‘The Midnight Gospel’ is weird, unique and sincere

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 - 6:56pm

NOSELL

Gage Skidmore

If you’ve spent any substantial amount of time worrying about lofty questions like the meaning of life, humanity’s purpose, or anything else you’d hesitate to bring up on a first date, then go watch “The Midnight Gospel” right now. This show is so weird and interesting that I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of the experience of going into it blind. Just prepare some snacks, block out three hours, load up on your illicit substance of choice and enjoy the ride.

For the more skeptical, “The Midnight Gospel” is an animated TV show created by Duncan Trussell and “Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward. It’s set in a strange dimension called “The Chromatic Ribbon” and follows Clancy (Duncan Trussell), as he uses his universe simulator to travel to other worlds and interview a new guest for his spacecast (space podcast) each episode. Most of the interview dialogue is pulled from Trussell’s actual podcast, “The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.” This means that the show is essentially Trussell as Clancy interviewing a real podcast guest as a made up podcast guest, but neither Trussell nor his real guest know that they’ll be portraying characters at the time of recording. This puts the creators in an odd position: it’s almost like they’re making a found footage film. Having watched the show without knowing it was based on a podcast, the dialogue is integrated into the story well enough that I never felt anything off about it.

Each episode wastes no time tackling all sorts of profound existential questions. The conversations happen while the guest is absent-mindedly completing some bizarre, action-packed task. The first episode begins with Clancy traveling to a version of Earth in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. His consciousness is shot into space, landing on Earth in front of the White House, where a group of protesters are advocating for legalized marijuana as everything around them deteriorates into a warzone. He happens to land directly on the president (Dr. Drew Pinskey, “Loveline”) of this version of the United States, who agrees to be interviewed for the spacecast. They quickly get into an insightful conversation about the benefits and dangers of marijuana and other drugs, touching on mental health, addiction and philosophy. This, again, all happens under imminent threat of an apocalypse. The President will, for example, be making a nuanced point about the medicinal properties of marijuana while nonchalantly shooting at zombies from the roof of the White House. Every episode is structured similarly, each ending with the world Clancy visits being destroyed as he safely returns home.

The show centers itself around this irony—the tension between abstract philosophizing and real action in a world that’s fallen into chaos. It manifests itself not only in the worlds Clancy visits, but also his own life. As the show progresses, we start to see Clancy’s tendency towards escapism. He devotes all his attention to his spacecast while ignoring pressing issues in his own life. He’ll routinely discuss with guests the importance of kindness, forgiveness, and living in the moment, while completely disregarding these principles when he’s back home. The juxtaposition between the casual conversations and the chaotic environments in which they take place mirrors Clancy’s own inner conflict and we see this play out in increasingly outlandish ways. “The Midnight Gospel” is full of irony, but never mocks the ironic situation in the way a show like “South Park” might. Instead it attempts to earnestly reconcile the contradiction in a way that’s funny and sincere. 

The art style of “The Midnight Gospel” takes cues from Ward’s “Adventure Time.” Each object in a given scene looks a bit otherworldly. Whether it’s a fish with a human face, a dog-hippo hybrid, or a cult-like crew of feline servants, strange images saturate every scene, forming a captivating and disorienting composite. Meanwhile, Clancy and his guest take part in a conversation that seems at first profound, but pales in comparison to the wondrousness going on around them. This setup invites viewers to pay attention to the wonder they might be ignoring in their own lives while reinforcing the ironic tension of the story. 

To some, “The Midnight Gospel” may come off as a kind of pretentious pseudo-intellectualism and it would be hard to blame anyone for having this impression. Conversations like those in the show inevitably rely on empty platitudes like “mindfulness” and “spirituality,” conjuring images of gimmicky, commercialized practices. Nothing with the sheer significance these terms seem to imply exists in the broader culture. In other words, unless you’re part of an organized religion, there is no place for the sacred in our day-to-day lives, so people cling to philosophical pontification because the need for a connection to a higher value — a connection to something bigger than oneself — is neglected by a culture in which the worst possible sin is to care too much. To be entirely committed to a feeling that rises from deep within the soul, unmediated by ironic detachment, is invariably met with ridicule. Like Clancy, we abstract powerful experience to the realm of philosophy such that discussion about experience replaces experience itself. So instead we start podcasts and go on and on about ethics and compassion and the meaning of life, only to be filled with rage just thirty minutes later because someone cut us off in traffic. That’s what “The Midnight Gospel” gets at. It’s a show that asks, “here are all the answers we have to life, the universe, and everything, now what are you going to do?” and never lets you off the hook for addressing it.

The art style of “The Midnight Gospel” takes cues from Ward’s “Adventure Time.” Each object in a given scene looks a bit otherworldly. Whether it’s a fish with a human face, a dog-hippo hybrid, or a cult-like crew of feline servants, strange images saturate every scene, forming a captivating and disorienting composite. Meanwhile, Clancy and his guest take part in a conversation that seems at first profound, but pales in comparison to the wondrousness going on around them. This setup invites viewers to pay attention to the wonder they might be ignoring in their own lives while reinforcing the ironic tension of the story. 

To some, “The Midnight Gospel” may come off as a kind of pretentious pseudo-intellectualism and it would be hard to blame anyone for having this impression. Conversations like those in the show inevitably rely on empty platitudes like “mindfulness” and “spirituality,” conjuring images of gimmicky, commercialized practices. Nothing with the sheer significance these terms seem to imply exists in the broader culture. In other words, unless you’re part of an organized religion, there is no place for the sacred in our day-to-day lives, so people cling to philosophical pontification because the need for a connection to a higher value — a connection to something bigger than oneself — is neglected by a culture in which the worst possible sin is to care too much. To be entirely committed to a feeling that rises from deep within the soul, unmediated by ironic detachment, is invariably met with ridicule. Like Clancy, we abstract powerful experience to the realm of philosophy such that discussion about experience replaces experience itself. So instead we start podcasts and go on and on about ethics and compassion and the meaning of life, only to be filled with rage just thirty minutes later because someone cut us off in traffic. That’s what “The Midnight Gospel” gets at. It’s a show that asks, “here are all the answers we have to life, the universe, and everything, now what are you going to do?” and never lets you off the hook for addressing it.