REEL Review – The Midnight Gospel (2020)

Creators: Pendleton Ward, Duncan Trussell | Runtime: 20-36mins (episode) | Animation, Drama, Comedy

Living in a dimension called ‘The Chromatic Ribbon’, spacecaster Clancy Gilroy (Duncan Trussell) uses a unlicensed universe simulator as a means to interview subjects, creating deep philosophical conversations to be posted to his small subscriber base.

Coming from the creator of Adventure Time (2010-2018) is one of this years most unique and creative TV projects. Starring comedian Duncan Trussell, the concept is essentially animating his podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour in which he interviews a wide variety of people almost always in a deeply philosophical way. By taking the moments that effected him the most it creates 8 different episodes of varying length that delves into aspects of near life changing importance, contextualising them in a bizarrely fantastical setting.

Each episode opens on Clancy waking up in his motorhome to explore his illegal multiverse simulator – in The Chromatic Ribbon, farmers (like Clancy’s neighbour) use these simulators to harvest technology with powerful organically run super computers. There’s a number of maintenance guidelines that Clancy ignores, eroding the planets available to him, slowly destroying his machine with dangerous consequences – instead of following this, Clancy has a coffee, finds a interesting subject and sets out to interview, each time choosing a avatar the simulator has created for him. It usually has some aesthetic similarities, whether it’s his wizard-style hat or purple skin, making it always visually different from the last but cohesive enough for us to keep up without losing track on which one Clancy is.

The opening episode throws you in the deep end – consistently getting deeper as the show goes on. He sets out to talk to “glasses man”, who turns out to be the President of The United States in a world being overrun by zombies. Whilst set up upon the rooftop to shoot zombies invading the White House, the small president explains his thoughts on the morality of drugs, the notion of there being no ‘bad’ drug, instead the situation it is in. After a 100ft tall zombie eats the White House, Clancy and the President escape into the wilderness to continue their conversation around a campfire, assisting a mother through a childbirth and escaping on a hot air balloon. And that’s the first 15 minutes or so.

It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that the show is one of the most bizarre and visually creative you’ll likely see. Every episode is basically just a dialogue between Clancy and a guest, the podcast extracts then contextualised in The Midnight Gospel‘s narrative, but each with wonderfully interesting animation seemingly disjointed from the conversation, but a point of discussion will give some insight into the visual narrative for that episode. The most interesting example is the fifth, Annihilation of Joy, in which the interviewee is inside a prison designed to hold avatars suffering from existential dread, a small bird, as the one he set out to talk to had its tongue removed. The central discussion is around Tibetan Buddhism, which has a notion of ‘relinquishing oneself’ after death, and the idea of the burden of life, once lifted if you reached a level of spirituality before passing on.

This is reflected beautifully in the story of the inmate he intended to interview, as Clancy smashing through the ceiling of his cell sets in motion a prison break. However, each time the inmate is killed he’s reset to the point in which his roof caves in after going through some minor cleansing, taking part of his anger away and learning from those last experiences. Though the conversation is sometimes lost in the way the spiritual elements are forced on you more than the other episodes, it’s one of the best examples of the visual and dialogue narratives blending together.

As the show progresses the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred, Clancy and Duncan as character and person become ever more obscured.

There’s some fascinating concepts explored in the universe, one episode follows Clancy falling into his surprisingly deep bag inside the simulation and encountering death when there, some are flatter than others (Officers and Wolves has a engaging discussion but the visual story loses traction quickly after they head into a meat grinder and become a pile of pulp), but the real highlight is the final episode. As the show progresses the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred, Clancy and Duncan as character and person become ever more obscured as he talks about losing his parents in the penultimate episode, Duncan feels like he hasn’t quite come to terms with his loss. In the last of the series, he meets his mother, and much of their discussion is around mortality due to her advanced cancer. It’s incredibly heartbreaking and feels like an emotional release for Duncan, as the show may have helped him come to terms with some of the weight he has been feeling. They talk about how he was growing up, the illusion of the ego among many other topics all whilst Clancy ages, his mother shrivels and dies, and is reborn switching their visual relationship of parent and child. It’s one of the stranger aesthetics of the series, but the discussion is heart wrenching and sentimental.

There will be those in the audience that will find the visual style jarring and the surrealist nature too far to relate, some will likely find the topics too pretentious and a lack of a strong narrative early on quite off putting, as there isn’t a lot to latch grab emotionally. As the setting is developed and the story really starts to get moving (only one episode actually spends a considerably amount of time outside of the simulator) it starts to reach it’s apex, the final episode not just being a excellent interview but also exploring the real world instead of the simulation coming to a close with a exciting and original ending. It’s unclear whether there will be a second season, although the first has a satisfying conclusion it would certainly be intriguing to see where Ward and Trussell could take The Midnight Gospel next.

Verdict:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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