Like Any Psychedelic, Netflix's New Cartoon 'The Midnight Gospel' Is Best Enjoyed in Careful Doses

Created by Pendleton Ward and Duncan Trussell
Like Any Psychedelic, Netflix's New Cartoon 'The Midnight Gospel' Is Best Enjoyed in Careful Doses
All eight episodes of The Midnight Gospel premiered on Netflix last week — on Monday, April 20, to be clear. Though this date may have been a tribute to the drug culture population which, no doubt, would be drawn to the series based on its psychedelic visuals alone, drugs actually do play a much smaller role in the content of the series. The release date may have also been a marketing hope that burnt out stoners would binge-watch the series in a couple of hours. However, as someone who gets really distracted doing anything on any kind of substance, I found The Midnight Gospel to almost be an anti-binge series in the best way possible, due to its collision of style and substance. 

Many different creatives were behind the look, feel and content of the show. The series was created by Pendleton Ward and Duncan Trussell, and is very much a collaboration between their two longest projects. Ward is best known for the series Adventure Time, a wildly creative Cartoon Network program that was intended for kids but, after its debut in 2010, quickly became a fan favourite amongst adult fans of alternative comics, animation and fandoms in general. Actor and comedian Duncan Trussell is a fixture in underground circles; I best knew him from his episode of "Drunk History," where he discussed the battle for electric currents between Nikola Tesla (John C. Riley) and Thomas Edison (Crispin Glover).

However, it's Trussell's longstanding podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, in which guests discuss spirituality and religion, that would become the second key ingredient for The Midnight Gospel. To this effect, The Midnight Gospel plays out as an animated podcast, as clips from Trussell's Family Hour are transformed into interviews for series protagonist Clancy to broadcast on his "spacecast."

Each episode follows Clancy into his simulator — a piece of sci-fi technology that allows him to enter different planets virtually in the form of a computer-generated avatar. In place of a studio environment, the spacecasts occur in beautifully animated spaces filled with movement and arcane symbolism, which evoke the feeling of Adventure Time's fictional land of "Ooo." The guests take the form of a deep sea diver with a goldfish in a bowl for a head, an armour-clad dark fantasy knight, and even death itself. The overlay of characters speaking (and not necessarily performing their lines) with such a hyper-stylized backdrop, combined with the topics of each episode, makes the series a bit overwhelming, especially to start. It can be hard to focus on both the animation and the conversation between Clancy and his guests.

As the topics of the spacecast revolve around mindfulness, attention, existentialism and philosophy, it was initially jarring to zone back into the conversation and hear them talking about the challenges of staying present in the moment. This was likely intended, and encourages multiple viewings. In place of a series to be consumed overnight, Ward and Trussell present an opportunity for reflection, letting yourself chew on the content and even returning to it later for further consideration. This is maybe the antithesis of binge culture, which urges the consumption of as much content as possible before moving onto the next.

By the middle of the series, the show really takes its stride, as the character of Clancy develops further, revealing himself to be another human struggling with his place in the universe as much as anyone else. And certainly, by the series climax (during which I cried real tears), The Midnight Gospel finds its heart and a place of its own in our current chaotic landscape.

Fans of art, animation and airbrushed gradients will be enlightened by the artistic direction of The Midnight Gospel, led by Forming cartoonist Jesse Moynihan, who worked as a storyboard artist on Adventure Time. Seeing more of Moynihan's aesthetic applied to Ward's sense of world building and character was one of the highlights of the series.

Practitioners of meditation, Eastern philosophy and spirituality will also find the series engaging, as Trussell is a welcoming host to many prolific guests in these fields. But, as with any real-life psychedelic or edible, The Midnight Gospel is an experience that's best enjoyed if you pace yourself. (Netflix)