Watching Netflix’s “The Midnight Gospel” is an exercise in concentration. The adult cartoon created by “Adventure Time” animator Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell superimposes a fantastical science-fiction universe onto real-world podcast-style philosophical conversations, creating two parallel narratives that can be hard to distinguish.
To try to describe the plot is a lofty task, and even then it remains nonsensical; essentially, the show follows protagonist Clancy, voiced by Trussell, as he explores various simulated worlds looking to interview subjects for his “space-cast.” This functions as a way for Trussell to package his real-word podcast interviews about his guests’ real-life experiences into this imagined universe, where the subjects take animated forms, ranging from a talking fish-bowl to Death herself.
The podcast focuses on topics such as love, the ego and death, examining these pertinent yet often distorted realities through a pseudo-philosophical lens. The visually jarring animation, which is quite graphic, operates entirely independently from the organic conversations of the podcast, creating a cognitive dissonance between what is seen and what is heard. The visual plot rooted in Clancy’s simulated universe, which usually involves an apocalyptic or dystopic crisis, does not align comfortably with the auditory content that is based in our reality, demanding the viewer’s utmost attention.
However, despite the diverse imagined identities of the guests, the show fails to include any true diversity within its real-world slate of guests. For something that proclaims to be a profound exploration into the human condition, the scope of its experiential evidence is rather limited. Every single interviewee is straight and white, and while they do admittedly have very compelling life stories and perspectives, it is inherently problematic to espouse these perspectives as “gospel” without including the lived experiences of those outside this straight-white narrative. It’s almost as if the animated subjects, who are so wildly fantastical and transcend any real-world identities, act as a guise to simulate “diversity” without truly acknowledging the lack of it in the show. While each guest individually provides a quite insightful perspective, the narrative as a whole seems to lack any grounding in the social realities of our time.
What’s more, much of the show is also exploitative of Eastern philosophies, as a sort of counter-culture way to reexamine or critique Western society. Buddhist ideas are thrown around quite often as an alternative to the socialized Western way of thinking, and while the guests may be well-versed in it, the show does nothing to engage with the source material. This problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned lack of diversity; it allows for a cherry-picked version of these practices that come from an inherently white gaze, manipulating their intention and repurposing them for our consumption.
The show does acknowledge, to a certain extent, that it is explicitly for a Western audience, and because it can be extremely hard for us (the West) to truly understand Eastern philosophy, it tries to make it as palatable as possible. However, that does not excuse the lack of diverse perspectives, and it certainly does not go far enough in addressing the true source content. Rather, it only goes so far as to package these beliefs into a Western framework that remains devoid of almost all context. While the intention may not be nefarious, and perhaps the content does come from a place of genuine fascination, this inherent distortion of non-Western values comes across as exploitative and reductive, especially given the absence of non-Western input.
With that said, “The Midnight Gospel” remains an experimental endeavor into visual-podcasting that is nothing like I’ve seen before. Although it may not fully redeem itself for the oversights in its perspective, taken on a case-by-case basis there is a certain comforting quality to the show. While the simulated worlds crumble around Clancy, and the manifestations of pain and suffering seem to be ever-present, the nonchalant conversations about existential thought calm the viewer amidst the chaos. It is easy to get lost in the intense visuals, but the show is intentional in guiding our attention back to the content of the podcast.
Overall, while it is essential to acknowledge that these conversations are by no means the end-all-be-all explorations into these topics, there is a lot of pertinent wisdom presented within them.