Netflix and Ruminate

‘Midnight Gospel’ Binds to All the Right Receptors

Midnight Gospel is just what the doctor ordered. And no — you don’t need to be high to enjoy it. This show is its own drug.

The adult animated genre on Netflix has been flourishing, with some of my personal favorites like Bojack Horseman, F is for Family, Big Mouth, and the cancelled-too-early Tuca and Bertie. Bojack broke new ground for the genre. It began as a satire about a washed-up reality TV star in a parallel world where humans and equally-sentient animals coexist and quickly transformed into something much more. Bojack was an unflinching look at depression, addiction, and trauma. It also playfully exposed the shallowness of Hollywood (or Hollywoo) and new age trends. While it was amazing in its own right, it definitely left something to be desired. Remember Season 3 Episode 11, when Bojack finally discovered the joy of the present moment while high at the planetarium, and the next moment discovered Sarah Lynn dead from overdose? That was pretty dark. Or the finale where Bojack almost drowned and had that whole dream with the caustic black tendrils, about the finality of death? “Scream into the void!” Literally, so abysmal.

Enter Midnight Gospel.

“Stop fighting it, face the void,” says the comforting voice of Caitlyn Doughty during the Season 1 Trailer, as a collage of little avatar faces populates the screen. There’s, like, this giant blue mushroom, clown robots — question?, and two characters with backs turned, clinking cups. At this point, you may be thinking that you’re about to binge another meaningless stoner series (albeit visually stunning). And you’d be wrong.

The protagonist is Clancy, a little pink guy with a cool pointy hat. He lives on the Chromatic Rainbow, in a trailer equipped with an old universe simulator shaped like a vagina. Aside from that, he’s a pretty relatable millennial guy. He does a “spacecast” where he interviews subjects from his simulator universes, in the hopes of someday getting rich. When he’s not interviewing, he’s usually alone throughout the day, blissfully swilling black coffee, editing his videos, and obsessing over his synthesizers. He’s stereotyped as a slacker, which is pretty accurate: despite the daily prodding, he can’t even be bothered to read the FAQs for his simulator. But it’s fair to point out that he’s a great interviewer with a lot of charisma and emotional intelligence.

We get some hints about Clancy’s anger issues, and there is an inkling that he had to leave earth and borrow money from his sister because of something bad. This flaw only makes him more interesting as a character, and certainly cooped-up youngsters these days can relate to his desire to escape from reality (if there is such a thing). I know that I often feel like I will never be a real adult, and from there it’s not far of a leap to: I don’t know what is real.

While watching, I had no idea that the show was an effort to animate podcasts from the Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Sometimes I like to fly blind. Watch now, research later. That’s the kind of thrill-seeking I’ve been engaging in these days. While some found the podcast dialogue joined with grotesque-pretty-trippy onscreen action to be disjointed and generally a turn-off, I didn’t feel that way at all. I actually enjoyed the weird plot holes and anachrosyncrisies.

I didn’t think it was too confusing when the characters called Clancy “Duncan” a few times. I thought maybe “Duncan” was his earth name. And when the badass lady-knight rode through what looked a medieval village that suffered a horrible  nuclear accident, while calmly chatting about the struggles of making friends in LA, I didn’t even bat an eye. “All part of the experience,” I thought. And it is all part of the experience. If there’s something to learn from the show, it’s this: life is chaotic, but you can ground yourself in the present moment. With each episode, you are given a chance to practice. Free mindfulness self-help! You can’t get bogged down in all the details or mourn all the simulated deaths. You can’t get lost in trying to compare what you’re seeing to things you’ve seen before (e.g., S1E3 looks like… Monument Valley meets album cover of Aeroplane over the Sea?). These are traps for the unwary. You’re better off just finishing the damn show.

In a genre crowded by other awesome adult animated serieses, Midnight Gospel is still a stand-out. It gives us something that Bojack didn’t: a weird kind of hope. Not “Disney hope,” as Clancy clarifies. But it’s not nihilism either. It doesn’t introduce concepts from different religious and mystical traditions just to bash them. It venerates the search for meaning without trying to provide answers. If nothing else, it leaves us with some thoughts. Maybe it does matter what we do. Maybe parts of our consciousness live on after we die in ways that we cannot understand. Maybe true love doesn’t die at all.