Are you one of those people who just can’t seem to get into podcasts, no matter how many times they’re earnestly and fervently recommended to you?
I am one of those people.
And yet I still found myself drawn into the animated series The Midnight Gospel, which at its core is like an interview-style podcast. But it’s also a visual feast of swirling colors and twisting figures. You can hardly listen to it while driving or running (at least, you really shouldn’t).
The audio consists of a series of interviews with writers, teachers, and specialists chatting about their area of expertise all while their animated avatars wade, crawl, and claw their way through the fever dream that is the show’s visual style.
Created by Pendleton Ward (of the inimitable Adventure Time) and Duncan Trussell (of the podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour), the series was originally pitched by Ward to Trussell with a very simple premise: “It’s like we replace the dialogue of Indiana Jones with podcast conversations.”
All the way from pitch to execution, The Midnight Gospel has stayed true to that one-sentence description — if you handpick only the face-melting-est, boulder-escaping-est scenes from the Indiana Jones movies. And follow them up with an original song.
That’s what makes it so palatable, even to someone with a fervent podcast allergy. Or, someone with an allergy to the subject matter. With most of its conversations orbiting around psychedelics and meditation, I sometimes found myself wondering if I was too square for this show.
Despite all the reasons I felt I shouldn’t connect with The Midnight Gospel, I kept finding myself engrossed. There is a story of sorts, but it’s mostly just a framing device. The star of the show is Clancy, a “simulation farmer” who owns a secondhand reality simulation machine he doesn’t really know how to use properly. He uses it to enter simulated realities on the brink of annihilation and find interview subjects for his podcast. Sorry… space cast. (It goes into space!)
Clancy, this adorable pink guy with wide, wonder-filled, empathetic eyes, is podcaster Duncan Trussell. So much so that on several occasions the guests –real-world personalities inhabiting such animated bodies as a fish controlling a robotic human body, a bird tethered to the soul of an immortal prisoner, Death itself, etc. — slip up and call him by his real name. But that’s fine. It’s endearing, and it actually serves to make the whole thing seem more real.
And that’s a hell of a thing to say, since the images happening on screen are so utterly, aggressively un-real.
With visuals by animation giant Titmouse, Inc., The Midnight Gospel is a never-ending onslaught of incessant, violent, kaleidoscopic motion, constantly propelling itself forward as Clancy very mildly interviews his guests. It’s an easy but effective juxtaposition, and it makes for some truly delightful surprises.
The animation is wildly creative and often more connected to the interviews than is immediately evident. I’d go so far as to say that anyone who describes it as “trippy,” or “random” or “perfect for 4/20” (yeah yeah, I know it’s the premiere date) is missing the point.
Or at least focusing too superficially on one point alone.
The pace of each episode is frantic, untethered, and often shockingly funny. The interviews are interspersed with just enough dialogue to intertwine them with the action, and the result is bizarrely immersive, with the animation serving to prop up the conversation just as often as it provides a non-sequitur palate cleanser. Halfway through a conversation about death, for example, both participants are killed in a slaughterhouse and continue their discussion, unhindered, as ground meat.
The only time the action slows down is in the season finale, which is by far the best of the series’ eight episodes for a number of reasons I won’t get into. Just watch it and soak it up, and maybe have a good cry.
In the end, you may find yourself with one eye to the visuals and one ear to the audio, unsure where best to devote the rest of your senses. I found myself, a few times, zoning in a bit too hard on one or the other and feeling I’d missed something.
But that might be the best way to watch The Midnight Gospel, letting it wash over you and appreciating the elements that stand out to you as they come. Even if you’re not much of a podcast person, you’ll tune into the parts you’re drawn to and, in spite of yourself, the parts you never thought you’d be interested in.
Is it more than a little ironic that I’m praising this show for distracting me from its content when so much of its message is about presence and mindfulness?
But I think that’s okay. At least I hope it is.
The Midnight Gospel arrives on Netflix on Monday, 4/20.