The Midnight Gospel on Netflix* is the best animated show you are probably not watching. It is a beautifully drawn and thoroughly moving exploration of the human condition. You’ll either love it, hate it or both. Maybe you’ll ‘get it’ or maybe there is nothing there to get. It’s all in your head and what are you exactly inside there? Pulsating meat masquerading as sentience or something greater?
The show is about Death and the ‘primal reality’ thereof. It is also about guilt, acceptance and coming to terms with failure. Which is probably not entirely accurate but that was my impression. I’ve re-watched it a few times. It’s be one of those shows that densely packed with ideas and concepts where the interpreting could shift depending on how you feel at the time.
For instance if you watch it before doing something like going on holiday, with all the expectation of happiness that such an event brings, you might feel differently about the show. The circumstances when I watched it may have affected my slant. It is also very, very funny.
This Isn’t Really a Review.
I went home for Christmas on the 19th of December, hours before yet another lockdown was announced and ‘enforced’ in the UK. I’m not especially proud of it but it happened. Now the end is in sight maybe I can come clean. I do not have a big family and it seemed particularly important to go and see my mother who is elderly, as much as it pains me to say that. And whose short term memory is a long term worry for me.
It was a long journey from here to there. A good eight hours as the road flies. Doing it in the midst of a resurgent pandemic meant only a bare minimum of stops for petrol and the inevitable bio-break. I had tested negative. I had self isolated. I had spent a week worrying about it. I was committed to making the journey.
The coronavirus has challenged everyone slightly differently. It’s made us all redundant in one way or another. One big shared aspect of virus culture has been the slow existential dripping away of time. Isolated from solitary family members living distantly atomised lives. Silently contemplating all the worst of questions of ‘How Will I Cope If such and such dies?’ By pondering the immediate mortality of loved ones considered most vulnerable and considering the brute realities of this new era should they succumb.
How would you feel watching them slowly die via fucking conferencing software? Robbed of being 100% present in such an acutely important moment. Remember all those great things you intended to do together over the last year? It’s now a road to your own personal Hell. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
Am I Part of the Problem?
I took to that road at the last minute. Sensing lockdown was about to hit like a rake to the face, I threw everything I didn’t need into the back of my 22 year old import. Along with a cantankerous cockatiel and a half ounce of very strong weed called Stardawg. Once I was out there my carefully planned smuggler’s route over the high ground seemed silly in hindsight.
The motorways were just a big series of empty lanes, HGV’s and low level paranoia. The spectre of police patrols sweeping up drivers in between road blocks, checking and fining every car traveling beyond a certain distance on the ANPR cameras was just that: a spectre. A big bellowing paper tiger roaring from all forms of mass media. ‘Stay home! Save lives!’ (except in this case).
I saw only two cop cars on the whole journey. They were pulled up having a chat and a coffee at a popular services on the A1. Inside the building a naked woman screamed at her coven of teenaged children from the doorway of the ladies toilets. For their sakes I wish I had made that up. But I just walked right past them pretending I saw nothing. Eight hours later I drove into a deserted tier 4 city. Eyes bleeding, head thrumming with the cosmic vibrations of a radial tyres thumping four hundred odd miles over tarmac and hardcore.
I was happy to be back. Happy to see the dog, the cat, the parrot. The messiness of home. To be present with my mother and sharing memories once more. I took up residence in the basement in a bed next to the wine rack. Eager to be diminished by soft drugs and alcohol over Yule. I plugged in my eight year old laptop to the TV and HDMI’d my ambitions away until mid January.
The show I started with was The Midnight Gospel.
I’d been saving it for months for this moment. Like I hoard all animations, good or bad, on a special hard drive committed to animated piracy. Four terabytes of brightly coloured escapism of varying quality and theme. Series, feature films, one offs. The collected works of Jan Švankmajer and hundreds of film festival shorts rubbing shoulders with Tom & Jerry, Ugly Americans, Pingu and Thingu. It’s my own little Erebor and like the hoard under that particular hill, it has driven me more than slightly mad.
I’ll say this; I don’t remember much about watching the entire run the first time. I interspersed it with cycling fast, thrashy laps around Regent’s park. Still stoned of course. Then I went back for more. I don’t think I knew how to feel about it at first either.
The show is about a some dood called Clancy Gilroy who lives a dimension called the Chromatic Ribbon. He owns an unlicenced computer thingy that grants him access to multiple worlds in multiple universes. He visits these worlds to generate content for his podcasts. Clancy has a single loyal subscriber for his podcasts, though he never questions whether they are worth doing. Of course they are. How else can he escape the pain of existence? Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
Due to Operator Error there are No Longer Living Things on This Planet.
