TV Review: Joe Pera Talks with You

How did a show about breakfast, bean arches and Northern Michigan’s rock formations become Adult Swim’s finest show?

Why change from what you like? Thanks to an obsessive habit of tracking myself on last.fm, I can tell you the last 84,018 pieces of music I’ve listened to. That seems fine, until I read there have only ever been 1,088 artists – it doesn’t take much maths to realise there is not much variation there.

Never have I found a way of describing the way I consume music that works as well as a three-minute section of Joe Pera Reads You The Church Announcements. While washing the dishes the young choir teacher (who carries himself with the self-assurance and posture of a man three times his age) hears Baba O’Riley by the Who for the first time. It’s not less than a revelation for him.

It sends Pera into a spiral. He calls every radio station in the area (“or you could search for it online”, one DJ tells him) so he can hear it on repeat, he eats ice cream from the tub, he dances with a pizza delivery driver, he gets a CD player installed in his car, and tries Starbucks coffee for the first time (“a little fancy for my taste”). 

Since it debuted on All4, I’ve found myself watching the episode again and again. I’ve tried to get everyone I’ve spoken to since to watch it. I appreciate I’m a few layers deep in irony at this stage.

But Joe Pera Talks With You is just a strangely comforting show in how it embraces enthusiasm rather than uses it as a punchline. Breaking the fourth wall, these episodes are all about something Pera – a fictionalised version of himself – is passionate about, delivered through a meandering monologue. 

As well as Baba O’Riley, there are episodes that tackle breakfast, local geology and Alberta’s Rat Control Program. In the second season, there’s an eight-episode plot dedicated to growing a perfect bean arch. The result (spoiler: it grows) is lowkey, but utterly joyful.

Pera is a uniquely American character in his sheer enthusiasm, even if it’s not a flag-waving stereotype. The only British comparison could be Ricky Gervais’ Derek, an awful caricature of a man who likes animals and, erm, gurns all the time (but definitely doesn’t stigmatise anyone with learning difficulties). While Gervais can’t help punching down, here Pera’s optimism is never soured by opportunism or a mask for cynicism. 

Instead, Talks With You is unrelentingly kind-hearted. Maybe it’s too much for some people, but it’s easy to find yourself endeared with Pera – he earnestly wants the best for the viewer, why wouldn’t you want the best for him in return. 

Maybe, incredibly, Fleabag is a closer comparison. Both narrators lean on the camera as a friend, but while Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creation relishes filthy jokes to the audience, Pera wants to discuss incredibly specific local history.

And beyond the mundane subject matter and surroundings of nondescript Michigan, the show still keeps in line with the absurdity of other Adult Swim shows.

There are long riffs on his paralysing fear of Jack O’Lanterns stealing his soul, his reaction to driving past baseball diamonds, and some incredible wedding dancing that are amongst the best comedy writing in recent history. 

The closing episode of the first season alone is a masterful, instantly quotable classic. Pera suddenly trying to grasp the big topics and is suddenly wracked with anxiety (“will America pay for what we’ve done?” he cautiously stammers out), before admitting defeat and, instead, returning to his peaceful isolation. 

There’s probably a dissertation to be written on why this show about a man who’s content to be cut off from popular culture, with his elderly best friends in the snowy outposts of Michigan is seemingly only popular with 20 somethings who spend a decent amount of time snarking on Twitter and live in cities. Maybe this quiet contentment is what we’re all aspiring for really. 

And if any kind of calmness seems far away in a world forever on the cusp of crisis, there’s always a choir teacher in Michigan who’s willing to talk you through it.

Joe Pera Talks With You is available to stream on All 4

Photo with thanks to Adult Swim

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