Premise: Clancy, a spacecaster with a malfunctioning multiverse simulator who leaves the comfort of his home to interview beings living in dying worlds.
It’s hard to imagine what TV’s cartoon landscape (outside of Fox’s primetime lineup) would look like today without Cartoon Network’s already-classic Adventure Time. The show may not have been the first cartoon aimed at children that adults could appreciate, but was one of the longest-running and most unique offerings, thanks in no small part to the vision of its creator, Pendleton Ward. Ward left the critically acclaimed show after the fifth season and has now returned on Netflix with The Midnight Gospel, a nuttier, decidedly more adult-friendly version of what he started at Adventure Time. While the two shows share nothing in common beyond a colorful aesthetic, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider them in the same universe, so to speak.
Ward has teamed up with comedian and podcaster Duncan Trussell – who also voices protagonist Clancy Gilroy – to co-create Midnight Gospel, which takes its name after Clancy’s “spacecast”, in which he interviews various subjects through his universe simulator. His only friend is his home computer, which cordially calls him “master”, and he ignores calls from his sister, who he’s deeply indebted to. Yes, the simulator – which Clancy has to stick his head in – looks like a vagina. No, I’m not entirely clear why. Yes, it is a hilarious visual.
One of the strengths of Adventure Time was the seemingly endless possibilities of new and interesting worlds to explore with each episode. Here, Ward and Trussell have cranked that up to the nth degree. Each interview segment consists of already-existing audio from Trussell’s podcast, The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, while Clancy and his subject nonchalantly embark on various voyages of insanity. The result is simultaneously high- and low-concept: each episode unfolds like a Rube Goldberg machine of silliness. One episode begins with a fish in a bowl, on top of a human body, captaining a ship full of cats, and ends with two giants fighting over failed marriages and strip clubs while the world around them burns. Sometimes the subject matter of the discussion matches the chaos around them, and sometimes it doesn’t, but the end result is nearly always delightfully silly. Ward brings his penchant for low-brow humor whenever he can, and it’s only part of what makes the show such a delight: quick little details like interrupting an in-depth conversation about meditation and mindfulness because a character is too small to fit in a hot air balloon as they escape a horde of zombies really helps to make Midnight Gospel not only insightful but hilarious.
Though the interviews take up a majority of each episode’s runtime, the outlying plot helps to underline Clancy’s task at hand. That’s not to say that it’s essential to follow every minute detail of Clancy’s backstory; Midnight Gospel is just as fun as a sensory experience. But viewers that are looking for more than just background noise are in for a treat as well. While it would have been easy to simply copy and paste the podcast audio into any random animation project and turn in an Adult Swim-type series, Trussell’s philosophical subject matter can be seen as Clancy’s ersatz therapy sessions, as he tries to understand the bizarre universe that surrounds him. It helps that Trussell is a gifted interviewer, as his discussions frequently revolve around heavy topics like rebirth and belief in higher powers. In the series’ most poignant episode, Duncan interviews his mother, when he talks in detail about her experience giving birth to him, and all the uncertainties of being a new parent.
Shows like Drunk History or Crank Yankers may have beaten Midnight Gospel to the punch with the “pre-existing audio as background to bonkers action” gimmick, but Midnight Gospel has them beat in its sheer inventiveness. Ward and Trussell turn out to be a perfect fit for each other, and this format serves them both exceptionally well. The animation style – almost like a stop-motion 2D animation – recalls the candy-coated look and feel of Adventure Time, along with the uniquely realized character designs, conversation style, and non-sequiturs, while Trussell gives the show its heart. Though Clancy’s backstory is given the short end of the stick – save for one episode late in the season – Trussell makes the character empathetic enough to make you want to see more. Clancy is more than a sad sack twenty something with no plans for the future. Though his spacecast only has an audience of two, he spends an entire episode devoted to finding ice cream for a new follower, for no other reason than to say thank you – while discussing magic and the path to enlightenment, of course.
Will more episodes of Midnight Gospel come in the forthcoming years? Trussell surely has a backlog of audio at his disposal, and we Americans demand that our TV series are everlasting, but an argument could be made to cap the series after the first season. Yes, this is a Netflix show, but Ward and Trussell have bucked the trend of making each episode binge-able in that the next episode doesn’t immediately pick up where the last ends. It can’t be overstated how such a small decision can make individual episodes stand out. Will I watch more seasons as they’re eventually made? Of course, but Ward and his creative team have distilled their vision so perfectly that you’d hate to see them lose that creative spark over time. Not to mention each of the eight episodes is so endlessly rewatchable; you may need a second viewing to wrap your head around the heady dialogue, or just to catch all the rich sight gags. But at the end of the day, Midnight Gospel is zen as fuck.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.