When viewers scroll through Netflix’s ever-growing menu of new and original content, “The Midnight Gospel,” with its vibrant colors and trippy animation, demands attention. The show explores a stunning and psychedelic universe — drawing on creator Pendleton Ward’s experience with “Adventure Time” — through the eyes of earnest and inquisitive “spacecaster” (read: interstellar podcaster) Clancy. Each episode, Clancy, with the help of an illicit multiverse simulator, travels to a unique world on the brink of collapse, interviewing an inhabitant as they traverse the apocalypse and explore thought-provoking new ways to understand the big questions of life, from forgiveness, to death, to drug use, and even life imprisonment.
While the show’s use of the infinite multiverse trope might be reminiscent of “Rick and Morty,” the ethos of the two shows couldn’t be more different. To cope with traumas from their pasts, Rick becomes embittered and nihilistic to a fault, while Clancy searches far and wide for ways to find meaning and purpose in a life marred by loss. In this way, “The Midnight Gospel” is both brutally honest and inspiringly optimistic, addressing the reality of death head on, but using it to emphasize — rather than to diminish — the significance of life and of existence. What’s especially unique about the way “The Midnight Gospel” conveys this is that the audio from Clancy’s spacecast interviews is actually repurposed from “Duncan Trussell Family Hour,” creator Duncan Trussell’s real-life podcast. So, while the wild and imaginative plots make the show entertaining, it remains grounded in real, authentic advice.
This juxtaposition of vibrant, chaotic apocalyptic imagery with calm, conversational dialogue proves to be the most striking aspect of the show. Initially, that dichotomy builds a feeling of disjointedness. For example, the first episode sees Clancy discuss drug use with the president of an Earth-like world while joining him to fend off an increasingly dangerous and absurd zombie apocalypse. In the second, Clancy takes on themes of mortality with a hippopotamus while the two are fed through a slaughterhouse assembly line. With all this going on, the viewer is sometimes drawn more to the imagery, losing track of the conversation, or vice versa — enthralled in the dialogue and missing important symbols in the animation. However, this show is one that merits rewatching, and the more close attention you give it, the more you can pick up on the subtle and powerful resonances between the imagery and the conversations that ultimately make each episode impressively profound.
These resonances are most pronounced in the show’s heartbreaking final episode “Mouse of Silver,” in which Clancy interviews his own mother on accepting a stage four cancer diagnosis. The animation shows Clancy and his mother rapidly aging, being reborn, and dissolving into cosmic energy — imagery inspired by Buddhist notions of samsara and the cyclical birth and death of both the universe and the soul. That juxtaposition complements and enriches their conversation on using mindfulness meditation to accept the reality of death. We not only learn the basics of a Buddhist practice that can help us to cope with grief, but also gain a deeper understanding of how Buddhists make sense of the universe as a whole.
This is the magic of “The Midnight Gospel”: The show not only teaches viewers about powerful life philosophies like a great podcast might, but also uses plot, characters, and animations to explore what those ideas look like in practice. It’s invented an entirely new medium, which — given the saturation of the media landscape today — is groundbreaking and worthy of highest praise. Albeit complex at times, the show will make you think and wonder in a way you hadn’t remembered you still could, and by the end, it’ll leave you at once enlightened and in tears. By any one of its many dimensions or all, it’s certainly worth the watch.