The creator of Adventure Time returns with a trippy fantasy about life, death, and everything in between.

By Darren Franich
May 06, 2020 at 09:31 PM EDT

It's difficult to explain The Midnight Gospel, an unbelievably great animated series currently streaming on Netflix. The blown mind struggles for straightforward description. It's an action-packed cartoon about humanity's spiritual reckoning with reality, and a meditative odyssey across hallucinogenic science-fictional fantasies. There are sequences bone-dripped with hard-R freakout imagery — but the vibe is whimsical, full of freewheeling conversation. Much of the dialogue comes straight from co-creator Duncan Trussell's interview podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Those discussions have been adapted into stories with goofily apocalyptic stakes. Comparisons are fun, if shriveling. Imagine if the 2001 wormhole scene launched its own talk show. Imagine Disney and Dali composing a dreamy ode to the Shy Guys from Super Mario Bros. 2.

Is it cheating if I use some visual aids?

Credit: Netflix

Midnight Gospel fixates on Clancy, a young (?) human (?) who lives in a trailer with his "used Universe Simulator," a bio-technological god computer. Clancy is played by Trussell, whose miraculous rasp sounds untraceably like a lifelong smoker cackling and a little brother's voice cracking.

Credit: Netflix

Episodes begin with our hero (?) scrolling through the Universe Simulator's collection of planets, programmed full of individuals and interactive environments. You get the concept immediately if you play videogames, or if you've ever been cornered at a party by someone who just heard about simulation theory.

Credit: Netflix

Clancy picks a planet and selects an avatar…

Credit: Netflix

… then shoves his head into the Universe Simulator's blobulous appendage, which successfully resembles every gender's private parts.

Credit: Netflix

Inside the Universe Simulator is, well, a universe. Clancy comets past untold planets…

Credit: Netflix

… and arrives at his chosen planet, followed by a fleet of teeny heli-cameras. Clancy's mission statement: "There are beautiful, wondrous worlds inside these old simulators, full of intelligent beings with stories to tell. And I'm gonna interview them, and put my interviews online, and make a bunch of money." Clancy is an aspiring "spacecaster," see, hosting a series called The Midnight Gospel. So this is what podcasting would look like if a far-future spaceman explored the lost corners of an infinite computer.

Credit: Netflix

His interview subject could be a piano-loving mage with a fishbowl head who commands a mega-yacht with a cat crew. The real interview subject is the person voicing that episode's focal character. Example: Fishbowl Man is played by Damien Echols, a member of the wrongfully imprisoned West Memphis Three. Echols guides Trussell through his philosophy of magic, while Fishbowl Man guides Clancy through a floodworld of mystic curiosity.

Credit: Netflix

The audio and visual narratives clash and collaborate, revealing New Age-y expeditions into the human experience. Midnight Gospel believes in the pursuit of enlightenment. At the same time, Clancy's adventures offer a timely portrait of loneliness in a culture-soaked age. Clancy is sheltering in place far from anyone he knows, and burrowing deep into simulated worlds. Is he, like, a videogame addict? Worth remembering, maybe, that the popular conception of simulation theory is totally stupid, a neo-religious cheat code for dummies who need a reason to dismiss other people as faceless bots. Midnight Gospel takes simulation theory in a humane direction. Everyone Clancy interviews is real, or as real as he is. In this game, every non-playable character has a soul.

There have been attempts to animate podcasts, like The Ricky Gervais Show and Harmonquest. This is the first time I've seen the adaptation process really work. The talk taps deep topics — death and beyond, religion and sorrow — encouraging the slippery-spiky animation toward elaborate illustrations of cosmic majesty.

Midnight Gospel's other co-creator is Pendleton Ward, the genius who invented Cartoon Network's Adventure Time. That kid-friendly action-comedy-mystery-musical inaugurated a whole animated renaissance last decade. Gospel's not for kids, but it reflects the ecstatic innovations that made Adventure Time such a trip. Ward directs every episode and finds moments of religious astonishment alongside gloopy horror, all of it served with chatty humanism and palpable sweetness.

Ward's best work feels improvised and playfully meta — so the "guests" in Midnight Gospel keep accidentally calling Clancy "Duncan." You sense a simultaneous urge to push animation past ornate outer limits, every freeze frame a heavy metal album cover, every movement a complex Rube Goldberg contraption. The subject matter is spiritual, and pretty druggy. Netflix probably debuted the show on 4/20 for a reason, and I should mention the first episode features Dr. Drew Pinsky as a zombie-killing president with thoughts on psychedelics.

We live in a magic era of TV animation. I get the sense, though, that most people still view cartoons kid stuff or stoner fodder. Not being much of a kid or a stoner anymore, I was stunned how constantly Midnight Gospel got me high on childish wonder. The season ever so gradually builds up our sense of Clancy as an unreliable narrator-host, a melancholic escaping his own problems to play My Dinner With Pantheistic Andre in his own private universe. The later episodes trend more ambitious. The season finale is simply one of the most moving pieces of art I've ever seen. It guest-stars Trussell's own late mother, Deneen Fendig, whose audio was recorded years ago in her later stages of cancer.

There's some kind of religious thing happening across great TV lately. Amazon's award-winning Fleabag and Hulu's buzzy Ramy contrast young-adult hedonism with the protagonists' sincere pull toward Christianity and Islam, respectively. AMC's Lodge 49 suggested that the recession created a cataclysm in the American soul, curable only with mystical community alchemy. Showtime's Twin Peaks revival had its own Universe Simulator, conceiving an origin-story metaverse where godlings contemplate Earth on a movie screen.

Midnight Gospel is heavier than those shows, insofar as its whole plot is "people talking about spirituality." But it's lighter, too, in love with geeky genre thrills. Even by Netflix's throw-everything-at-the-wall standard, this is a new benchmark for utter unique eccentricity. At a moment when even the best cartoons are trending hyperkinetic, Ward and Trussell deserve credit for going in a meditative opposite direction. The result is a new kind of masterpiece: easy to like, easier to worship. Grade: A

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