For fans of adult animation, the central narrative of “The Midnight Gospel” is sure to feel somewhat familiar. The pilot begins as Clancy (Duncan Trussell) prepares to enter his “infinite universe simulator,” a device that generates a bizarre new world every day for Clancy to explore. Its dorky and accidentally charming lead, zany sci-fi world and “adventure-of-the-week” episode structure are by no means new territory for the genre, nodding to its inspirations in “Rick and Morty,” “Futurama” and showrunner Pendleton Ward’s own “Adventure Time.”
But to judge “The Midnight Gospel” purely on the grounds of its influences would be somewhat dishonest. As Clancy lands on Earth 4-169, a simulated alternate timeline in which zombies and marijuana legalization protests ravage the globe, the pilot takes a decidedly novel turn: Clancy podcasts it. The rest of the episode sees him interview “Dr. Drew” Pinsky, starring as the president of the United States, about psychedelics, near-death experiences and meditation as the pair nonchalantly evades the ever-growing zombie hoards.
The dissonance between the episode’s over-the-top action and casual, thought-provoking dialogue — which gradually reveals itself to be a real life interview between Trussell and Pinsky — is a consistent source of absurd non sequitur comedy. It’s a somewhat niche type of humor, and one could be forgiven for preferring more traditionally funny animation. There aren’t many distinct punchlines to speak of; rather, many of the better jokes are found in this generally surreal contrast between the episode’s plot and the podcast’s subject matter. This humor has something of a diminishing return, as the audience becomes more and more familiar with the show’s framing.
At its core, however, “The Midnight Gospel” isn’t really about its comedic presentation. With Trussell and company diving into progressively heavier subject matter with every episode, the show’s visual medium and overarching narrative tend to take a backseat to the conversation. As a result, it often feels like a podcast first and a narrative cartoon second. Indeed, the best moments of “The Midnight Gospel” employ the show’s imagery not only as a bizarre gimmick, but also as evocative allegory for the ideas that Trussell and his guests discuss. “Officers and Wolves” sees Clancy and his alien companions gruesomely eviscerated in a strangely beautiful ecological cycle as Trussell and author Anne Lamott explore Christian theology’s relationship with death. And in “Annihilation of Joy,” Clancy helps an infinitely reincarnating prisoner escape while learning about the Buddhist conception of the self.
“The Midnight Gospel” certainly delivers in the visual department — aided by Ward’s distinct flair for world and character design — but Trussell’s candid and deeply personal interview style quickly becomes the show’s highlight. From the invitational and insightful questions he poses to his subtle and hilarious pokes at the show’s fourth wall, Trussell simply radiates charisma, both in his character as Clancy and out. The guests, too, bring a wealth of insight to each episode’s subject matter and manage to explain heavy spiritual concepts approachably and eloquently. In theory, the show’s conflicting modes should be at odds with each other. But Trussell and his guests maintain such an intimate connection that their discussions always feel important and profound, even as their on-screen surrogates face peril and certain death.
Complementing both its word building and transcendent thematic aspirations, “The Midnight Gospel” also features an incredible soundtrack. Each episode culminates in a self-contained musical number in styles ranging from old school soul to death metal. But in between these moments, composer Joe Wong ties together lofi vocal samples, wobbly synths and traditional percussion into breathtaking and melancholy soundscapes.
All things considered, “The Midnight Gospel” is a rare breed of television that makes no compromises in its artistic vision, even when it means deviating from norms and expectations of the medium. And though the show’s premise as a sort of meta-podcast may be hard to buy into for some, it’s crafted with enough heart and talent to warrant high praise on all counts. “The Midnight Gospel” is an incredibly unique and hypnotic experience, somewhere between the intimacy of a contemporary spiritual podcast and the surreal humor of experimental adult animation. And at its best, “The Midnight Gospel” melds the strengths of both mediums for a spiritually motivating, bizarrely funny and deeply beautiful result.