I was turned on to Midnight Mass by Ricky Gervais who raved about it in one of his social media chats: ‘I absolutely loved it, and it got better and better. It’s like all the themes like love and death, regret, second chances, but it’s about good and evil in a biblical sense.’
Yes. Midnight Mass is very unusual in that (so far, at least; I’m only two and a bit episodes in) it seems to take Christianity at its own estimation. God is real, miracles do happen, even (or especially) the most miserable sinners can find redemption through repentance. Watching it is quite unsettling because you keep expecting the rug to be pulled from under your feet and, say, the hero priest Father Paul Hill (Hamish Linklater) suddenly to be revealed as a secret agent of Satan.
You expect this because that, generally, is the job of clergymen on TV and in the movies. They are invariably either tortured by doubt, or ineffectual or hypocritical or compromised in some way. Perhaps, like the priest in Fleabag, they’ve been inserted as an unattainable love interest; perhaps, like the vicar in The Vicar of Dibley (with her inverted cross), they are there to reassure you that Christianity really has very little to do with that ‘believing in God’ nonsense. Possibly not since The Exorcist (1973) has a priest been depicted as an honest-to-God fighter against evil.
Midnight Mass is set on a small island off the US coast (though it was filmed in Vancouver) with a dwindling population of 127 folk who live in decaying clapboard houses. Their main industry is crab fishing, though that hasn’t been so good since the oil spill. Everyone bears a burden of some kind or another. There’s an alcoholic; a little girl crippled in an accident; an embittered, holier-than-thou psychopath; a young financier Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), who served time for killing a teenager while drink-driving and now sees her disfigured face whenever he closes his eyes.
Enter this charismatic, intense young priest, Father Hill. He is standing in for the elderly monsignor who has been detained in mysterious circumstances. Almost instantly, he breathes new life into this spiritually arid, moribund community with his killer sermons and his spectacular ability to remember everyone’s name and personal history, and even, perhaps, to work miracles.
And he appears to have arrived not a moment too soon because dark forces are stirring on the island. Its formerly large colony of cats has been found one day with their necks all broken. Some people even claim to have seen a vast, winged creature swishing above them. One young islander hears noises inside a derelict house and breaks the cardinal horror movie rule, as these kids always do: DON’T go to investigate.
Series writer Mike Flanagan specialises mainly in horror movies but here seems to be aiming at something more profound and original and unashamedly religious. The soundtrack comprises lots of hymns and psalms beautifully sung (plus a very healthy representation of the mighty Neil Diamond). There are quite long scenes depicting the details of Catholic ceremony, including various masses and the daubing of foreheads with dust on Ash Wednesday. Most screen entertainment skirts embarrassedly over this sort of thing. Midnight Mass wants you to dwell on it contemplatively.
Certainly it’s quite a departure for Netflix, whose output some people seem to consider so insufferably, relentlessly right-on that they refuse to watch it. Midnight Mass has not escaped totally from this problem: the island’s female doctor, for example, turns out to be in a relationship with a feisty, metropolitan black woman — exactly as you would expect of someone living on a remote island comprising almost entirely red-neckish white people.
But I don’t think this was aimed at that type of audience. Rather, it seems to have been devised as a forbidden pleasure for viewers at the more ‘deplorable’ end of the political spectrum: God-fearing folk, some of whom believe that the real world events of the past 18 months or so are evidence of a Luciferian masterplan and Christ’s Second Coming, and who are at the very least sick to death of political correctness.
There are sops to their instincts in the script: at one point, Riley refers to ‘people’ who are pregnant and his ex-girlfriend and possible future love interest Erin (Kate Siegel) corrects him by pointing out that it’s ‘women’ who get pregnant. I don’t know how far the script will dare push this. Will there be a scene where the priest successfully prays for the lesbians to turn straight or for the Muslim sheriff to convert to Christianity? That would be funny, and brave; but somewhat unlikely, I suspect.