Review: The Midnight Gospel

Adventure Time animator Pendleton Ward and comedian/podcaster Duncan Trussell have collaborated to create a genuinely very odd eight episode series for Netflix. I’m not familiar with Duncan Trussell’s work but the premise of the show is simply taking some episodes of his conversational podcast and translating them into the vivid illogic of the Adventure Time style animation. The combined effect is startlingly good.

The premise of the show features Clancy (Duncan Trussell) a personally-adrift young man who has moved to the Escher-like Ribbon world to live in a caravan and use a possibly illegal multiverse-simulator to find people to interview for his podcast. Clancy’s interview are the repurposed Trussell podcasts with the interviewees transformed into various kinds of bizarre characters living on equally odd planets.

Visually, each episode goes off on its own adventures, as if the auditory sense and visual sense are plugged into two different but synchronised tracks. Episode 1, for example, has a prolonged discussion about whether its possible to divide recreational drugs into good and bad. However, behind the meandering conversation, Clancy is attempting to interview the tiny (but charismatic) President of the United States during a zombie apocalypse. That apocalypse has its own story line, with a giant-kaiju sized zombie eating the Whitehouse, scientists furiously working on a cure, a pregnant woman mourning the death of her handsome partner and so on.

We also get to visit:

  • A Clown World where the interviewees are grazing animals who get turn into processed meat (and carry on the conversation) while in the background is revealed a society controlled by spider-clown parasites fighting an underground resitance movement.
  • A treasure hunting sea captain whose head is a fishbowl and who has a ship crewed by cats in cute sailor uniforms.
  • A barbarian woman on a hellish fantasy world with a blood drinking magic rose weapon, on a request to restore her beheaded boyfriend.
  • Death herself (who has been living inside Clancy’s bag)
  • A prisoner in a prison for simulated being with existential dread who must go through a Buddhist cycle of death-and-rebirth in a kind of video-game like attempt to escape from the prison. The interviewee is a tiny bird that is the psychopomp for the prisoner’s soul.

The visual stories and the interviews sometimes contrast, sometimes are almost separate and other times mesh very closely.

The final episode is an interview between Trussell and his mother who at the time was terminally ill. Presented as Clancy talking to a simulation of his deceased mother it ties together the various discussions about death, spirituality, meditation and acceptance in a way that very powerfully demonstrates the effectiveness of the shows technique.

There is a fairly thin framing plot with continuity between the episodes and connecting characters. However, this is very much a show to dip in and out of rather than binge watch. The less interesting, more self-indulgent interviews are carried by the visuals. The strongest episodes are carried by the characters of the interviewees.

What is it like? The Guardian compared it to the old British kid’s cartoon Mr Benn but think Yellow Submarine’s psychedelia or the Heavy Metal movie but with a spoken word soundtrack. It is deeply introspective and also self-critical. Clancy latches on to the ideas of his interviewees as deep personal revelations but we get to see that he is just enamoured by shiny new things, often treating the most recent attempt at wisdom as the latest consumer goods. Meanwhile, he avoids dealing with more concrete problems — including the maintenance of his multiverse simulator where increasingly worlds are appearing lifeless due to his neglect.

I enjoyed watching the whole thing in order but you could just skip to Episode 8 (the final episode) if you wanted. I also particularly enjoyed episodes 4 and 5 for the combination of interview and visual story. Episode 6 is the only episode where the framing story is stronger and fun in its own right and is closest to the idea of an Adventure Time for grown-ups. Episode 7 had the most interesting interviewee I found, (Caitlin Doughty as Death talking about attitudes towards death and the commercialisation of death) but a less coherent visual story (which was good for the episode because I was more focused on the interview).

Pyschedelic, weird and a strong vibe of 1960s/70s underground comics.

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4 responses to “Review: The Midnight Gospel”

  1. Episode 3 seemed tailor-made for me – tons of cats and Damien Echols talking about magic(with-a-k). Definitely not a bingey show – I haven’t made it through more than two episodes in one sitting – but that’s not a bad thing. I love Adventure Time. This doesn’t have the same magic(sans-k) that Adventure Time had, but there are interesting parallels. It’s a dense and interesting show.

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