What comes out when you combine the talents of a podcasting comedian interested in the metaphysical, and the animator genius behind one of the most influential cartoon shows in the XXIst century?
The answer is… Netflix’s The Midnight Gospel.
The Midnight Gospel is the newest animated series developed by Netflix. It is the brainchild –or should I say Moonchild?– of Duncan Trussell, standup comic and host of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast, and Pendleton Ward, award-winning creator of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. In his podcast Duncan has had an impressive list of celebrities ranging from scientists, spiritual teachers, psychonauts, philosophers and ritual magicians to discuss all sorts of esoteric topics with him, in a light-hearted and approachable way. In the Midnight Gospel Duncan gives voice to Clancy, a ‘spacecaster’ who uses his malfunctioning simulator to explore all sorts of strange worlds to search for denizens of the multiverse he can interview.
Each 20 to 25-minute-long episode consists of slightly altered snippets of audio directly taken from TDTFH recordings, and mixed together with Pendleton’s stunning animation which goes above and beyond the surrealistic content that made Adventure Time such a modern cult show, adding to his fantasy recipe explicit symbolism from the Kabbalah, Tarot cards, Western hermeticism, Enochian rituals, Vedic traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, LSD trips and VALIS knows what else.
This is ‘adult entertainment’ in the truest sense of the world, meaning you don’t really get to hear a lot of ‘f-bombs’ or watch a lot of sexual references –aside from Clancy’s vagina-shaped simulator and the occasional hermaphroditic, poli-genital avatar Clancy employs whenever he visits hedonistic planets– like the ones associated to the adult entertainment genre thanks to publications like Heavy Metal (oh Druuna, I still love you). Instead the kinky fetishes are replaced by deep –with a capital ‘Dee’!– discussions about the nature of reality, spiritual practices, the search for the divine in all of us, meditation techniques, ritual magic, death, reincarnation and enlightenment to name just a few. Animation for the initiates, if you will.
The closest comparison one could make with this bold alchemical experiment is perhaps Richard Linklater’s Waking Life from 2001, which also combined the animation medium with profound philosophical discussions —Waking Life even includes the ranting of a not-so-deranged young Alex Jones. Linklater used a rotoscoping technique which went wilder and more ‘dream-like’ during some specific scenes in the movie to highlight the ideas being presented to the audience.
But in Midnight Gospel every. Single. Frame is completely wild and chock full of colorful little details; to the point that after watching the first two episodes —“Taste of the King” (guest star Dr. Drew Pinsky) and “Officers and Wolves” (guest stars Anne Lamott and Raghu Markus)– I almost feared the formula wouldn’t work because the visuals were too distracting. I mean it’s kinda hard to pay attention to a discussion about pot and opiates addiction when there’s a whole freaking zombie apocalypse unleashing in the background!
But then I realized that the problem was in my conditioning on how I tend to consume this kind of content: Like many fans of podcasts one of the things I enjoy the most is when put on my headphones and play one of my favorite shows while I perform another activity –exercising, commuting, or in my case working on an art commission. The activity has to be mechanical enough so that I can let audio accompany me while I let my body perform the given chore, yet I’m still having to pay a certain amount of attention to what I’m doing; this multi-tasking approach is a great way to make a menial task more entertaining, but the downside is I’m not 100% attentive to the podcast.
Like a fidgety pagan god, Midnight Gospel demands ALL of your attention, to both the content that’s playing on your screen as well as the information received by your ears. You have to be here now, as Ram Dass –who makes a nice little cameo at one point– used to say. Once I figured it out, I was able to fully enjoy the many worlds envisioned by Pembleton and Duncan.
All the episodes are amazing, but if I were to pick my top 3 those would be:
#3) Turtles of the Eclipse (guest star Caitlin Doughty as the Grim Reaper) which deals about the unhealthy way in which our culture faces death.
#2) Annihilation of Joy (guest star Jason Louv as a bird psychopomp) which deals with how we may need to live and die many lives until we finally figure out how to escape the prison of reality.
#1) Mouse of Silver (guest star Deneen Fendig, a.k.a. Duncan’s own mom) which deals about how hurtful it is to say goodbye to those we love the most –even though they never really leave us. This episode used a recording Duncan made when his mother was dying of cancer, which I still consider it to be one of the best fucking podcasts ever made. Once I asked my friends Darren and Graham to send some questions to Duncan when they had him on their podcast The Grimerica Show, and I felt the need to express my gratitude to him for sharing such a sweet and personal gift with the whole world, which I compared to the closest thing human beings could do to equate Jesus’s miracle of the multiplying fish and bread. Well, Mouse of Silver is as if the bread was made of rye, and had a bit of ergot fungus on top!
The Midnight Gospel is the kind of show which indicates that, despite society’s seeming downfall at the present, the paradigm is changing and WE are winning. You can now enjoy all episodes on Netflix.