While I watched and rewatched I had a lot of questions. Are the podcasts real podcasts? (They are sort of, being adapted from episodes of the The Duncan Trussell Family Hour). Was the whole thing an exercise in Pendleton Ward‘s slow slide into guru led fart-sniffing whimsy? (No it isn’t) Why did it feel so fucking ‘Californian’? Was it some new age religious bullshit masquerading as philosophy? Why was I simultaneously annoyed and overjoyed by it? Halfway through I got the theme. I shrugged. I wrestled with it. I felt uncomfortable. I went out for another bike ride. I poured another drink.
I am not fan of podcasts. They aren’t a part of my cultural diet. There’s something about the format that I find self-indulgent and it doesn’t chime with me. Which is more than a little hypocritical. Though I understand the appeal and have listened to a fair share of them second-hand: Lore, Marc Maron’s podcast, Behind the Bastards, a bit of Louis Theroux. Maybe it’s because I’m full of rage and jealousy. So it’s weird I would enjoy The Midnight Gospel when other people I know who love podcasts do not like it. At all. I think because it’s almost a pseudo fake podcast backed by really good fucking animation that I managed to initially get on board with it.
I could also see a fair bit of myself in Clancy. His rejection of the multiverse simulator as a economically viable workhorse. His unsuccessful podcast. His quixotic dedication to escapism and his embrace of the moment. His clutter. His souvenirs. His solitude. Not that these are all positives. Just similarities.
The second time around I watched odd episodes out of order. The ones I remembered thinking that I enjoyed watching. The ones where I began to realise the whole series was about the grim experience of trying and failing to cope with the inevitability of Death. These were episode four: ‘Blinded By My End’ and episode five: ‘The Annihilation of Joy’.
When I say failing to cope. I mean that in a partial sense. We all fail. It’s a condition of life. How ‘well’ you deal with it is a phenomenological question. You can be an emotional wreck and still bring home the bacon and or a zen bum without a pot to piss in but living a rich existence. What you make of existence is subjectively your life to live.
Of course visually its a real treat. Gorgeously drawn and wonderfully psychedelic and surreal with oodles of charm and neat little animated stories occurring in the background. Each illustrating in a way the underlying theme of each episode, though in some episodes this is more enigmatic than in others. Aesthetically it resembles Superjail, although thinking about it is maybe it’s more like the lesser known King Star King. Which are produced by Titmouse studios (I actually said ‘Chirp’ from their ident when I first saw the opening scene of the first episode.) Who over the last 10-12 years have really carved out their own stylistic ouevre in animation.
As I said before, The Midnight Gospel is show about death and coming to terms with it. This isn’t a hidden theme. Clancy interviews the grim reaper in one later episode but it also isn’t entirely apparent from the earlier episodes.
What struck me most was how well it deals with the both the practical and dysfunctional aspects of grief. The former is much more up front, especially in episode 7: Turtles of the Eclipse, where Caitlin Doughty explains how important and cathartic it is to simply take time to sit with a loved one once they have died. She also outlines how exploitative the funeral industry is in this regard too.
The themes of dysfunction and of how loss can make you behave in certain ways it is much more implicit in the character arc of Clancy. Especially as more of his backstory is revealed. The final episode it very moving. Although I don’t want to give anything away that might spoil it. In this manner I found it sort of similar to ‘Flowers’, which is another brilliant dark’ comedy’ about dysfunctional, traumatised people pursuing what others might deem to be irresponsible dreams. Rather than dealing with the tedious nitty-gritty of life.
As Dr Wong said in another popular cartoon: “..[T]he bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.”
January came and I had a birthday that I tried desperately to run and hide from. On the day I was blixxzd. Haunted and nervous. I sang karaoke and was red wine sick all over a floor. I laughed about it later while I was hungover. But was I really present for it?
There’s a saying my mother has: ‘guests are like fish, after a week they stink.’ After three weeks I really stank out the whole joint. It was time to head North again. Lockdown was still ongoing, still is in fact. But a viable vaccine seemed to be just around the corner and it wasn’t like I had options.
I drove back up with the cockatiel on my shoulder, shitting on me all the way. Shared memories are important and it had been reassuring for everyone to have a moment we could look back on and say remember what happened over pandemic Christmas? I really feel for those who haven’t been able to have that. For now at least the thought of that inevitable loss was one that I could push aside and make smaller for the time being.
I hope I didn’t kill anybody. I don’t think I did. But who the fuck knows.