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Midnight Gospel, The [Season 1] (2020)

When someone is best known for a specific successful piece of work, it's inevitable their future work will be measured by their previous creations. So it is that the Netflix series The Midnight Gospel is doomed to be forever compared to co-creator Pendelton Ward's big hit Adventure Time. Due to a similar oddball spirit, the comparison may seem to be fair at least initially. But dig in and you'll find that Ward's first adult series is a very different beast, and it deserves to be assessed on its own merits.

The Midnight Gospel is created by Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell and was released on Netflix on April 20, 2020. Both creators also wrote the show, alongside Mike L Mayfield. Pendelton Ward directed all eight episodes of the first season, with Mayfield as supervising director. Titmouse Cartoons produced the animation.

For all the talk of how weird Adventure Time was, it was fairly conventional in terms of storytelling. At the very least, it had a story. The Midnight Gospel, on the other hand, could never be accused of being conventional. Its set-up and structure are anything but.

The series introduces us to Clancy, a pink-skinned slacker (voiced by Trussell himself) who lives in a trailer somewhere in space. By means of a Universe Simulator, he travels to various different worlds and alternate realities. There he meets eccentric characters and interviews them for his 'spacecast'. These interviews make up the bulk of each episode.

These interviews take their audio from real interviews conducted by Trussell for his podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour. He interviews them on their philosophies and outlooks, with topics including drugs, death, meditation and magic. Extra dialogue was then recorded to put the extracts in context or to react to the animation. It didn't stop them leaving in several incidents of the interviewee calling Clancy 'Duncan' though.

Hearing that it takes the form of interviews, you may be imagining two characters sitting at a desk, or something like HBO's The Ricky Gervais Show,  where animated cut-aways are used to illustrate what is being talked about. The Midnight Gospel is way more visually entertaining than that.

The interviews take place on the move, while events (and often chaos) unfold around them. In the debut episode, Clancy chats to a tiny president on a world experiencing a zombie apocalypse. In another, he converses with a warrior woman on a fantasy D&D-esque world. In another, his interviewee is a fish in a bowl attached to a robot body, who captains a ship manned by sailor cats. These are some pretty out-there scenarios- and it should be noted that these scenarios have absolutely nothing to do with the interviews themselves. The strangeness of the setting contrasted with the low-key, relaxed nature of the attached conversations can create a disconnect, or be central to the show's appeal, sort of like a sci-fi spin on Creature Comforts.

But it's definitely the visuals that are the star here. Titmouse's animation is pretty incredible- full of visual invention and surreal creations. There's a freewheeling imagination here that is more typically seen in shortform or experimental work and is rarely seen in mainstream animation. Conventions are thrown out the window, and concerns like remaining on-model or the need for making any kind of sense are ignored in favour of creating something unique. It's used to build worlds which are teeming with life- full of the strange, the grotesque and the indescribable. Sure, there's more than a hint of Adventure Time to some of the character designs, but its overall aesthetic is more like if Rick and Morty was remade by Masaaki Yuasa.

The adult audience allows the animators and writers' minds to go to some darker and more disturbing places that would give Cartoon Network's standards and practices department palpitations. So the imagery can sometimes include violence and sexually suggestive stuff- the design of the interface for the Simulator being one of the more obvious.

The description 'trippy' has been used a lot to describe the show, and it is easy to see why. But to suggest its drug-induced is to do a great disservice to the imagination of the animators, designers and writers who have created such mind-boggling worlds.

Yet the interviews themselves are an area where audiences are likely to be split. Not everybody is a podcast person. And even those who are may simply not find the conversations that engaging. If you're not into listening to people you don't know talking about philosophies and meditation, then the appeal is limited. Despite the fact that Trussell is a comedian, the conversations themselves are not going for laughs.

It's a novel approach and in a world where 90% of adult animation series seems to be family sitcoms, it feels churlish to complain. But the fact is, that I just wasn't a fan of the interviews and I struggled to connect to the show as a result. Your mileage may vary, and of course, if the interviews are your sort of thing then the series will be that much more enjoyable. There are some vague overtures to actual plot surrounding Clancy and his "real" life but it's obvious this isn't a series overly concerned with plotting.

On the odd occasion that the series allows itself to explore Clancy's world (including one episode that takes place almost entirely outside the simulator), it's a colourful and original one. It's easy to feel Ward's influence more strongly here than at other parts of the show.

Some episodes are better than others, but the eighth and final episode is definitely the show's strongest. The interview subject is Trussell's real-life late mother. There's a warmth and relatability here not seen in the series before as Clancy journeys through the cycle of birth, life and death. The episode is beautiful, heart-warming and surprisingly emotional, with the animation and audio working together in harmony more effectively in the other episodes. Midnight Gospel is the last show you would ever expect to bring a tear to your eye- but it's full of surprises. It also works as a perfect ending to the series should this turn out to be a single season show.

Ultimately, Midnight Gospel is a curious beast. It's definitely not going to satisfy fans of Adventure Time hoping for more of the same, but for the more adventurous viewer it offers something entirely new. One thing's for sure- you haven't seen anything else quite like this.


IN A NUTSHELL: It won't be to everybody's taste, but Midnight Gospel is a genuine original and a visual tour-de-force.