Joe Pera Talks With You Feels the Pain of Mental IllnessPhoto courtesy of Adult Swim Comedy Features joe pera
At the start of Joe Pera Talks With You’s third season, Joe’s friend Gene calls him “a person of integrity who likes describing things.” It’s a funny line (delivered seriously, of course) but also an accurate description of Pera’s persona. Joe Pera as a character—and, presumably, as a person—has always been fundamentally decent, a good-natured and well-meaning guy who looks for the best in people and is always excited to share his knowledge with them, but in a genial, low-key way that never comes off as arrogant or annoying. The third season immediately reestablishes that tone in the first episode, when Joe helps Gene search for the perfect retirement chair, regaling the viewer with long, slow, adoring shots of different recliners, while Joe explains what’s special about them. It’s often noted that Joe Pera Talks With You is a crucial source of calm and positivity during an incredibly angry and chaotic time, and Joe quietly talking over footage of La-Z-Boys proves that’s still as true as ever.
That’s not to say that there isn’t still chaos within Joe Pera Talks With You, and there’s more of it in Season 3 so far than ever before. Ever since Joe’s girlfriend Sarah (played by Jo Firestone) was revealed to be a doomsday prepper near the end of season 1 she’s brought a bit of uncertainty into Joe’s otherwise placid life. Season 3 has gone deeper into Sarah’s paranoia and anxiety, turning her into more of a fully-realized person while also paralleling the real world’s continued slide into wide-scale uncertainty. Her eccentricities are no longer shown as quirks, but as signs of legitimate mental illness, and the show respectfully and empathetically captures the fear and confusion one feels when their brain works in ways they don’t understand. In one episode Sarah is overcome with fear that society is about to violently collapse at that very moment; her urgent need to flee to the woods isn’t played for laughs, and her panicked energy makes the episode feel heavy and stressful in a way you wouldn’t expect from this show. Even Joe’s attempts to remain unflappable and polite while not judging Sarah’s behavior can’t restore the episode’s balance; if I told you there’s an episode that shows Joe making a campfire step-by-step, you’d probably never guess that it came during the saddest and most anxious moment in the show’s history.
Sarah’s fear is intentionally not funny, but that sharp, painful depiction of mental illness makes the already excellent Joe Pera Talks With You an even better show. It underscores its usual sweet, soothing tone, while putting in the work to make its characters seem like real people. Sarah’s paranoia isn’t just a randomly assigned character trait to give the show something to joke about; it’s a deeply-rooted part of her personality that reflects her larger mental illness and which we now know can flare up unexpectedly and shift an entire episode out of its expected orbit. Joe Pera Talks With You has been sad before, and there’s always been a slightly elegiac note to the show, like it’s paying tribute to a kind of decent, wholesome, community-minded life that has largely vanished, if it ever even existed in the first place; Sarah’s troubles, though, expand on that sadness, and turns it from the wistful into something scarier and more acute.
There’s also always been a surprising bit of depth beneath Joe Pera’s celebration of the everyday, but the show’s emotional power and subtle insight into human nature has grown more evident and more profound with each season. You see it in the deepening depression of the alcoholic and emotionally inert Mike Melsky (played by Conner O’Malley, a master of depicting broken masculinity), and in Joe finally moving on from the loss of his grandmother. It’s most clear with Sarah grappling with her fears and her mental health. It’s made Joe Pera Talks With You not just one of the funniest and most heartfelt shows on TV, but also one of the most perceptive and powerful, as well.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin. He was there at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Sid Bream slid into home base to win Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.