by Elliot Francis-Hewett
The Midnight Gospel, brought to Netflix by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and long-time podcast host Duncan Trussell, takes a quantum leap in terms of what we have come to expect from wacky cartoons; delivering a multifaceted, emotional and introspective journey across worlds.
Cartoons have always been a space for creatives to push boundaries, to forget about the limits of the physical world and dissect human issues through, perhaps, more abstract methods. In days gone by, an on-screen basketball game where Bugs Bunny plays against Michael Jordan is all it would have taken to cause an audience to lose their breath. But as CGI improves, more traditionally drawn cartoons have had to move their goalposts (or basketball hoops) so much that now they are playing a completely different game.
Bojack Horseman is about a depressed horse from Hollywood trying to find a genuine purpose in life, while Rick and Morty jump from dimension to dimension constantly breaking the fourth wall to complement their own story arcs. What sets The Midnight Gospel apart from every other show I’ve seen is not necessarily the story it tells, but how it’s told.
The Midnight Gospel takes audio from Trussell’s podcast, Family Hour, and accompanies it with bright and trippy animated visuals for an abruptly unique experience. The medium straddling structure of the show permits its creators to tell multiple stories at once, that of Clancy (which can be seen as the visual story) and that of Duncan (the audio story). The melding of these two stories plays out a wonderful piece of autofiction, the likes of which I have never seen before.
It is the points at which they meet which make the show what it is
Clancy, like most of us, is from earth. He recently took up an acre on the rainbow ribbon as a simulation farmer; with the help of his trusty computer, he scours the simulated worlds for profitable artefacts in the form of simulated individuals he can record for episodes of his space cast. Duncan has a podcast.
Clancy attempts to survive a zombie apocalypse at the same time interviewing Glasses Man, the president of the united states, while Duncan talks about the human connection to drugs with Dr Drew. Clancy follows a fish in a bowl off a pirate ship run by cats through a glacier, while Duncan interviews writer Damien Echols about the role Magick plays in his life. Often, the visual story could not feel further from the audio, but it is the points at which they meet, the nodes in the fishing net, which make the show what it is.
Duncan’s (and by extension, Clancy’s) spirituality is a common theme of the programme. His guests frequently bring up ‘the goal’ of enlightenment – sometimes just to bash it and always to put their own take across. In the early episodes we get the sense that Clancy is just bumbling about, falling over himself into these conversations with no great purpose other than the success of his spacecast, then by the midpoint of the series everything changes.
Clancy finds himself entangled in the soul string connecting a talking soul bird to a prisoner of the simulation itself. Duncan discusses with Jason Louv (the soul bird) the philosophies of not investing too much time into the simulation of human experience and taking more time to focus on the truth that exists outside of our bodies. As that conversation unfolds in the audio story, Clancy is taken for a ride as the prisoner he is attached to ‘Groundhog Day’s’ his way out of the simulated prison.
With each death there is a disturbing yet familiar trial of the tongue-less prisoner’s soul, weighed against the feathers plucked from the soul bird so many times until he is bald and judged by giant beings with many crying eyes. The uncouth visuals and genuine conversation move around each other, swapping to be foreground then background, and sometimes both at the same time.
At the end of the episode, the prisoner escapes and Clancy is left hanging in a virtual nothing as the simulation disintegrates around him; it is here we first get the idea that the spiritual journeys of Clancy and Duncan are one and the same, and enlightenment is their goal.
Silence, Stillness and Spaciousness
The following episode is heavy on the visual story. We see the consequences of Clancy’s obsession with the simulation coupled with his lack of care for its upkeep; Clancy’s neglect causes all of the inhabitants of the simulated worlds to die and Clancy can no longer harvest his spacecast. Once his computer is repaired, the computer suggests that Clancy talk to a friend so that he might achieve enlightenment.
Here, Duncan meets David Nichtern, and Clancy meets David. In an attempt to guide Clancy to enlightenment David teaches him about silence, stillness and spaciousness. Then, in a moment of genuine laughter between Clancy and David, the visual story glitches out and, instead, for a brief moment we see Duncan and David in the studio recording the podcast. We are not left to our own devices to perhaps imagine that Clancy’s character and problems might be based onoff a real person, we are told explicitly: Clancy and Duncan are one person.
Episode 7 confronts Clancy with a literal personification of death while he tries to go down a water slide, and Duncan talks to mortician Caitlin Doughty about – you guessed it – death. Almost unnoticeably, this episode takes advantage of another one of The Midnight Gospel’s unique feature sets: the episodic nature of Duncan’s podcast versus the serialised nature of The Midnight Gospel itself.
In passing, Clancy (and Duncan) mentions to Death (and Caitlin), that both of his parents have passed away and discusses what his relationship with death was like then. In the next episode, the viewer is rewarded in a way that would not have been possible if it weren’t for the show’s unprecedented format.
The Gift of The Midnight Gospel
Episode 8, as Clancy’s head is in the yonic simulator, there is a knock at the door. Clancy walks over to answer it. Clancy’s mum is at the door and Clancy is a baby. The audio story is an excerpt from an episode of Family Hour with Duncan’s mother before she passed away. The visual story is of Clancy and his mum walking through different stages of life until they each die and are in turn reborn of the other.
The fabrication of the episode itself gives new life to Deneen Fendig’s words as we see Clancy go through labour, raise his mother and give her juice boxes as a toddler. Tied for the best episode of TV I’ve watched this year.
Throughout the series we hear Clancy talk confidently about his meditation practices and in the final episode we hear Deneen Fendig teach Duncan his first steps towards mindfulness;, we hear Deneen tell of ways of thinking that we saw pertinent to Clancy’s character earlier on. Deneen’s philosophy (which she expresses so fully and gently) of living life in the face of death is a prevalent philosophy of the show, mentioned by Dr Drew, Deer Dog and Trudy the Love Barbarian to name a few.
With the introduction of that philosophy we see Clancy’s emotional journey across the series end, just as Duncan begins to confront the idea of life without his mother. In linear storytelling it’s setup/payoff, setup/payoff until the end; the real gift of The Midnight Gospel is that we get both at the same time.
We get to see Clancy grow as a person as he learns from people across the simulated galaxy, and simultaneously, we get to see what sets Duncan on the paths we meet him on at the beginning. Those tiny moments we have in our lives that are so often forgotten or missed, when someone close to us teaches us something that will stay with us forever, are scattered throughout by The Midnight Gospel, celebrating its climax with a slam dunk.