaming service, it’s not television. It might be a webseries, which is fine, but that’s a different medium with different conventions. This is partly why TV had a reputation for conservatism—both politically and aesthetically—for so long, at least until The Sopranos and the supposed Golden Age of TV. But the history of television is full of artists making politically and aesthetically significant work, frequently battling corporate overlords to do it. Sometimes those fights have been about censorship, or sometimes they’ve been about a lack of time, money and resources to do their work. Working in a medium where they have to wage those battles doesn’t negate their art. Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone feels as urgent and incendiary as ever. Star Trek feels like a more important socialist reference point for me than anything Marx wrote. I think about the scene in M*A*S*H* where Hawkeye explains why war is worse than hell probably once a week.
Earlier this year, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-creators Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, along with It’s Always Sunny and Community writer Megan Ganz created the sitcom Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet for Apple TV+. It’s set in a video game development studio, working on a World of Warcraft-style massively multiplayer online role-playing game of the same title. McElhenny plays Ian (pronounced eye-an), Mythic Quest’s megalomaniac, would-be auteur creative director, with Charlotte Nicdao as overworked and underappreciated lead engineer Poppy. (Thankfully, Poppy isn’t Ian’s put-upon disapproving straight man, as is so common with female characters in these types of roles; she’s a real weirdo in her own right.) F. Murray Abraham plays C.W., a washed-up sci-fi writer who once won a Nebula Award and is now stuck writing for a game he’s never played. Danny Pudi plays Brad, head of monetization and soulless monster. David (Always Sunny veteran David Hornsby), the game’s executive producer, weakly insists that he “backs creative” while living in fear of calls from “Corporate” in Montreal.
It takes Mythic Quest a little while to find its groove. It’s a much more conventional show than It’s Always Sunny—hitting the warm, familiar beats of the workplace sitcom that Sunny would only approach with irony and cynicism—but they are, thematically, nice companion pieces. Where Sunny has spent a decade and a half in a dive bar in Philadelphia, exploring how people at the bottom of society are crushed, Mythic Quest is about the dissatisfying limitations of capitalist success.
Critics have sometimes described Mythic Quest as being about “women in the gaming industry”, and that’s definitely there—in one episode, a Girls Who Code group visits on a day when Poppy happens to be out of the office, and David struggles mightily to find a female employee to tell them something inspirational. But framing it that way makes it sound as if the gaming industry is an otherwise neutral entity unfortunately afflicted with sexism. It matters that Poppy is an Asian woman and Ian is a white man, but their conflicts aren’t reducible to that dynamic. Underlying everything is that Ian treats Poppy like a mechanic, not a creative partner: Poppy tells him she feels like she’s his favorite paintbrush, rather than a creative person in her own right. (Later, he repeats it like it’s a compliment.) Their conflicts are about much broader themes: the nature of artistic collaboration, for one, and the relationship between art and commerce. It’s easy to watch Mythic Quest as being about video games in some significant way, but it just uses the video game industry as a setting to explore the problems of making art in a corporate environment. It’s about video games, but it’s also about TV, and about any kind of art made primarily as a commodity.
This comes to the fore in “A Dark Quiet Death,” a standalone episode halfway through the season. It follows two characters with no obvious connection to the show’s main plot, played by Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti, for over a decade. They meet in a video game store in the early 1990s: budding video game producer Doc (Johnson) strikes up a conversation with goth girl Beans (Milioti) in which she trashes all the games he suggests. He asks if she’s ever thought of making her own game, and she says yes so quickly that he’s a bit taken aback: he clearly thought the question would blow her mind.
From there, the episode drops in on these characters once every couple of years. Doc and Beans create a game called Dark Quiet Death: it’s a survival horror game, where you can use a flashlight to push the monsters back but you can’t defeat them. Somewhere along the way, they fall in love. It initially seems like a “visionary at the wrong time” story, because that kind of no-win, walking-simulation horror game is a lot more common and popular now than it was a decade ago.
But they do succeed. And it’s so much worse.
The first Dark Quiet Death game is modestly successful, and Doc and Beans hire out an office to work on the sequel. The building was the site of a sweatshop fire a hundred years ago, and it will one day be, we later find out, the offices for Mythic Quest. Doc and Beans carve their names in the wall.
Once they move into the office, more and more people are involved in building what Dark Quiet Death will become, and Doc and Beans’ relationship becomes more and more fractured. Beans is an uncompromising artist and Doc is open to collaboration and compromise, for good or ill. Beans is dismissive of focus groups while Doc insists they should at least consider what marketing has found; Doc listens to what their brand manager has to say while Beans is scornful and rude. Corporate gives them a commemorative flashlight as a gift, and Beans uses it to hold flowers, no matter how many times Doc asks her not to.
