Joe Pera and Thoughtful Relationship
It isn't often that I'm so moved by an episode of a tv show that I call my girlfriend in and start it over as soon as it ends. But Adult Swim's Joe Pera Talks With You is as good as everyone says it is.
If you haven't seen it yet, Joe Pera Talks With You is a comedy series on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block that is radically different from anything else on the network. Adult Swim is widely known for a combination of surrealist, grotesque, psychedelic, and heady comedy series' (many of them very good and often very subversive in the broader context of cable tv). Joe Pera is a striking change of pace. It features a mild-mannered ("soft-handed") choir director who reads a lot and knows a lot but is deeply naive about social and romantic encounters. His childlike peering through the glass of grown living is refreshingly earnest on a programming block known for irony and nihilism, and it is an effective salve for those of us growing exhausted of the post-truth, aspirationally-fascist, enmity-driven outside world. Episodes of Joe Pera are only about 10 minutes long and feature the host talking amicably about iron or breakfast or church announcements, but spin into parallel and endearingly personal explorations of joy, love, fear, and wonder. The vehicles for these discussions could be as infectious as Joe's revelatory (late) discovery of the song "Baba O'Riley" or as pensive as his concerns about moving away from his home in Michigan, and they are all presented against beautifully captured visuals and soothing soundscapes. Vice has called Joe Pera "the best thing Adult Swim has ever done" and IndieWire has praised its optimistic and grateful spirit as "a regularly soothing experience and a valuable reminder."
I can now be counted among the very grateful for Joe Pera Talks With You, especially because of the depth and care with which it approaches the relationships between its characters. One episode is a standout for me, the thoughtfully reflective "Joe Pera Guides You Through the Dark."
The episode begins with a poem from a thankful sailor about lighthouses. Despite the fact that they're automated nowadays, Joe daydreams about being a lighthouse keeper, living a solitary life of discipline and service keeping the ships of the Great Lakes safe and on course. Joe imagines himself as a bugler returning from the Civil War and, disenchanted with a life on the dairy farm, stops by a lighthouse and tries to pitch his case to its keeper (played by Jo Firestone, who also plays Joe's fellow teacher and love interest Sarah) for being her assistant.
As the camera turns to Joe in the present day, he is in his house during a blackout. The whole town has lost power, except for Sarah's house, since she has a biodiesel backup generator (due to her discipline and preparedness). Joe does plan to go and check in on her, but he stops by his neighbors' first. After a funny exchange, one of his neighbors asks why he isn't with Sarah. Joe answers, after considering Sarah's disaster expectations and preparations, "What do I have to offer Sarah in a critical moment? I'm still not sure, and if I show up tonight empty-handed, I'm afraid it would indicate not much." The rest of the episode explores this concern, along with some mature considerations of what "being-with" means, through the parallel stories of the imagined lighthouse keepers and the blackout.
I was floored by Joe's comfort leaning into his discomfort, his engagement with a very vulnerable question that, upon reflection, sticks with people in relationships and evolves as they do. I come from the peculiar location of a viewer watching the episode nine years into a romantic entanglement, and it compelled me to think about it. What could I offer her at 17? at 22? at 26? Moving forward, how can I be-there-with-and-for her in significant moments? What can I do? How can I be present not just in my doing, but in my wholeness? The show beautifully leads to Sarah's telling Joe she doesn't want him for whatever he can "do for her" but rather just for him, and it does so without alienating or chastising Joe for asking what are still important questions about what we give the ones we love and how.
There's no fixing in the episode. Just experiencing. And the shades around relationships are not made terrifying or sappy, they're just acknowledged and worked with. And herein lies Joe Pera's power—not in giving answers but in inviting questions.