Netflix Now: The Midnight Gospel - Season One (2020) - Reviewed

When I first heard that Pendleton Ward was releasing a new show, I was ecstatic. Ward is best known for creating the classic cartoon Adventure Time (2010-18), which follows the adventures of Finn the human and his magical dog Jake. This cartoon is special to many, including myself, for the unique atmosphere the show creates. In the show, characters’ lives are set against thousands of years of history, civilizations rising and falling, and evil magic attempting to wipe out all life. The most successful episodes of this series feature the characters engaging in life’s smaller moments or pursuing goals of no import to anyone but themselves. This is a show that understands existential dread: that although in a thousand years our actions will be forgotten and lost, while we are alive they are important to us as individuals.

The Midnight Gospel combines these elements of Ward’s world building with podcast conversations about spirituality and wellness. The show features a human named Clancy, who moves to “The Chromatic Ribbon,” a floating mobius strip of farmland out in space. He hosts a “spacecast” where he uses a broken dimension simulator to travel to different planets immediately before an apocalyptic event wipes out all life. He meets someone new on each world, and has a conversation on topics ranging from meditation, to taking massive quantities of DMT, to coping with death. The conversations are taken directly from a separate salon style podcast called The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. (Trussell is a co-creator and producer on the show). The conversation meanders while the characters move through their own doomed world, trying to escape or save it.

The animation is surreal, and often bizarre, carrying some element of the conversation through it. In one episode, Clancy travels to The Exoteric Trap, a prison for simulated beings who are unable to cope with the mental strain caused by travelling between worlds. There he interviews a spirit guide of a prisoner who dies over and over again as he is trying to escape. Upon each death, his heart is weighed against a feather as a psychedelic collage of images flash on the screen, representing the emotional state of the prisoner at his time of death. The loop then resets, and the prisoner, Bob, can try to find freedom again. The spirit guide is the in-show embodiment of Jason Louv, a teacher of meditation and magick, a spiritual practice in which the mind is trained to manifest conditions favorable to success in any endeavor. He talks about the history of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the way that the two disciplines developed their understanding of consciousness. The conversation strays into reincarnation, and escaping our human conditions of suffering while Bob, the prisoner, struggles to find his way through the literal and metaphysical esoteric trap and escape.

There is always more going on to the animation than meets the eye. This is a show that begs to be watched several times. I’ve re-watched some of my favorite episodes, and each time I notice something new that ties into the main story in a way I hadn’t noticed before. The seemingly random nature of the show never feels out of place, or too bizarre to work. There is a tightness to these scenes that provides both an excellent way to frame these heavy questions, and also a compelling visual experience. The Midnight Gospel navigates between fast and slow moments, never once feeling boring or too drawn out.

Despite the heavy nature of the conversations, Trussell always finds a way to make questions of spirituality accessible. I feel like I understand the Buddhist and Hindu teachings both Trussell and his guests are well acquainted with when placed in these goofy animated contexts. The show can be as emotionally rich as it can be silly, a blend that helps contribute to its unique feel.

The existential tone of Adventure Time that made it so successful comes through in The Midnight Gospel in a different way. On each of the planets Clancy visits, some sort of apocalyptic event is in progress, ultimately destroying the planet as Clancy is leaving. He experiences the ending of everything his guests know and love, and they all take it in stride through their conversations about life and death. Clancy himself struggles with his own grasp of his existential nature as he works through these deep philosophical issues with others.

Ward also brings the small, personal goals front and center. Clancy is making a spacecast with a single follower. His goals and aspirations matter to nobody but himself, which is a struggle for him. The lessons Clancy learns while travelling build a larger arc for Clancy, one that I expect to be sorted out in the coming seasons. I truly cannot wait to see what will come from this show in the future.

-Patrick Bernas