Pendleton Ward, who created "Adventure Time With Finn and Jake," has a new cartoon, "The Midnight Gospel," made in collaboration with the comedian Duncan Trussell, and it is an ambitious, extraordinary, dreadful, beautiful thing.
As a work that concerns spiritual equanimity in the face of mortality and apocalypse, the series, now streaming on Netflix, is also unexpectedly suited to these strange days. Simply put -- though there is nothing simple about it -- it animates interviews from Trussell's "Duncan Trussell Family Hour," a podcast with a focus on Eastern religions, mysticism and "magick," in a wildly fantastical context. There are new scripted bits as well, to fit the cartoon realities, and perhaps some of the interviews are fresh. It's hard to tell exactly how it was done, and it doesn't much matter.
Episodes streaming on Netflix
Within "The Midnight Gospel," Trussell becomes Clancy, a "simulation farmer" who lives on a ribbon of what I guess you could call land undulating through space, as if the surface of the Earth had been peeled like a piece of fruit and unwound into the cosmos. Through the offices of his deteriorating computer (Phil Hendrie), Clancy virtually travels to different worlds where he conducts interviews for his little-heard "spacecast." (The choice of planets is tightening as one by one they die out "due to operator error.") He has an unseen sister whose calls he avoids and a mop-haired little dog named Charlotte; the fur on Charlotte's stomach parts to reveal a portal to a void into which the dog sometimes sucks things. There are thin narrative strands to tie the eight episodes together, some repeating motifs -- cats pilot spaceships -- and a sort of thematic arc to the series. But it is not long on plot.
What's happening in conversation is not always strictly connected to the action. A zombie apocalypse accompanies a discussion with Dr. Drew Pinsky -- as the president of whatever world we're in -- on the uses and abuses of drugs, and teacher Trudy Goodman discusses mindfulness meditation animated as a knight on a mission of vengeance in a demonic medieval world. Author Jason Louv expounds upon the development of Buddhism in northeastern India and how "the addiction to maya is not to feel your inherent suffering," while an escape from a prison for "wayward simulated beings" turns into a riot and, not incidentally, a demonstration of karma.
Visually, The Midnight Gospel is reminiscent of Ward's previous series (Clancy, like Finn, has no nose), yet it has its own style, beginning where "Adventure Time" gets surrealist and psychedelic and heading on from there. There are textured, painterly backgrounds; the sky subtly changes color. I detect notes of Max and Dave Fleischer's "Koko the Clown," comic artist Jim Woodring, "Yellow Submarine" and Hieronymus Bosch. The show is populated with monsters and creatures of the kind young comic artists doodle in the margins of their schoolbooks: a winged horse that spits out ice cream, giant deer dogs, a goldfish in a bowl atop a mechanical body, a pyramid-headed water-slide attendant with a single-eyed sunglass. Clancy assumes a different avatar for each virtual visit -- a musical rainbow, an octopus sheriff, a version of himself made of cream. There is a lot of activity in the foreground, background and middle ground of the frame, and the series is worth watching twice just to take in the details.
"The Midnight Gospel" is not for children, probably, unless they are enlightened beings with clear memories of past lives (whose parents are OK with a bad word here and there). Like "Adventure Time," but more explicitly, it takes an interest in matters of birth, death, rebirth and transfiguration.
NAN What's Up on 05/17/2020
Print Headline: Short On Plot, Long On Imagination