Season 2 of Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You revolves, in part, around the story of its titular character growing a bean arch. What’s a bean arch? Why, it’s a garden-based fabrication that provides an arched trellis for beans to grow on, of course. Over multiple episodes, we accompany Joe in learning bean arch construction methods, proper seedling care, and even the gardener’s guilt of forgetting to arrange for someone to water your plants when you leave on a summer trip.
There’s nothing about it that’s flashy, dramatic, or even befitting of being aired on television. I can’t stop thinking about growing my own.
The short-format 12-minute episodes of Joe Pera Talks With You are almost certainly not what you expect from Cartoon’s Network’s Adult Swim lineup, which has long been associated with offbeat cartoons for the inebriated and absurdist live-action humor. If Joe Pera is to be accused of absurdity, it’s through its hyper-focus on the most mundane aspects of life—much in the same way that a common word, when spoken in repetition, begins to sound foreign and divorced from its symbolic value.
The show follows the everyday life of the fictional, mild-mannered, Upper-Peninsula-dwelling persona of real-life comedian Joe Pera. Episodes titles tease such topics as “Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive” and “Joe Pera Shows You How to Do Good Fashion,” which are explored in tandem with the emotional content of Joe’s encounters with love, grief, loss, and hope.
I discovered Joe Pera Talks With You in the Spring of 2020, around the same time COVID upended all the mundane routines of my own, non-televised, life. My then-girlfriend and I quickly devoured the 22 available episodes, then started watching them over again. And again.
Joe Pera takes full advantage of its Marquette, Michigan setting. Apart from the aggressively Yooper references to cornish pasties and the Mackinac Bridge, the world of Joe Pera will feel familiar to lots of residents of the Upper Midwest. We see Joe take part in such Midwestern rituals as a Friday evening fish fry and a fall drive to a state park. He knows an uncomfortable number of facts about the lighthouses of Lake Superior. He gets his car hung up on a pile of snow backing out of a parking spot.
More than anything, the Midwestern setting radiates through the characters themselves. If the caricatured Minnesotans in Fargo depicted how evil could lurk just beneath the stolid affect of regular Midwest folk, Joe Pera reminds us that more often that stoicism hides great caring, warmth, and an enthusiasm for life. Sometimes a wood-chipper is only for clearing brush.
Time and again, Pera provides us with blueprints for extracting joy and meaning in areas of our own lives that we have been performing only as unthinking, calloused habit for years. In Season 2, Joe takes us to the grocery store, where we learn the three questions he asks prior to placing an item in his cart: “Should I eat this? Will I eat this? Can I afford this food?” (Swiss chard, for example, is a Yes/No/Yes; he adds, “I’m always struck by the color of swiss chard, but never know what to do with it and end up chucking it over my fence.”) After Joe’s 12-minute tour of his grocery routine, see if you don’t find yourself mentally evaluating your next Heggie’s Pizza at Cub (No/Yes/Yes for this author).
There’s an episode where Joe shares his compulsion to run the empty bases of every unused baseball diamond he sees, even if it means pulling over his car. I introduced a friend to Joe Pera last week, and two days later she texted me a video of her own lap around an empty baseball diamond. We see Joe’s contentment in life and the joy and attention he brings to his life and it inspires us to emulate it. I don’t think it’s a child-like wonder exactly, but the wonder of an adult who is actually happy.
This last year, as my own routines fell apart and the weeks at home turned into months, that’s exactly what I needed: a model of a person who is happy not through exceptional achievement or experience, but by bringing curiosity and intention to the basic components of their life. And I think, too, I needed to see that in a snow covered landscape where people draw out their vowels a bit oddly and where finding a unique agate can make a day’s hike worthwhile.
We’re headed into another long winter, and that gives me plenty of time to figure out where I could put that bean arch.
Joe Pera Talks With You Season 3 is currently airing at 11:30pm Sunday nights on Cartoon Network, but you can find previous seasons streaming on HBOMax.