The small miracle of “Adventure Time” in its earliest season came from creator Pendleton Ward’s ability to juggle ingredients that shouldn’t work so well together. The show was silly and profound in equal measures, treating that balance as the ultimate yin and yang. “The Midnight Gospel” brings that same notion to ambitious new heights, shedding the pretense of a “children’s show” that sometimes hindered the reach of “Adventure Time” and chases big ideas right out of the gate. It’s mind-blowing in the best possible way.
On some level, “The Midnight Gospel” has a much simpler premise than “Adventure Time”: Ward and co-creator Duncan Trussell have joined forces to animate select conversation from the comedian’s soul-searching and occasionally boisterous podcast, “The Duncan Trussell Family Hour,” where he interviews a range of characters about their life philosophies and usually their meditation practices. At the same time, the pair have designed a beguiling fictional backdrop, with Trussell voicing a loudmouthed pink-skinned loaf named Clancy who inhabits an eye-popping intergalactic backdrop and owns an unlicensed Universe Simulator, a kind of advanced virtual reality machine that allows him to travel to imaginary worlds and interact with the various intelligent life forms he finds there. If that sounds confusing, just wait: “The Midnight Gospel” relishes the opportunity to catch you off-guard, and clarify its purpose as it moves along.
Each trip finds Clancy accompanied by a couple of drones as he uploads the video to his “spacecast,” which provides just enough of a foundation for the zany formula to take shape. Trussell’s podcasts follow the casual rhythms of organic conversation, which stand stark contrast to the outrageous journeys that Clancy’s subjects endure as he peppers them with questions. There’s an amiable, inviting quality to these interviews that makes engaging even if you don’t care for the theme of mind-body wellness that often courses through them.
However, the design of the show itself seems like a canny attempt to imitate the quest for clarity that defines the meditation process: Every episode approaches sophisticated ideas while stuffing them into an astonishing psychedelic cartoon, so that “The Midnight Gospel” forces you to push beyond the distractions of its many moving parts and appreciate the substance at its core. The resulting trippy sci-fi adventure is a feast for the eyes and mind at once.
In despite of the “podcast come to life” gimmick, the show also has a real narrative based around its dopey anti-hero and his quest to understand his place in a very strange universe. As with “Adventure Time,” the singular premise deepens over time, though with all eight episodes of the first season landing on Netflix at once, it doesn’t take long to experience the grand design.
From the outset, “The Midnight Gospel” feels like a series of familiar ingredients stuffed together and tweaked to the silliest degree — Rick and Morty on a planet dominated by buddhist monasteries and stoned dorm room conversations, or Clancy as an adult variation on “Adventure Time” angst-riddled adolescent Finn. Eventually, though, it settles on a narrative framework of its own. Having borrowed money from his sister, Clancy bought a plot of land in a strange floating landscape called “The Chromatic Ribbon,” where he hunkers down inside an RV and engages in a freewheeling attempt to make his space cast into a hit. Using his monotonous computer as a guide, Clancy routinely sticks his head into the Universe Simulator’s vaginal gateway and speeds from one world to another, pleading with the strange creatures he finds there to speak with him.
On some level, the specifics of these virtual trips matter less than in the friends he makes along the way. Opening title cards reveal the real names of Trussell’s subjects, and on more than one occasion, they refer to him by his actual name. Yet each world is brimming with so much visual invention, from ludicrous sight gags to inspired otherworldly visions, that the creators manage to make both sides of the equation work in harmony.
Trussell’s guests are a host of colorful characters who keep each new discourse engaging on its own terms, while their surroundings take innumerable bizarre twists. Even the most basic description of these conversations indicates just how loopy things can get: There’s Dr. Drew Pinsky cast as the president of a world overrun by zombies, cocking a shotgun while talking through the parameters of legal weed; there’s novelist Anne Lamott as a carnivorous hippo, recalling her path to sobriety as she and Clancy turn into meat mush at a slaughterhouse run by killer clowns. On an aquatic planet, Clancy encounters death row survivor Damien Echols — one of the “West Memphis Three” from “Paradise Lost” documentary series — as a fish creature who talks through his preference for magic over traditional Buddhist meditation and explains why he actually feels grateful for his years behind bars. Accidentally disguised as an erotic avatar (long story), Clancy lands in a high-fantasy realm with dharma instructor Trudy Goodman as an avenging badass, as she battles an ass monster with heart arrows while talking about the value of forgiveness.
And so on. “The Midnight Gospel” is overloaded with so many ideas it often threatens to devolve into one of those ephemeral late-night Adult Swim gambits where animators hurtle every random gag at the screen in the hopes that some aspect of the looniness sticks, but Ward (who directs every episode) always comes back to the plot. As each episode leads into the next, Clancy’s fast-and-loose lifestyle grows more and more reckless, setting the stage for a violent showdown that calls to mind the grisly chaos of “Superjail.” By the time it gets there, however, it has revealed surprising new layers of backstory for the character, building toward an emotional revelation in its final episode that is stunning in its implications (and almost certain to make most viewers cry).
All along, Trussell gives the show an engrossing centerpiece, as he encourages his subject’s meaningful insights while playing the comic relief, reducing the conversation to vulgar soundbites. His assessment that meditation amounts to “shoving a buttplug in the asshole of your mind” (which gives rise to a catchy remix) is matched by his conviction that “hope tortures your fucking ass,” and it often seems as though the character simultaneously wants to appreciate the depth of his conversations and hasn’t quite figured out how to take them seriously for himself.
With all that going on, “The Midnight Gospel” doesn’t exactly benefit from the binge-viewing approach. Your brain will require breaks to process each installment, and possibly even repeat viewings to absorb everything on display. At the same time, the episodic nature allows for a satisfying wraparound that makes the dense journey worthwhile. Clancy’s a tortured soul on an aimless quest for purpose, and you couldn’t ask for a better-timed show about how to calm the mind and tame its anxiety-riddled neuroses.
With time, the show builds toward its biggest idea — the specter of death — and finds real meaning in confronting that fear. The grim reaper herself even makes an appearance late in the season, voiced by mortician Caitlin Doughty as she delivers an engrossing history lesson on the evolution of the “death industrial complex” and its impact on turning mortality into a taboo. There’s a rich, energizing quality to these discussions as they grow more heated, building toward a stunning cosmic finale that begs for more future installments. Or does it? The eight episodes of “The Midnight Gospel” stand on their own in spite of the sense that Clancy’s story has just started. Even as the show builds to an enticing cliffhanger, it seems to suggest that living in the moment matters more than whatever happens next.
“The Midnight Gospel” premieres April 20 on Netflix.