Our Take: 4/5 Stars
On April 20, Netflix released “The Midnight Gospel.” The release is perfectly timed as the bizarre acid-trip animated series is somehow oddly equipped to help viewers through a traumatic and tumultuous time in the world.
Co-created by Pendleton Ward (“Adventure Time”) and comedian Duncan Trussell (“Stupidface”), the new production draws its premise from the latter’s podcast “The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.” The audio show caught the ear of Ward during his time on “Adventure Time,” prompting him to reach out and start the bold adult animation project.
Taking place in a bright, fluorescent fantasy dimension, “The Midnight Gospel” chronicles the young Clancy, voiced by Trussell, who acquires a multiverse simulator. He uses it to explore new worlds, interviewing their inhabitants and accompanying them on journeys that he publishes for his video “spacecast” show. The adventures range from zombie apocalypses to walks with the personification of death, and the conversations tackle heavy philosophical subjects, such as mortality, reality, forgiveness and enlightenment.
“Adventure Time,” for which Ward is best known, featured progressively mature storylines and plots set against a goofy, bright post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Midnight Gospel” thereby feels like a logical continuation from the popular Cartoon Network show, adding adult, grotesque, violent and crude content into the fold. If “Adventure Time” felt like a childish pothead show, then the new Netflix production is a wacko LSD trip. In a way, “The Midnight Gospel” feels like the entirely unfiltered, unrestrained imagination of Pendleton Ward without the oversight of a traditional television network.
Still, Trussell’s views are stamped all over the new worlds. His influence is especially apparent in the writing. Clancy’s interviews explore really remarkable topics. Episodes focus on discussions of magic, meditation and mental space. One of the most recurrent themes, though, is the idea of being truly present in the moment.
The combination of the neon hallucinogenic imagery and the deeply intellectual topics result in a dissonance that makes it hard to look away. It is almost remarkable that the show ever made it to the screen, let alone that it turned out so well.
The only semblance of an overarching plot that spans the series’ eight episodes remains in the background. Clancy has issues with his simulator, which he ignores until it breaks, and he clearly has maturity issues exacerbated by a complicated family life. His mother apparently passed away prior to the show’s representations, and Clancy turned to the simulator to start a new life. The audience even comes to learn that his real name is Duncan, like the show’s co-creator and lead voice actor.
For a show as thematically rich and heavy as this, “The Midnight Gospel” is tremendously funny and entertaining. The animation is otherworldly, making it enjoyable just to look at; the sequences and adventures are so goofy that it is hard not to laugh. If there is one thing that this show is not, though, is family-friendly.
Still, the animated series seems weirdly equipped to handle an audience experiencing a traumatic stretch of human history. At times, it encourages Clancy — and viewers — to look toward death, not to morbidly embrace it, but rather to learn from it. Not for the faint of heart, these considerations could be troubling for many. Yet others might find important life insights and advice through “The Midnight Gospel’s” bizarre acid-trip ruminations.
Although “The Midnight Gospel” certainly is not comfort viewing, the fluorescent philosophical journey excels at the bizarre little niche that it has carved out for itself.