One does not watch The Midnight Gospel. One experiences it. That was my initial reaction after viewing the new Netflix series created by former Adventure Time director Pendelton Ward and comedian/podcast host Duncan Trussell. The average movie viewer watches Forrest Gump, meaning they are expected to follow the pre-prescribed road of logic that the movie is trying to present to them about the luckiest man in Greenbow Alabama. The events of the movie are presented in linear order. Event A causes Event B, which triggers Event C and so on. One experiences a movie such as Disney’s Fantasia. The film is a series of individual animations set to a selection of emotionally charged orchestral music. Each short has an internal logic that you can follow, but the point of the film isn’t to follow these events in a logical way, but to have the combined experience of music, emotion, and animation wash over the viewer as they watch the film. In this way, you watch Forrest Gump, and experience Fantasia. It is through this lens of experiencing a work of media that I found myself viewing The Midnight Gospel.
Released on April 20, 2020, The Midnight Gospel is a Netflix Original animated series about a boy named Clancy Gilroy, a self-proclaimed “Space Caster” (basically a cosmic vlogger) who has recently moved away from Earth to live in a bizarre dimension called the Cosmic Ribbon. Clancy uses a device known as a Multiverse Simulator to visit parallel worlds on the brink of destruction for the purpose of interviewing one of its denizens for his daily broadcast show, the titular Midnight Gospel.
The central hook of the series is that the bulk of the dialogue between Clancy and his interviewee is audio lifted directly from Duncan Trussell’s real life podcast called The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Bizarre and otherworldly animation is then placed on top of this real world dialogue, which is only occasionally interrupted by events playing out during the animated segments. Because each episode involves Clancy visiting a new and usually horrific world, no two episodes ever look or feel the same.
The art style and direction between episodes is constantly changing so that aside from the opening and ending segments with Clancy, each adventure feels like a wholly new experience. Clancy himself undergoes both a literal transformation by selecting a new avatar each time he enters a world, and a metaphorical transformation by learning about various forms of philosophy, forms of awareness/meditation, and even confronting the concept of death itself.
Is the series a podcast overlaid with psychedelic animation, or an animated series that weaves in insightful commentary using Duncan Trussell’s show as a delivery device? The answer is yes. I like to imagine that the way in which the series unfolds is by no means an accident, and that there’s a definitive method to the madness of The Midnight Gospel. For example, in the first episode Clancy interviews the president of a world on the brink of a zombie apocalypse. Clancy begins engaging the president in a civil debate on the ethicality of recreational drug use, meanwhile the president and his secret service are gunning down hoards on the undead and trying to find a cure for the outbreak without missing a beat in the conversation.
A possible reading of this method of storytelling is that for the bulk of our lives we are so preoccupied with the responsibilities of everyday affairs that if we never take the time to have these kinds of serious conversations about holistic health, spiritual enlightenment, and even the eminent death of a family member, that we never will, and that this repression will only lead us to further unhappiness and dissatisfaction in our lives. The show might even be insisting that times of strife and heartache are the perfect occasion to have these conversations with ourselves and others that we’ve been avoiding for so long. If we don’t think about these things while we’re lost at sea, we won’t ever be able to find the lighthouse ever again.
The question I repeatedly get asked regarding the series is “Is it actually worth watching or is it yet another stoner show?” I’m personally of the opinion that if a piece of media requires that you be on some kind of altered substance (you know that ones I mean) to enjoy it or get anything out of it, then it’s probably not worth your time. That doesn’t mean a work of art can’t be enhanced by such substances, but to have a work that’s “only enjoyable while high/drunk” means that (solely in my opinion) the work cannot stand on its own, so why would I bother with it?
The Midnight Gospel is a show that in my eyes is definitely enjoyable while stone-cold sober, and I imagine would be quite the experience while inebriated/high. It’s not just pointless colors and images flashing in front of your eyes trying to distract you like a tired parent trying to please a baby with a set of car keys for 23 minutes. The experimental visuals often blend so perfectly with the emotionally engaging audio in such a way that it creates a wholly unique viewing experience that I’ve honestly never felt before. The series interested me in such a way that I watched the entire first season for a second time before sitting down to write this review just to see if I missed anything the first time. If nothing else, The Midnight Gospel deserves (pot) brownie points for trying something different and hitting it out of the park.
Final Assessment for The Midnight Gospel S1:
While it definitely won’t be for everyone, The Midnight Gospel offers adult fans of Adventure Time and similar animated shows an entirely unique and visceral viewing experience. It’s only eight episodes long and the final episode ends on a bit of a messy cliffhanger, but if you can put that aside and let go of your preconceived notions of what an animated series in 2020 should look and sound like, it’s most certainly worth your time. A solid recommendation to add to any curious persons Watch List.