I’m no stranger to strangeness, but when I say that The Midnight Gospel is a bizarre piece of work, I mean it. Trying to describe exactly what The Midnight Gospel is isn’t an easy task. One third of it feels like an animation experiment, one third a treatise on existentialism, and one third a hyper violent Adult Swim special.
The fact that this show exists is kind of a miracle as its content is some truly wacked out stuff. This is the show where a man gave birth to his own mother thanks to a spaceship full of teddy bear doctors. It’s that kind of strange. There’s a reason the show released on 4/20 is all I’m saying. But the purveying thought that I kept having as I was watching the eight episode first season was, “I think I like it?”
There were moments of genuine brilliance on display in The Midnight Gospel, but it almost seemed to succeed in spite of itself.
The Midnight Gospel
Showrunner: Pendleton Ward, Duncan Trussell
Release Date: April 20, 2020 (Netflix)
The central hook of The Midnight Gospel is fairly straightforward. Clancy (Duncan Trussell) is a man who created a space podcast known as “The Midnight Gospel”. For his spacecast, he enters into universes on the brink of destruction and asks to interview one inhabitant of that doomed world. For the most part, Clancy’s interviews have less to do with the apocalyptic thoughts of its residents and more with abstract concepts like forgiveness, mysticism, death of the ego, death in general, and the core philosophical difference between eastern and western religions.
Meanwhile, as these deep introspective conversations are happening, absolute chaos overflows all visuals. Just take the first episode as an example: while the narrative deals with Clancy interviewing the president of the United States about drug usage and whether or not hallucinogens can truly be considered evil, a zombie apocalypse rages in the background. There’s tons of blood, monster trucks, and a zombie musical number at the very end. If that sounds too tame for you, how’s about an episode where dog monsters are ground up into meat to be consumed by a race of parasitic clowns that have enslaved humanity? Like I said, these visuals can get pretty nuts, but usually to the show’s detriments.
There are times when this works. More often than not, however, what happens is you have a mild mannered conversation between Clancy and his subject being completely overshadowed by what’s happening on screen. I certainly want to listen about the struggles that authors/comedians may undergo when they begin to take necessary medication that inadvertently affects their creative talents, but I just can’t focus when I giant blob of flesh is rampaging across a city undergoing a violent revolution. It creates a situation where there are only two ways to watch each episode: without sound, or without visuals.
It’s haphazard, to say the least, but it’s completely intentional. Some of these interviews can go on for the entire episode and all of said interviews are actually excerpts from Duncan Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. At first, it was a sneaking suspicion as the images never really matched up to the discussions happening simultaneously. When several characters in later episodes began referring to Clancy as Duncan only for Clancy to correct them, it then became fairly obvious.
Honestly, it can feel kind of lazy when you look at it from a technical aspect. It’s just audio ripped straight from the podcast and any mention of Duncan’s name is still left in there. Sometimes the audio quality can vary from episode to episode depending on the person that Clancy/Duncan was interviewing that day. That isn’t to say that the discussions aren’t engaging, because they most certainly are. The season finale, “Mouse of Silver,” is probably one of the most poignant and heart wrenching episodes I’ve seen in any animated show.
Clancy/Duncan sit down to interview his mom about coming to terms with death, knowing full well that she has stage four breast cancer and was told multiple times that she only has six months to live. It’s the kind of realness that you don’t ever see touched upon in television and, ironically, it’s from a show where a wizard with paraplegia rips his own face off and farts so hard his world explodes.
If the strangeness of the visuals sounds like it dominates the proceedings, it does. But damn it, The Midnight Gospel is utterly fascinating to watch.
Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time fame handles the majority of the animation and it feels like he was completely let loose. If you told me he consumed an insane amount of drugs, I’d believe it. Sometimes the animation is fluid and offers some stunning moments that match up wonderfully to the interviews, while other times it’s five frames per second garbage. No joke, I switched from watching it on my TV to my laptop and finally to another TV just to make sure that I wasn’t suffering a bad internet connection. Alas, the show just intentionally decided to chug its own animation.
I have no idea why The Midnight Gospel would try to do that, but it almost feels like it doesn’t matter. Who cares if the animation can look worse than something you would get out of a straight to DVD mockbuster? It feels like Ward felt that the strength of the story would carry the visuals, which is mostly true, but they never seem to mesh with one another. Put it this way: what if you decided to put peanut butter on a hot dog? You absolutely can and some people might be into that, but the vast majority of people will think you’re loony.
Then there are the moments where I get that the show is trying to have some deep introspective meaning on Clancy’s journey through the multiverse, but for the life of me I just can’t figure it out. Clancy always takes a memento from the places he visits as a way to remember the lives lost and the adventures he had with them, even though he will never admit it, but he also receives a pair of shoes each time as well. There is a significance to them, but call me a clueless hack, I’m just not able to piece it together.
This is something that I feel like a lot of creators, or in this case auteurs, fail at. They try to instill a sense of meaning into everything, but unless the foundation is solid enough and rooted in some kind of personal or emotional development, it can easily come across as pretentious. I would never call The Midnight Gospel pretentious, but it’s the kind of surreal artwork that can easily be classified as “WTF” territory. It’s not strangeness for the sake of strangeness. There’s a method to the madness here, but The Midnight Gospel is constantly fighting itself.
It’s a show of wonderful and outlandish visuals and situations, the next one more outrageous than the last, contrasted by mellow discussions on reality and our place in the universe. If the visuals synced better to the podcasts, then I think The Midnight Gospel could have the potential to be one of the most transcendental animated shows of all time. As it stands, did I like my time with the first season? Yeah, I think I did.