REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘The Midnight Gospel’ Is a Trip Mostly Worth Taking

Rating: 3 out of 3.

‘The show seems to want us to say “Wait a minute… don’t cats normally hunt fish?”’

I’ve never been too into podcasts; there a few that I come back to, but I usually can only justify listening to them while doing something else, like the dishes, or some other household chore; this made me wonder what I could find appealing about The Midnight Gospel, which is a television show about a podcast. It uses real-life podcast interviews (from the long running ‘Duncan Trussell’s Family Hour’ podcast) as the basis for the in-universe interviews. The Midnight Gospel takes these real-life interviews, edits them down, and places them within the context of the show. So, for example, the bulk of the audio from Duncan’s  interview with author Anne Lamott is relatively unchanged; they talk about her books, her experience with death, etc. But instead of Anne the author, the show presents us with Anne the deer-dog. The bones are the conversation are the same, but the context surrounding the conversation is radically changed.

Trussell, who voices the show’s protagonist, also serves as the inspiration for the character. Many interviewees take on roles that were developed with their own interviews in mind, adding occasional lines for narrative context. In this way, each interviewee is both playing a character and themselves, creating a mish mash between fiction and reality. It raises questions of authenticity—part of the appeal of podcasting is the comparatively organic way in which the conversations grow. Editing it down into a more structured TV episode hasn’t obviously changed the tone or nature of the conversation, but knowing that they were edited, had me wondering what they had cut out. It’s a tension that’s never overwhelming but is present throughout.

The rest of the show, the plot, mostly acts as a framing device for these interviews. Here’s the story: Clancy (Trussell), a young man wearing a wizard hat, is a spacecaster (think interplanetary podcaster). He uses a multiverse simulator to meet unique, quirky, and spiritually thoughtful individuals (who are technically computer programs) that he interviews for his space-cast called The Midnight Gospel. There’re a few narrative carryovers from episode to episode, but each episode is mostly self contained. What little overarching plot that does exist is almost not worth mentioning. But it does function as a nice palate cleanser between trips, a firm reality for us to come back to after things get especially surreal. It is filled with small, usually unexplained details, like how Clancy collects shoes, or the mice that seem to build a religion around an interdimensional flower. But amount to a narrative these details do not. This leaves the bulk of each episode to really dig into whatever interview is taking place, gives us time to really sit back and listen. Strip away the show’s frequently surreal ornamentation, and you’ll see that The Midnight Gospel is really just about a kid with a podcast.

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An episode focusing on Clancy and Deneen Fendig, his late mother, is a series highlight.

Each interview tackles a variety of topics with a different, existential mindset; the topic of death gets a lot of airtime in almost every episode. Some conversations tackle this with a refreshingly grounded approach. “Turtles of the Eclipse”, for example, discusses what happens with someone’s body after they die, where “Officers and Wolves” discusses how death effects those who survive. A lot of it is good, therapeutic if you’re into that sort of thing. Unfortunately, not all episodes are as grounded and accessible as that, with a few episodes getting varying mileage depending on your own comfort level with listening to white people from L.A. talk about their experiences with Buddhism. There’re a few episodes of that type, that being random people espousing revelation after revelation. I found these episodes to be grating, not therapeutic.

Principally the issue with these episodes is that they’re esoteric and hyper-specific; they talk about magic and hermetic orders and how the key to living a whole life is to achieve ‘Star Consciousness’, which erases accessibility that makes the other episodes appealing. Explanations of these concepts are attempted, and are somewhat successful, but there remains a barrier to entry to anyone who isn’t already versed in these ideas. Of course, the show never presents itself as a ‘beginners guide to philosophy/religion, etc.’, but that doesn’t make the episodes any less grating to those of us who haven’t already bought in, on some level, to these concepts. When the show is at its best it provides thoughtfully specific meditations on life, death, and our relationship with the world around us. “Hunters Without a Home”, and “Annihilation of Joy” both stand out in that they’re not really a meditation on anything and more about these self-contained philosophical belief systems. Luckily, only these two episodes fall into this esoteric and insular trap.

If there are two episodes that suck, that leaves six that don’t. Covering a wide range of topics from drug use, death, and to relationship with his mother, these episodes provide compelling and personal perspectives that are frequently riveting to listen to. Often, the mix between podcast-recording and lines added as bridges into the narrative is so seamless that it genuinely feels like you’re just listening to a completely organic conversation. In fact, when I went into The Midnight Gospel, I was totally unaware of its franken-podcast nature. It was only a few episodes into the show that I decided that you couldn’t just write something like this, there had to be an interview element.

The visuals of The Midnight Gospel are weird—self consciously so—and often they feel like they’re trying to get the viewer to sit back and say “Woah…that’s cool”, which it only occasionally succeeds at. Take, for example, the episode that follows a goldfish pirate whose ship is crewed by cats, and who spends the first half of his episode rescuing cats. The show seems to want us to say “Wait a minute… don’t cats normally hunt fish?”. If that strikes you as being kind of sophomoric, that’s because it is. The Midnight Gospel certainly isn’t above throwing weirdness at you just because it seems cool, even if it is ocassionally bereft of meaning.

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Every episode has Clancy’s avatar change into a new comedic form. Here he is as a gentle giant amidst a zombie apocalypse.

That being said, the animations are enjoyable to watch, even if they’re sort of shallow. From the first episode, where Clancy interviews a tiny American President about drug use amidst the chaos of a zombie apocalypse, to the last, where Clancy talks and journeys with his (that is, Duncan’s) Mom through various cycles of life and death. There’s a certain irreverence to any laws of physics or reality throughout the show which often results in charming and memorable animations. Part of the fun is discovering what these animations end up being, so I won’t go into more detail here, but it’s usually about as surreal as they can get without being illegible.

Technically, the animation is well done, and usually there’s enough to look at to keep you entertained. But, frankly, I’m not sure that the visuals themselves make the show a must watch. It makes me wonder why someone who’s into these topics wouldn’t just listen to the podcast instead.

In the end, your affection for The Midnight Gospel will really depend on your affection for the interviews, as the narrative around it isn’t substantive enough to make or break the experience; if you like wide ranging, frequently tangential philosophical discussions, you’ll enjoy it. If you don’t, you probably won’t. It’s weird for a reviewer to say that, but the show doesn’t subscribe to any traditional standard of narrative payoff. It’s a full fusion of podcast and show, the rules are different.

Though my affection for each episode varied,  I never doubted that I would come back to it, because each episode really is its own entity. I do look forward to the second season, if that ever happens, just to see where else Clancy (or Duncan) ends up.

Creators: Duncan Trussell, Pendleton Ward

Cast: Duncan Trussell, Phil Hendrie

Available now on Netflix.

All images courtesy of Netflix