A sermon of self-love: The Midnight Gospel

Clancy and his mother. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Netflix’s latest animated trip, The Midnight Gospel, brainchild of Duncan Trussell (Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast) and Pendleton Ward (Adventure Time), charts a course for acceptance, self-love, and inner peace.

Death, depression, anxiety, stress, jealousy, anger, secret thoughts, anger, obsession, DEATH — not so easy to overcome. Not for those experiencing the emotions sometimes in tandem, nor their loved ones witnessing as the emotions bubble to the surface. We do the best we can to navigate dark waters of personal tragedy and chaos but usually end up only half wading through the grey murky deep before turning tail, or shutting down completely. That’s why we have therapy and pharmacology. But it’s also why we have works of art like The Midnight Gospel.

Netflix’s newest animated series sets to right those choppy, difficult to navigate waters. Using the distinctively psychedelic tales of one Clancy, on his odysseys through time and space. Midnight Gospel’s dialogue is sometimes uncomfortably disjointed, done in the style of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) with the tales in which we have characters telling stories not always following the animation and vice versa. The show’s inspiration is co-creator Duncan Trussell’s podcast, Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast (DTFH), and features real audio clips from the show.

When you watch you’re on a whole other plane of existence, even if you listen intently with your eyes closed — the non-coherence of the episodes, sometimes, is the point. Purposefully removing yourself from your thoughts, much like meditation, as the show points out constantly, you acknowledge thoughts instead of chasing them away. By allowing yourself to experience emotions, calmly dissecting them, and using a deliberate concentration on letting those emotions go, you show yourself a great kindness. The entire show surrounds theology and mindfulness when it comes to introspection and meditation.

MG, attacks serious and sensitive issues with the candor of a talk show, and that’s what it is right? A fictional show where Clancy, with his ‘unreliable’ (and illegal) multiverse simulator, goes around asking the hard life questions. MG like quite a few animated shows; Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, Big Mouth uses animation to take on serious topics like mental health, sexuality, science, God, death, free will, and every intimate thought you thought no one else dared think.

Animation has long been a vessel for dark themes and in the 90’s quite a few animated shows took to darker humor such as The Critic, The Tick, Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, The Simpsons, to ease universal existential pressures. Art has always been a refuge. In historically harder times, great artworks emerge as a salve on metaphorical wounds. MG’s psychotropic animation of emotional states; sacrifice, suffering and letting go are coupled with podcast-prose from Russell. A masterpiece in collaboration, this show has filled the cracks of so many painful memories, for me personally, and I think others as well.

It does this via Clancy, our seemingly foolish protagonist, and his stories. As he gathers spacecast material in interviews with alien beings his focus supposedly on his guests — he always manages to dive into his past or current psyche. And in any real conversation, with another person, you do open up like that right? The animation (by Titmouse) matches intensity for intensity to that kind of connection we experience in moments of heavy conversation. These side characters featured in Clancy’s spacecasts are actual professionals in the clinical world.

A favorite episode of mine, to be sure, is episode four, “Blinded By My End.” In it, Clancy travels to a medieval planet, where he joins ‘Trudy the Love Barbarian’ on her revenge play, voiced by Trudy Goodman. In real life, Goodman is a Ph.D., a vipassana teacher in the Theravada lineage, and the Founding Teacher of InsightLA (according to Trussell’s webpage). A therapist trained in meditation and psychotherapy we nod along as Clancy and Goodman wax philosophical on the practice of letting things go.

Some of the other memorable moments come from episode two, Officers and Wolves, featuring Anne Lamott who is introduced on Russells’ website as someone, “writes and speaks about subjects that begin with capital letters: Alcoholism, Motherhood, Jesus — with honesty, compassion and a pureness of voice.”

Episode Two. (Courtesy of Netflix)

And episode seven, Turtles of the Eclipse, where Clancy having recently reached ‘enlightenment,’ takes on a boring journey and yet ends up facing a literal manifestation of death (Caitlin Doughty, described on Russell’s website as, ‘a mortician, activist, and funeral industry rabble-rouser’). The episode is blatant about its motives and makes no apologies for the frankness with which it discusses Death. In Hunters Without a Home, Fish Bowl Man, Darryl, is voiced by former death row inmate Damien Echols, who works in visual arts. While in prison, Echols was ordained in Rinzai Zen Buddhism.

Episode 7 (Courtesy of Netflix)

And perhaps the most overwhelming episode is saved for last. The first season ends with the eighth episode. A cathartic thirty-six minutes that explores the unfathomable trip into the unknown, death, from the beginning, birth. Without giving away too much of this beautifully devastating episode, Mouse of Silver; I’ll say this if you’ve lost someone recently this finale may crush what is left of your tender heart, but not without attempting to put it back together in the end.

Deneen Fendig is featured in a conversation with Russell. Fendig is his mother who appeared from time to time on his podcast, in this excerpt from episode 64 of DTFH she speaks frankly about her death. The conversation is a recording from before her death in 2013. Wisdom beyond the grave from the show’s creators’ mother, is intentionally disarming. But we’re not going through this alone right, not like Russell and his mother had to. And like the show points out, no one should suffer alone in silence.

Take time to carve out space for meditation, and work hard at distancing from the ills of the world. Find a way to breeze through the emotional tolls we all pay in life by leaning on family, friends, and taking life one step at a time. In the meantime let shows like Midnight Gospel fill the cracks in for our most intimate fugues.

A human living in this reality. Watching T.V. Editing photos for Tribune Publishing. I believe in journalism, kindness and global warming

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