[Ed. note: This essay contains spoilers for the entirety of Joe Pera Talks With You.]
“I don’t think people are bad,” Sarah Conner (Jo Firestone) says towards the beginning of the third season of Joe Pera Talks With You. “Just…”
Sarah isn’t given the chance to finish her thought. She’s interrupted by a phone call alerting her boyfriend, Joe (Joe Pera), to the urgent news that apple turnovers are two-for-one at the local market. But her dangling sentence forms the itchy question at the core of this defiantly gentle Adult Swim series, which was canceled in early July after three seasons. If people are not, as a whole, bad, then why does it so often feel so frightening to be alive?
Joe Pera Talks With You — which premiered in 2018, following the one-off specials Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep and Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree — purported to be a genially grownup twist on educational programming. Each episode bore a title promising some enlightening tidbit, from “Joe Pera Shows You How to Dance” to “Joe Pera Shows You How to Build a Fire.” More often than not, though, these nominal tasks were sidelined in favor of sketching in the fictional denizens of Joe’s Marquette, Michigan. Along with teachers Joe and Sarah, the series introduced us to beleaguered parents Mike and Sue Melsky (Conner O’Malley and Jo Scott), Joe’s retired best friend, Gene (Gene Kelly — no, not that one), and eccentric Gabriel (Zachary Uzarraga), a preteen recently relocated from his home on an Antarctic research base. This core ensemble, rounded out with a cast of recurring characters as heightened and vivid as The Simpsons’ Springfield, became the show’s strongest asset in what turned out to be its not-so-secret mission: tackling some of the most urgent and seemingly unanswerable questions facing humanity today.
This may come across as an overstatement, particularly given the show’s seemingly modest aspirations, but taken as a whole, Joe Pera Talks With You now stands as a deft three-act exploration of joy, terror, grief, and love. The first season, which primarily explored life’s small pleasures (going out to breakfast; taking a fall drive; discovering a new favorite song), reached a decisive pivot point as Joe’s flirtation with Sarah climaxed in the reveal that she was a doomsday prepper who obsessively cultivated a fortified basement, one she was convinced would be necessary in the imminent future. Joe’s certainty in the little things was shaken, but not defeated, and he added his beloved collection of antique sheet music to Sarah’s basement, carving out space for beauty amidst his loved one’s fear. The second season, devoted to Joe and Sarah’s burgeoning romance, built to its own startling reveal as Joe’s only living relative, his beloved grandmother (Nancy Cornell in season 1, Pat Vern Harris in season 2), died unexpectedly. Joe’s ensuing tailspin of grief was so severe that Sarah had to briefly take on his usual role as fourth-wall-breaking narrator, a jolting formal breach that demonstrated the power of accepting a loved one’s perspective as they process trauma — Sarah did not try to pull Joe into her reality, she stepped into his, and the gesture resonated as one of powerful love.
In the third season, both Sarah and Joe continued struggling with their psychological burdens; her conviction that human culture was on the verge of cataclysmic collapse had only deepened, while his mourning for his grandmother prevented him from putting her home on the market. By the season’s midpoint, the two were spending an increasing amount of time cloistered in Sarah’s basement, where she pored over news reports and international financial data, determined not to be caught unaware by what she referred to ominously as “the first wave.” Even as episodes continued focusing on life’s mundanities — Mike Melsky’s navigation of family life after a DUI, Gene’s obsessive debate over the ideal armchair for his retirement — the frighteningly uncertain future became the season’s core, and Sarah’s apocalyptic vision threatened to become the dominant one.
But two more threads emerged, culminating in the season — and, unexpectedly, series — finale. In one storyline, Gene and Gabriel developed a 100-year plan that formed the platform for Gene’s intended run for President of Earth; in the other, Joe taught himself enough home woodworking to craft a simple kitchen chair. Gene’s plan was utopian; it included a global “omni-cooperative high-speed rail network” and a “community dining center/library” in which vast crowds would gather to eat primary-colored rectangles. But the entire enterprise was painted as patently ludicrous. The implicit question might seem to be whether Gene’s future seems any likelier than Sarah’s, but such a simplistic dichotomy is hardly the series’ primary concern. Instead, it was Joe’s chair that became the turnkey for the entirety of Joe Pera Talks With You.
When Joe and Sarah finally emerged from the basement, he drove her to an empty lot in the woods, which he admitted to having recently purchased with the proceeds from the sale of his grandmother’s home. Placing his freshly-hewn chair in the center of the clearing, he told her, “Let’s build a cabin or something.” The future is coming in some form or another, and while there is plenty we can do to impact it, it’s also important to recognize the limits of our personal capabilities, and the finite usefulness of isolated rumination. Rather than look to either a dire future or a perfect one, Joe looked at his own corner of the world and planned for how best to support himself and his beloved as the uncontrollable approached. The show had always focused on the immediate over the far-flung, but the final image — a man sitting atop the first furnishing of a home not yet built — drove home a message that had been building for three seasons, but one that perhaps came to a head in the hiatus between seasons 2 and 3.
In May 2020, approximately two months after COVID-19 broke out across the United States, Adult Swim premiered a special entitled Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera. The special was made up virtually entirely of B-roll, some selections of which included brewing coffee, water cascading over falls, and hands working at a pottery wheel. Claiming that he hoped the montage might offer a sleep aid to a nurse returning home from a punishing hospital shift, Joe meditated on new ideas spurred by the pandemic. “I’ve been taking a lot of comfort lately in the second law of thermodynamics,” he said. “Usually I don’t, but right now it’s nice to know that all natural processes are irreversible and things are always moving forward. And while I’m not sure it’s possible to affect things much, I’ve got hope that we can bump the path in a slightly better direction.”
Joe Pera Talks With You was not a prescriptivist show, but it was an idealistic one. And that ideal was, in a sense, the power of two-for-one apple turnovers. They won’t prevent that crushing internal debate over whether or not people are bad, but they’re essential nonetheless. It’s vital that those of us prone to Sarah’s terrified worldview remember what we’re so terrified of losing. It’s by no means an abdication of our responsibility to work as hard as possible to ensure a better future for one another, particularly the most vulnerable among us. But if we forget how to appreciate the most minor joys afforded by daily life — something it’s often all too easy to do — we’ve given up some essential battle in the raging war against annihilation. This was what Joe Pera talked with us about, and though the series may have ended before either its creators or fans were prepared for, it will endure as a handbook for navigating compounding crises. As long as there are chairs, and the people to sit on them, there must be hope.