Slowly, Dark Quiet Death starts to resemble less and less anything like Doc and Beans’ original vision. Every time Beans voices her objections, the brand manager makes it sound like they’re agreeing, even though he’s clearly not taking in a word. She says they’re like the frog being boiled alive: she agrees to add a gun that would weaken the monsters but not kill them, and then suddenly they’re watching an advertisement for the game where the monster’s head gets blown off. Suddenly there are so many weapons that there’s no room for the flashlight. Suddenly Doc is taking calls from Disney. Suddenly they’re divorced.
Doc justifies each compromise by pointing to how many more people they can bring to their game. And it’s true: DQD becomes one of the biggest games in the world. It launches a film franchise (Doc dates the starlet who plays the lead.) Then we see the brand manager showing him Roscoe, a cutesy, fuzzy purple character who is squarely aimed at appealing to small children. Corporate wants Roscoe added to the next DQD game since he “tests through the roof”. When Doc says that DQD isn’t for children, the brand manager points out that lots of children play it anyway, as if that’s a justification. Doc gives a flat “no” for the first time in the episode. He repeats what Beans said about the frog being boiled alive, and the brand manager says that Doc’s not the frog in that analogy, he’s the chef.
He makes the case that they’ve always done whatever Doc wanted, because he’s the boss. There’s a moment of horror, as Doc realizes he believes he was helplessly pulled along through compromise after compromise when he wasn’t helpless after all. But this time he puts his foot down. “It’s Roscoe or me,” he says.
Hard cut to an advertisement for a cuddly toy. “Iiiiiiiiit’s Roscoe!”
What’s so brilliant about this episode is that it sets up the conflict between uncompromising artist and compromising collaborator, then reveals it to be bullshit. It doesn’t matter how much Doc is willing and eager to bend: if it’s any amount less than completely, totally, and utterly, he’ll be tossed aside. Doc becomes a company man—treasuring presents from Corporate and ceding to their every demand—and it still doesn’t buy him enough leeway to object to marketing a game called Dark Quiet Death to four-year-olds. The brand manager says Doc is the boss, but he never was, not really. Corporate has always been in charge. The conflict between him and Beans was fundamentally artificial, because they both end up the same way: forced out for asserting a creative vision. The episode puts a bow on this by having them literally end up in the same place: back in the video game store, trying to find something to play that doesn’t suck. Beans has remarried and is getting some awful game to occupy her kids. There’s a whole display of Roscoe merchandise, but Doc finds the original DQD in the bargain bin. He recommends it to a passing customer.
The episode ends with Ian pitching Mythic Quest to the same publisher that made Dark Quiet Death. He says that what’s special about Mythic Quest is him. The show has already displayed skepticism of the idea of Ian as an auteur, showing how that mythos erases his creative partners such as Poppy and the other coders. But ending “A Dark Quiet Death” on Ian pitching Mythic Quest as an auteur project lends the whole affair a very different, darker tone. Ian has creative control of the game for now, maybe, but we have no reason to think Corporate has changed. In fact, Ian pitches Mythic Quest to the exact same guy that Doc and Beans pitched DQD to, symbolizing the fact that they literally haven’t changed.
Ian’s auteurism is shown to be a lie: both because lots and lots of people work together to make Mythic Quest, and because he only ever has as much control as Corporate allows him. This double-inflected critique manages to expose the myth of pure auteurism without lapsing into, like, arguing that it’s actually really progressive that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are produced on an assembly line.
When Poppy is considering leaving Mythic Quest, Ian appeals to her to stay by comparing their creative partnership to The Beatles. She’s initially charmed—although Ian insists on explaining who The Beatles are—until he reveals that he thinks she’s Ringo. Poppy, annoyed, asks why she couldn’t be “one of the good ones.” It’s funny, but also sort of perfect. Poppy rightly takes the comparison as a minimization of her contribution to the game, but Poppy is the Ringo. Ringo’s unique-as-a-fingerprint drumming is literally the sound of The Beatles; you can recognise Beatles songs from Ringo’s drum parts alone. And like lead engineer Poppy, people think of Ringo’s role in the band as mechanical—“somebody has to keep the beat,” Ian says—rather than creative. Like Poppy, Ringo’s shunted off to the back somewhere.
