Looking Back At A Fading Americana In JOE PERA TALKS WITH YOU

A look at the most unlikely Adult Swim show.

Recently, critic David Ehrlich wrote an essay on the tenets of Nicecore – a burgeoning wave of films defined by the success of Paddington 2, in which the innate kindness of the characters and their relationships with each other acted as a kind of balm for the current cultural climate defined by animosity, hatred and divisiveness. The examples given tie it directly to the age of Trump, and positioned these films as a response to that, intentional or otherwise. Audiences, Ehrlich argues, respond so strongly to these films because kindness is essential to human nature – and because it is so lacking in our world in general, we seek it out in the refuge of cinema. Cinema has long been a refuge from the outside world, but earlier waves of Nicecore can be found throughout the history of that other refuge, television. From the days of Mr. Rogers through to Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, television has served as a moral compass built from the essential goodness of its subjects since the beginning of the medium.

Joe Pera Talks With You, on first glance, arguably appears to be the crest of this particular wave. This modest Adult Swim show, built around experimental comedian Joe Pera, is modeled on earlier shorts that have featured the character – an almost absurdly gentle, loveable small-town choir teacher with small-scale, rural interests who appears to be a sweet old man living in the body of a much younger man. It’s a remarkable, long-term performance by Pera himself, who rarely, if ever, breaks character in public. Much like earlier work from Pera including Pancake Breakfast Critic and Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep, Joe Pera Talks With You is deliberately low-stakes, as Pera takes us through scenarios like choosing the best breakfast food, or having the confidence to dance at a wedding reception. Throughout, the character of Pera introduces us to his little world, populated by similarly kind individuals in an idealized little American town. In short ten-minute chunks, the show has a remarkable ability to soothe, between Pera’s lilting, halting cadence and the hypnotic score that accompanies Pera’s narration.

Much of the response to the show has been to this effect – it's a welcome distraction from the outside world, one that reminds us of the essential goodness of people, and so on and so forth. This is certainly, unmistakably present in the work, and can be viewed as such throughout, but it denies an essential element of the show itself, which is to say that the show is Nicecore because of its awareness of the encroaching darkness all around it. What makes Joe Pera’s character so captivating is his fragility – watching we feel an almost paternal intensity of feeling toward protecting his innocence, his kindness, lest the world around him destroy it entirely. Pera is not stupid – though he is perhaps willfully ignorant to the evils of the world, he is not immune to them. The very first episode of this new series re-introduces us to Pera as he begins to describe his favourite local rocks and minerals when a rowdy family invade his house off the back of local teens pranking him by putting a For Sale sign on his lawn. Pera’s idyllic, small-town tranquility is actively disrupted by this apparition from the outside world, and Joe’s pathological need for politeness almost forces him to go through with the sale unwillingly.

Later, the introduction of a love interest for Pera in the form of a fellow teacher at his school - an obsessive survivalist convinced, perhaps aptly, of a coming apocalypse - gradually continues this disruption of Pera’s worldview, until the weight threatens to cave in on him entirely. It is a fascinating tightrope for the show to walk, particularly because throughout, the kindness of Pera to others continues to be a life-raft for the characters around him, and us, to the point where it can be actively startling. The episode set at a wedding features the bride and groom greeting Pera at the reception, where he casually tells them of their undeniable perfectness for each other, a moment of genuine, out-of-the-blue sweetness enough to totally floor his hosts.

The kernel at the center of this clash between Pera’s goodness and the encroaching darkness around him lies at the heart of Pera himself and what he values. Joe Pera Talks With You airs on Adult Swim, and is immediately at odds with the thorny, aggressive outlooks and approaches of Rick and Morty or The Eric Andre Show or, hell, most things they run. The utter lack of experimentalism in Joe Pera Talks With You is, in its own way, on this channel, perhaps the bravest departure of all. Joe Pera Talks With You is a sweet, short success because of the awareness of the falsity at its center. At this point in time, considering the world around us, the idea of a show celebrating the denizens of a small, majority white, rural American working class town considering the hand such people played in putting the country in its current position is irresponsible at best, dangerous at worst. And so, Joe Pera Talks With You doesn’t do this. In a strange way, it is a cousin of Twin Peaks: The Return and the other works of David Lynch – it presents the ideal American small town as a falsehood, an undeniably intoxicating one, but one that can never truly be achieved.

There is a mournful quality to Joe Pera Talks With You – as if the show is taking a longing look back at this American fantasy before saying goodbye to it entirely. This is particularly the case in the season’s finest episode, ‘Joe Pera Takes You On A Fall Drive’. In it, Joe is informed of a superstition that by carving a Jack-O-Lantern you are giving it a piece of your soul, and the only way to grow it back is to give the pumpkin a proper send-off. Joe’s fall drive thus becomes a kind of extended funeral march for the pumpkin – and for the piece of Joe’s soul – building to a quietly devastating sequence in which he bids it a silent, haunting goodbye. Watching it in the context of what would come after, I was overcome with the sense of a larger farewell – this idea that we cannot return to something that never truly was, but also that to try to is to deny us the potential of something better in the future. This is something that the episode presents to us in a heartwarming coda as small-scale as everything else in the show, in which Joe takes us through another little ritual of his, ending with the line ‘and just like that, I can feel my soul begin to grow back’. Joe Pera Talks with You is a soul-soothing, heartwarming, but never naïve piece of work. And because of that, it becomes just a little bit magical.