Like all great children’s entertainment, Adventure Time looks simple and goofy on the surface, but grows in depth and sophistication as you look closer. The episodic journeys of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human bring them into contact with a rich visual world full of unique characters. While the show follows basic fantasy framework of questing hero and loyal sidekick fighting evil and righting wrongs with a sword, the characters never fall into cliché.
Ward burned out and bowed out of running Adventure Time at the height of its popularity. In 2014, when Rolling Stone writer Neil Strauss asked him if he would ever consider creating another show, he said, “No, never. That sounds like a nightmare!”
I hope the creation of Ward’s new Netflix series The Midnight Gospel wasn’t too traumatic. But the show is deeply concerned with trauma, especially the final trauma of death. Be warned, despite the presence of a pegasus who pukes ice cream, this is not a children’s show. “Can I say shit?” asks the personification of Death, voiced by YouTube celebrity mortician Caitlin Doughty. The answer is yes.
Clancy Gilroy (voiced by Duncan Trussell) lives in a mobile home in a candy-colored dimension called the Chromatic Ribbon. His big obsession is a used universe simulator he bought with money he borrowed from his unseen sister, which he uses to escape from the responsibilities of his life. He travels through pocket universes contained in his malfunctioning supercomputer, meeting their most interesting inhabitants and interviewing them for his podcast … er, spacecast.
The setup is both fantastical and relatable. Clancy’s spacecast has fewer than a dozen subscribers, but he sees each one of them as individual validations of his life. He, in turn, relates to the fantastical realms of the simulated multiverse more deeply than he does to his shabby “real” surroundings, which may just be another level of simulation, anyway.
Adventure Time was written in the storyboard phase instead of beginning with a prose script, and the technique was vital in shaping its unconventional narratives. The Midnight Gospel is more like Home Movies or Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. These early Adult Swim shows began with semi-improvised dialogue tracks, which the animators then created visuals to accompany. Most of this show’s dialogue is based on a podcast by Trussell, a comedy writer with a particularly philosophical streak.
Clancy’s guests on the show mouth words from the real-life guests on the podcast as they deal with their own drama in their crumbling, psychedelic worlds. In the first episode, Dr. Drew appears as the president of an America in the grips of a zombie apocalypse. Clancy discusses LSD trips with him as the walking dead close in. Writer Anne Lamott is a deer-dog who is captured and ground into food for clowns during the course of her interview. Damien Echols appears as Darryl, a fish in a spacesuit herding cats, as he tells Clancy about the history of ritual magic and the meditation techniques he used to stay sane while on death row for 18 years. In the mind-bending finale, Ram Dass appears as himself.
The show’s visuals bear Ward’s mark of deceptive simplicity, but with a mix of animation techniques that were not available to Adventure Time. But all that visual bravado leads to The Midnight Gospel’s biggest weakness: excessive information density. In episode 5, “Annihilation of Joy,” as an inmate in an interdimensional space prison is trapped in a Groundhog Day-like time loop of the moment he failed to escape, a dove played by Jason Louv describes the spiritual insights he gained when he “… did a tremendous amount of DMT while having sex with multiple people.” It just gets to be a lot to take in at once.
I don’t want to sound like Emperor Joseph complaining that Mozart’s music has “too many notes,” but on the other hand, I don’t recommend bingeing all eight episodes at once, like I did. This is a show to be absorbed slowly. The Midnight Gospel is a rewarding journey for grown-up Adventure Time fans and general spiritual seekers alike. Be thankful it is presented in 30-minute chunks.
Midnight Gospel streams on Netflix.