The Midnight Gospel is a brand new animation series that Netflix released on 4/20/2020, and fittingly so. As you begin its first episode, Taste of the King, absolutely no time goes by before Clancy (the purple guy in a wizard hat as seen above) finds himself interviewing the U.S. president about drug use for his ‘spacecast’ which, as he explains in a different episode, ‘is a space blast. It goes into space.’ All of this amidst a raging zombie apocalypse.
Now, let’s pause. A purple guy? A ‘spacecast’? Zombies? Well, yes to all… sort of. Watching The Midnight Gospel, two things will quickly become apparent. The first is that this is not your average TV show. Created by and starring Duncan Trussell, this 8-episode series was written around clips from his own podcast, Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Thus, the show itself is thin when it comes to plot. Deadbeat hippy Clancy visits increasingly wacky universes, simulated by a hi-tech computer, in order to interview their inhabitants for his space-podcast (AKA: ‘spacecast’). There is something of an overarching storyline about Clancy learning to take better care of his computer but, for the most part, that’s it. In this way, The Midnight Gospel is more akin to an extended animatic (meaning animations made to accompany podcasts and other audio pieces) than a typical TV show.
The second thing you will notice about this series is that it is beautiful. Its fluid animation, its vibrant colours, its original character design – literally everything about The Midnight Gospel pops. In truth, one would expect nothing less than gorgeous coming from the hand of Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward. But what makes his work for The Midnight Gospel so special is the sheer difficulty of the task he was presented with. After all, he was given a show with little plot and lots of action-less talking. It was up to him, then, to create a visual spectacle that would capture an audience for 20 minutes at a time without distracting from the show’s all-important dialogue. And oh boy, did he rise up to the occasion.
Every episode of The Midnight Gospel is a damn-near-hallucinogenic trip filled with fantastical characters, inspired visual metaphors and deep conversations about matters of emotional, spiritual, and existential significance. Its general structure is perfectly summarised in its first episode, where Clancy (Trussell) and the president of the United States (Dr. Drew Pinsky) discuss drugs amongst the aforementioned zombies. Their conversation is open and honest, addressing both the dangers of recreational drugs and just how great a good trip can feel. The conversation is nuanced without being overly technical and, most remarkably, there is no sense of ill will between the speakers. Even when they vehemently disagree, it is still abundantly clear that their conversation is not a debate, but a relaxed discussion. There are no pre-prepared points, no epic takedowns, not even a harsh word or a heated moment. It is a refreshingly calm chat about an extremely polarising subject, one filled with compassion and thought.
With this conversation as its backdrop, Pen Ward gets to work. Thanks to him, we are able to watch a small, round-headed man with glasses discuss hallucinogens while shooting zombies dead. His animation is also responsible for breaking up the dialogue and keeping things interesting using lighthearted visual gags which, more often than not, poke fun at zombie movie tropes.
It is at the end of the episode, however, when it becomes clear that Ward’s silly antics were more than just random cartoons thrown together to keep an audience entertained. After the president is bitten, he, Clancy, and a woman they met along the way become zombies... and it’s wonderful. The show reveals that, all along, zombies have been happy. They have cheated death and live together in harmony, biting others so they will join them in their bliss. As they all sing, dance, and glow golden, one is hard-pressed not to think about the feelings of ecstasy Clancy described when talking about good trips. And much like a drug-induced high, these wonderful feelings don’t last. Soon after they are zombified, Clancy and friends are all unexpectedly administered a miraculous cure which reverts them back to being human... Only for the president to be killed by a zombie. For real, this time. Much like a powerful drug would. Of course, this is not a perfect metaphor (drugs don’t exactly come chasing after you with a lust for blood), but it conveys the main point of contention present in Clancy and the president’s talk: the lethality of some recreational drugs vs. the pleasure they can nonetheless bring.
These are the brilliant, complex kinds of visual metaphors that populate The Midnight Gospel. In this show, zombies are drugs, arrows are forgiveness, prisons are one’s consciousness, and so on. The visual aid provided by Ward’s work becomes more and more important as the show goes on and more abstract topics are touched on: loss, resignation, religion, death - these are the issues this show is concerned with, and Ward must animate all of these.
However, I am hesitant to tell you any more about what it all looks like. The Midnight Gospel is one of those shows that is best experienced if you go into it with an open mind and ready to listen. So, instead, I will say this: When I first came across the trailer for this show, I thought it was going to be a Rick and Morty-like experience. "Just another endlessly powerful man travelling the universe and coming to the conclusion that everything is fake and nothing really matters,” I thought. And the thing is... I was right. The Midnight Gospel is exactly that show. Except for the fact that, where Rick confronts his reality with nihilistic cynicism, Clancy reacts to it with acceptance, compassion, and love.
Don’t get me wrong though, it is not a perfect show. Some of the speakers Clancy engages with may annoy you, or you might find them confusing. Others, like Dr. Drew himself, are polarising figures outside the show. Personally, I am not a particularly spiritual person, so it was often hard for me to connect with the show’s deep concern with meditation and everything mystical. But even taking all of this into account, you will be hard-pressed not to get something out of a show as human and understanding as this one. The Midnight Gospel is dazzling. It is comforting. And, sometimes, it is wise. So, I say go watch it.
Ainhoa Santos Goikoetxea (pronounced "I-know-ah") is a culturally confused third-year English student from the Basque Country, Spain. She is passionate about film, music and politics, and she should probably know more than she does about all three.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England. Follow Slow Motion Panic Masters on instagram, like us on facebook and subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a new post is published on the site.