In the final episode of the season, the coding staff announce that they’re unionizing. Michelle (a wonderfully deadpan Aparna Nancherla) sits down for negotiations with executive producer David. She asks for overtime pay, and there’s a pause where David waits for her to list more demands. But she doesn’t have any. It’s frustrating to watch: a rare workplace show where staff forms a union and only asks for the bare minimum that they should obviously be getting already. David is surprised, too: he sighs in relief because he thought they were going to ask for profit sharing. (“Could we get profit sharing?” Michelle asks, but the chance is already gone.) David agrees that they should get overtime pay, and asks her to leave the room so he can call Corporate.
The workers have asked for the bare minimum, and the profit sharing gag demonstrates that the show knows that. So David calls Corporate to ask for the bare minimum—and gets fired immediately.
The episode ends in a banal way—Ian rings Corporate off-screen and fixes everything. It feels like a real cop out: a shortcut to a happy ending that isn’t earned. But the memory of “A Dark Quiet Death”—brought to the forefront of our memories in the finale episode when Ian asks Poppy to carve her name in the wall next to Doc and Beans—gives it a ring of darkness. The workers are relying on the whims of Ian—whose whims are also why they’re working so much overtime in the first place—and relying on Corporate valuing Ian enough to care about his whims.
Corporate does value Ian, in no small part because his image as the lone artist is an integrated part of Mythic Quest’s marketing. The image of the lone artist is deliberately cultivated, in no small part because it keeps the vast majority of workers anonymous and invisible. It accrues power to Ian, but only to sap power from the rest of Mythic Quest’s workers. It’s very hard to imagine that he’d be able to make a fix-everything call to Corporate if Michelle had actually asked for profit-sharing.
Mythic Quest—the TV show—is a product of capitalism that criticises capitalist modes of production. It focuses on how capitalist production affects art, but it’s more expansive than that: What really matters is how capitalist production affects people. Even though Ian wins basically every creative battle in the season, the conditions of the game’s production are still terrible. Mythic Quest’s staff are overworked, underpaid and essentially made invisible to the rest of the world. The woman who moderates complaints and comments (enduring constant harassment in the process) is clearly suffering from PTSD. Predatory monetization underwrites Ian’s creative control: in one episode, Brad, the head of monetization, creates some in-game weapon you can buy for a quarter of a million dollars, and then a player immediately buys it. Brad spends the rest of the episode demoralized: if, no matter what he dreams up, some rich guy is going to immediately buy it, then his job is meaningless. Towards the end of the episode, David tells him that he wasn’t actually a rich guy who bought the weapon, but a middle-aged man living in a trailer park. Brad’s eyes light up. He has a renewed sense of purpose: it’s not about the big money transactions, it’s about taking a player’s last dollar.
Brad’s story here isn’t just a metaphor for capitalism; he’s the avatar of capitalism in the show. Motivated entirely by capitalist ideology, he talks about how his dream is to have a Scrooge McDuck money bin. But this isn’t just because he wants to accumulate Scrooge McDuck wealth: he explicitly states that he wants money as a means of controlling people, of owning them. Part of the appeal of the Scrooge McDuck money bin, for him, is having enough money to make someone build a Scrooge McDuck money bin.
But Brad, notably, doesn’t spend the whole series trying to make the game’s themes more capitalist. He spends it ruthlessly, successfully, making the game more profitable. The cruelty inflicted upon the game’s accumulation-addicted players is just, for him, a personal bonus.
Mythic Quest understands that the capitalist class’s primary motivation will always be the pursuit of profit as its own end, rather than any ideological commitment to capitalism itself. It’s a perfect meta-example of its own possibilities: an anti-capitalist television show released by Apple. But its sharpest insight as anti-capitalist art is its acknowledgement that there are deeper, more material issues at stake in the capitalist mode of production than its effect on the content and character of art. Ruthless pursuit of profit requires exploitation of workers on one end, and exploitation of consumers on the other. Brad wants to accumulate wealth so he can control people, and one of the darkest things about his character is that his personal delight in controlling other people is not just his only humanizing quality, but it actually makes him less evil than the invisible hand of Corporate. All the characters in Mythic Quest, from our protagonists to the countless unseen players, have key parts of their life controlled by Corporate, and by capital itself. For the staff it’s work; for the players it’s leisure; either way, their behavior gets filtered through a stranger’s profit-loss calculation. Ian is the only one who seems to have control over his destiny, but, as with Doc, this is an illusion. Ian thinks Mythic Quest belongs to him, and he spends the season learning that it belongs to Poppy, too. But it’s Corporate’s game. They just make it.