It may come as a surprise to find the spirit of Mr. Rogers living on in a show nestled between Rick & Morty and Eric André on Adult Swim. Taking place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Joe Pera Talks with You is centered around comedian Joe Pera playing a version of himself. With shuffling gait and a delivery that has the soothing cadence of a babbling brook, Joe introduces himself and a topic at the start of each episode, ranging from the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada to the purpose of a garage refrigerator. This is likely to change though, whether from the intrusion of daily life or even because of Joe’s own interests. The sudden shift in “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” leading to a priest becoming exasperated at Joe’s enthusiasm, is a delight best experienced blind. Quite a few folks treat Joe as a sort of oddity, a living wooden nickel escaped from some small town history museum. This doesn’t stop Joe from caring about them. The show has quite the range of characters, from baritone-voiced retiree Gene to his chaotic neighbor Mike, played by executive producer and co-star Conner O’Malley. Joe knows that he and his interests are the butt of some people’s jokes and it can sting but he doesn’t let it keep him from being himself or excited to share the world with others. Afterall, why be bothered when there’s a beautiful old lighthouse to show off?
The recent season three is a pandemic season though the show doesn’t mention COVID by name but it’s felt throughout the nine episodes. “It’s 2018 and the economy is booming,” a character mentions in the season opener, a joke with a surprising amount of emotional weight behind it as the pandemic also enters its third season. The fear and stress of the past couple years are filtered through Sarah (Jo Firestone), Joe’s girlfriend, who is in many ways his opposite. Where he sees wonder, Sarah sees the weak links where things could go wrong. She’s ready for such an event, her basement filled with canned goods and medicine. Her anxiety also makes it hard to open up, whether it’s in relationships or social events like a local party where there’s people she doesn’t know. What’s refreshing about the show is that Sarah is never treated like a burden or a joke. Joe gives her plenty of space when needed but he’s also a lifeline, gently reminding her about friendship and beautiful things. In the best episode of season three, “Joe Pera Takes You for a Flight,” Joe gives Sarah a bird’s eye view. As she looks down over the town, thanks to the power of modern drone technology, it’s still a world filled with education budget cuts and police brutality but it’s also where Joe lives. Joe Pera Talks with You is an antidote for doom scrolling without trying hard to be so. It knows we have to grapple with hard realities, but we can at least take a break for the next twelve minutes.
Joe Pera Talks with You has the energy of people who were shown Ken Burns documentaries at an impressionable age or those who still find the grocery store to hold a degree of magic, even if there is something off about just how many options there are. Especially in western pop culture, it’s rare to find storytelling that remembers to breathe. Despite the brevity of the episodes, each one feels like taking time to pace your breathing. As Joe talks to you from places like the banks of Lake Superior or in bed during a thunderstorm, it’s easy to feel comforted and even a little bit excited about what’s around us. Regardless of whether or not his role is simply a comedic persona, Joe presents the ideal neighbor, kind and always ready to give you vegetables from his garden, but the show is also a reminder that we can also be that. Afterall, the world may be an amazing place but a well-built campfire or the perfect breakfast isn’t quite the same without someone to share it with.
An MFA graduate from Oklahoma State University, Wyeth Leslie is a poet and author interested in the intersection between technology, the environment, and human relationships. His writings have been featured in publications such as The Vital Sparks, Lost Futures, and Haywire Magazine. He can be found staring into the abyss on Twitter: @Wyeth_was_here