In episode 4 of The Midnight Gospel, Netflix's extraordinary new animated series, main character Clancy perfectly sums up the show's central conflict: "Sometimes, to me, I really feel like I lose the ability to listen," he says, speaking with guest Trudy Goodman, a real-life mindfulness teacher portrayed here as a lovelorn warrior. "I get so caught up in my own bulls*** that I can't listen to people anymore, and I'm faking listening. Like, I'm nodding and looking and being intent and everything, but I'm not hearing a damn thing they say."
By the end of that same episode, the characters are in a sword fight with Prince Jam Roll, a demonic little dude who eats people with his butt. He's played by Pauly Shore.
The Midnight Gospel makes the act of concentration a challenge. It absolutely bombards you with experiences, throwing philosophical treatises, existential ponderings, historical musings, and surprising emotional gut-punches at you, all while overloading your eyeballs with weird, gross, hilarious imagery. It's a show that begs to be watched at least twice--once to take in all the visual elements, and then again to really listen to what the characters are saying. Because of that, it's a perfect fit for Netflix--you'll want to binge it quickly and then watch it again.
The show could be considered a kind-of adaptation of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, the titular comedian and actor's long-running podcast, but only by the absolute loosest definition of the word. All but one of the eight episodes in Season 1 follow an interview between Clancy (played by Trussell) and a guest, their conversations taking part within the twisted animated worlds cooked up by co-creator Pendleton Ward (Adventure Time) and the rest of the animation team. Clancy uses a simulator to travel to alien worlds and talk to the locals for his "spacecast," a video podcast series, and while the conversations are largely focused on concepts for living a better life, religion, self-care, and personal experience, they typically end with the world's destruction as Clancy escapes by blowing into a magical shofar.
The discussions featured are often insightful and beautiful, mixing philosophy, spiritualism, and history as the characters discuss their outlooks, their ways of life, and how they achieve a sense of presence in a messy world. Meanwhile, all around them, the animators are seemingly being given complete creative freedom, crafting up wild, nightmarish, hilarious imagery. It can feel like you're being pulled down two distinct paths, and the effect on your own brain is both disorientating and brilliant. At its best, it feels flat-out magical--a complicated, absurd show that challenges and moves you, but which might also haunt your dreams.
In the first episode, for instance, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Clancy dive deep into psychedelics, American drug use, and meditation. Clancy, who wears a different avatar in each episode, is a muscle-bound goliath, while Pinsky's "Glasses Man" is the tiny president of a world that is currently experiencing a visually spectacular, ever-evolving zombie apocalypse. The two characters hold a calm, focused conversation that occasionally references everything happening around them, all the while blowing zombies away, seeking refuge in a mall, helping a lady give birth, and being chased by a giant monster. It's striking and weird and much easier to parse on a second viewing, and it's also one of the show's more straightforward outings. While some episodes are more interesting than others in terms of the concepts they explore, The Midnight Gospel is never boring, despite being heavy on lectures.
In other episodes, there's a more clearly defined connection between the interview subject and the animation. In one, Clancy and a "soul bird" attached to an intergalactic prison inmate talk through the Hindu concept of dharma while the inmate is repeatedly killed and plunged into a state between life and death where his heart is measured against the weight of a feather. It's like Groundhog Day, but deeper and weirder--not to mention visually stunning, with the show's frame animation style leading to art that feels uniquely expressive and personal. Ward's signature style is still there under all the blood and genital imagery, but fans of Adventure Time will find that he's operating in a very different mode. The show can be gross at times, but it's never off-putting or disgusting--there's meaning in every brief flash of violence or nudity or body horror. It's a fascinating showcase for him.
In the incredible season finale, the veneer of "Clancy" is stripped away almost entirely as Duncan talks to a dying relative about what it means to be truly "present." The blurring between reality and fiction is frequent and intentional--interviewees will often refer to the parts of America they're from despite ostensibly living on alien planets, and will often call Clancy "Duncan", which he'll correct with a laugh. When it's casually revealed that the season landed on Trussell's real-life birthday it doesn't feel like a coincidence. You'll come to care about both Clancy and Duncan, both as separate people and as a singular entity. Taken all at once, this is a work of extraordinary emotional whiplash--the old maxim "I laughed, I cried" has rarely been more relevant than it is here, and the show wrings true emotion out of the most absurd, outlandish moments.
It's never quite clear how much of the show has been scripted, or whether Trussell conducted interviews as usual but occasionally prompted his guests to pretend, for instance, that they were also a giant deer-dog that was about to be ground up in a meat grinder. Ultimately, it doesn't matter one bit, because the show's truth runs deeper than the reality of how it was made. It would be reductive to boil The Midnight Gospel down to being "about" any single thing, but taking it all in is akin to trying to find focus in a chaotic, difficult world. It asks you to find a way to be present, to be mindful, to really listen when the world is literally collapsing around you.
The Midnight Gospel is one of the best animated series on Netflix, rewarding any viewer who puts effort into wrapping their head around what it's serving up.