People who connected with Pendleton Ward’s animated saga Adventure Time because of the plot-driven adventure and deep lore might not sync up with his new Netflix show The Midnight Gospel in the same way. But Adventure Time also spoke to people who wanted to sit quietly with some deep thoughts and watch a gorgeously rendered, possibly terrifyingly wacky animated word. And for that segment of its audience, The Midnight Gospel is the perfect evolution of the beloved Cartoon Network series.
A collaboration between Ward and podcaster Duncan Trussell of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, The Midnight Gospel succeeds by subverting expectations of what one might expect from adult Adventure Time — and then subverting them again for one last emotional punch. This surprisingly emotional thread combined with stunning (and sometimes disgusting) visuals, makes The Midnight Gospel transcendent.
[Ed. note: This review contains minor spoilers for The Midnight Gospel.]
Each episode of The Midnight Gospel follows a similar setup. Spacecaster (think podcaster, but in space) Clancy (voiced by Trussell) uses a simulator to project himself into a new universe. He finds a random being and interviews it. The interviews themselves are partially lifted from Trussell’s podcast, though with the exception of the final episode, newly recorded dialogue cohesively bridges each episode’s narrative. The animated visuals in these fantastical worlds somewhat loosely corresponds to the interviews. A conversation with novelist Anne Lamott about accepting death, for instance, turns Lamott into a deer-like dog creature headed for the slaughterhouse, in a world full of clowns. While she and Clancy calmly talk about the importance of talking about death, their onscreen avatars spend half the episode as globs of meat churning through an elaborate sewer system.
Each universe has a completely different set of logic, new beings, and gorgeous landscapes, giving Ward and his team a chance to flex their world-building skills. A long talk with mystic (and former death-row inmate) Damien Echols brings Clancy to an ocean world where fish wear human suits and walk up and down M.C. Escher-like stairs, commanding ships full of cats. Encountering mortician Caitlin Doughty, who takes the persona of Death, sends Clancy to a realm full of vaguely horny tarot motifs. It’s all fantastical and surreal, swathed in a vibrant color palette — but it isn’t strictly beautiful.
The series is gratuitously gory. While some of the gruesome deaths, like that slaughterhouse episode, illustrate the concepts being discussed, others feel like they happen just for a shock factor. It’s a bit off-putting, at least for those who might not expect such visceral violence in a neon-swathed fantasy talk-show.
The brilliance of The Midnight Gospel isn’t just the surreal animation, though. It’s the ways it repeatedly dismantles any assumptions about what the series might feature. The trailers for the show don’t reveal that instead of a universe-hopping plot-drive adventure, it’s more of a Dr. Katz-like experience, with deep conversations modified from existing source material. There is no greater explanation of just how Clancy’s simulator works, where he lives, or what his own universe is like. Everything fantastical about the show visually augments the existing podcast conversations, rather than revealing deeper lore or character arcs.
Or so it seems. In the first batch of episodes, there appears to be no greater narrative than Clancy hopping around and visiting different worlds for profound conversations about drugs, magic, spirituality, and death. But little snippets of Clancy’s conversations with his simulator, with his unseen sister, and with himself reveal that these adventures are his way of avoiding his own problems. The line between Clancy and Trussell begins to blur in the sixth episode. By the end of the season, it’s evident that the narrative order and framing of the podcast episodes is building up to the heart-wrenching finale, where the divide between Clancy and Trussell vanishes almost entirely.
Adventure Time fans expecting The Midnight Gospel to be a similar fantasy, retooled for a more adult bent, may be disappointed. But it’s a rewarding series for anyone who can settle into the rambling back-and-forth conversations, and simply enjoy the trippy aesthetic and the disarming emotional punch at the end. The series’ beginning creates a false sense of security, while the last three episodes build off that foundation and and create an evocative character journey. Looking back, it’s clear that the seemingly unrelated podcast snippets from the earlier episodes serve as crucial buildup to Clancy’s journey. On their own, they’re fascinating and entertaining; weaved into the full narrative, they linger in the mind in the best sort of way.
The Midnight Gospel is currently streaming on Netflix.
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