The Midnight Gospel is simultaneously a makeup of familiar things I really enjoy, as well as some things I’ve never seen before. The combination of philosophy and animation that The Midnight Gospel aspires to be is a single idea, one that is a feast for the eyes as well as fuel for the mind, but despite the show truly excelling on both these fronts, there are times that it struggles to find a perfect synergy of these mediums. This could be because of the show’s two creators, both considered powerhouses of their respective art forms: Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward.
Duncan Trussell is a comedian, primarily known for his podcast, the Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Here listeners take part in a one to two hour philosophical tangent that covers all things that both haunt and percolate the mind. Duncan Trussell has proven to be a master interviewer, pulling deep thoughtful truths from both fellow comedians, as well as authors on death, meditation and the general status of the human condition. Trussell masterfully crafts an audio medium containing a unique cosmic texture as he includes “skits.” These are parodies of advertisements that sound like they’re being beamed from another dimension, or sometimes during interviews the sound will glitch and reverberate, jarring the listener in a way that is entirely by design. The podcast may exist within the constraints of time, but on occasion it also divorces itself from this construct. In the mind's eye, Trussell’s sound booth or interview room may seem like it exists on an asteroid gently moving its way across the celestial cosmos. He’s also super funny and that’s always a good chaser for conversations orbiting the fleetingly serious.
Pendleton Ward is probably one of the greatest animators of our age. Ward’s name is attached to many beloved animated series: The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Uncle Grandpa, and Bee and PuppyCat. He is also the creator of one of the most popular zeitgeists of both children’s and adult programming: Adventure Time. Ward’s mind seems to be a place of whimsy and magic, but this may be a coverup for the existential dread that kicks up beneath. Ward’s Adventure Time has been heralded for its ability to be both a fun journey through the candy kingdom, while also tackling adult subject matter that is accessible for children. Ward is a master of subtext, a wizard, sewing the threads of the questions that keep us up at night into a quilt of fun animated romps.
It comes as little surprise that Ward himself was a fan of Trussell’s podcast; they had more than a few psychedelic thoughts in common. The two had discussed making a show together back in 2013, but both parties claimed to be too busy to embark on this new journey. It wasn’t until years later, when Ward animated a segment from one of Trussell’s podcasts that this idea would take shape. From this marriage - an interview discussing the ethical debate of drug use over wild and violent animation - The Midnight Gospel was born.
The Midnight Gospel feels at times more like an artistic experiment, than it does a show that is concerned with narrative or plot. We follow Clancy (voiced by Trussell himself), a space caster (a podcaster but in space!) who goes to various dying worlds to find interviews for his space cast (a podcast but in space!). Through these journeys, Clancy assumes a simulated form and discusses, simply put, death, with his interviewees. Though putting it simply does these conversations an injustice, these discussions don’t always revolve around where you go when the lights go off, but instead tackle that greater experience that precludes and extends beyond where you go when the lights go off.
These conversations with the colorful denizens of various worlds are clips pulled from Trussell’s podcast, but edited and manipulated in the context of the show. Interviewees refer to Duncan’s character as Clancy, except for the times when they forget to be in character, which the show uses as an opportunity to break the fourth wall. Between the show and the podcast, Trussell’s own self seems to be static, without a concrete home; he has become a character of the air waves, which seems by design. These interviews are soothing as well as deeply unsettling, as staring into the void can most assuredly be. The animation that intertwines with these interviews is equally excellent. The animation is never too on the nose in how it relates to the interviews. It is incredibly abstract, but not without characters and plot; your mind might just have to do more legwork to fuse the two together. I promise you, the links between the two are there.
My only criticism of the show is that there are times (more so in the beginning of the season) that the animation and the interviews do not have as much synergy as I would’ve liked. As an avid podcast listener, as well as podcaster, (hey, check out Story Screen Presents, ya dingus) as well as a lover of most things animated, (read, like, anything I’ve ever written, ya dingus) this show is in a lot of ways very up my alley. However, I was so invested in the listening aspect of the show at times, that I couldn’t focus on the animation, and vice versa. There were times that the show felt like it was competing for my own attention. Though later in the season, this feels like less of an issue as the two halves of the series start to better blend together. Could this mean that I started to become more literate in the show's language? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s the type of show that needs to be viewed more than once; that’s entirely possible too.
As The Midnight Gospel continues through its first season, we get to learn more about Clancy as a character, gleaning nuggets of his past, present and future. We also begin to learn more about the insane multiverse that the series takes place in. I wish that we got a bit more of this story, but much like how Adventure Time handles its very serious post-apocalyptic narrative under a candy coated surface, I believe The Midnight Gospel will tackle these subjects (and more) in future seasons….that is…if there are any.
The Midnight Gospel feels like an experiment, one where the scientists who created it are very much present in every second of the show. It took awhile for the meta-context of how the show exists - this brainchild of two awesome dudes - to take a backseat and allow me to start living in its fiction, but once I got there it was one of the best visual/audio experiences I’ve ever had. I hope we get more of The Midnight Gospel, but I have my doubts; Trussell and Ward are two aloof creators. Ward was pretty much retired until this concept came around and I wonder if he’ll stay out of retirement for it.
If there were to be no more seasons of The Midnight Gospel, that would honestly fit within the show’s many themes. The things you love are fleeting; life itself is fleeting. How we choose to live it and understand our place in it helps enrich our journey. Finding our peace in the present, feeling our extremities, and living in the now, unshackles us from our constructs of time and space. Death is a stop on the journey, but we don’t live in a world where it doesn’t exist; you must face it. We may have to face the fact that we only get eight episodes of this show, but it’s never going anywhere, and I have serious doubts anyone “gets it” on the very first watch, even if you’re watching with your third eye open.
Co-Head of Podcasting
Robert has a degree in Screenwriting and Playwriting and works in multiple genres. He's just your typical man-child who enjoys most things nerd culture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RoBaeBae