The show is filmed, in part, in Milwaukee, including an entire episode that takes place within Copper Kitchen, (3935 S Howell Ave). It airs its 11-minute episodes on Adult Swim on Fridays at midnight, and after last year’s fantastic first season, its second season starts on Dec. 6.
Joe Pera, the titular character, opens the third episode driving his 2001 Buick Park Avenue (“truly one of America’s most beautiful automobiles”) through the winding roads of the upper peninsula with a Jack-O-Lantern resting on his backseat.
Behind a thick pair of glasses, with his fair blondish hair combed over his forehead, Joe speaks with the slow, gentle, deliberate midwestern accent of an elderly librarian, complete with the subtle replacement of the letter S with a denture-loosening Sh sound. Pinning an age on him is not a simple thing. As one other character says, “Your face tells me you’re 10, but your bald spot tells me you’re 63.”
He’s quite tall, but walks with a stoop, his hands always awkwardly slip in and out of his pockets.
He works as a middle school choir teacher, lives alone in a modest home with his dog, Gus, and has a deep appreciation for minutiae and obscure topics. The show is replete with tone-perfect comic detail that illustrates his character, such as how he signs off his text messages, “ – Joe” and doesn’t want to eat gravy at breakfast because it “makes me sleepy, and I have to go to the bank this afternoon.”
As Joe is making his fall drive, he turns to the camera and says,
“I’m glad you could join me on my fall loop, the drive I do each year on the Saturday following Halloween. It’s a tradition that began when I was trying to answer the question: How come Jack-O-Lantern’s scare me so goddamn much? I’m sorry to swear, it’s just that for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why they unnerved me, even though I’m bigger and more powerful than them.”
This follows the usual premise of the show. Joe spends each episode talking with us about a topic of interest to him.
This episode stems from something Joe’s best friend and neighbor Gene tells him: each time you carve a Jack-O-Lantern, you give it one-sixteenth of your soul. To get your soul back you have to participate in a soul-growing activity, such as Joe’s fall drive to leave his pumpkin in the wilderness.
This is where the real mastery of the show is found—the subtle incorporation of a sad, sweet story. The next scene opens with Joe, his grandmother (a.k.a. ‘Nana’), and his neighbors sitting outside Joe’s house on Halloween, giving out candy, while dressed like the dreadlocked twins from The Matrix Reloaded. The conversation leads to a flashback, and we see a faded photo of a young, chubby Joe standing with his four grandparents on a Halloween decades ago. The photo flips to a new shot, with a slightly older Joe dressed as a Jedi. But now one of his grandfathers is missing from the picture. The photo stack is flipped to another new photo. Now Joe only has two of grandparents with him. The photo changes again. Now it’s is only an adult Joe and his Nana, standing together on the front porch dressed as hippies.
Without a single line of clunky exposition or hacky emotional dialogue, the show just walked us through Joe growing up and gradually losing his entire family, save one, and being left alone in that house. It gave context and emotional depth to Joe’s sweet, mild-mannered nature. Earlier moments, such as when he can’t find anyone to eat breakfast with in the second episode, take on a new aura of loneliness and loss. And all while maintaining the abjectly goofy comedy of Joe’s ridiculous costumes.
The episode includes more brilliant moments—such as when Joe briefly meets the woman who eventually becomes his love interest, played by Jo Firestone, who is phenomenal—but we soon return to Joe driving through the woods. He speaks to us about his pumpkin’s inevitable demise.
“Wonderful as it is to give a pumpkin life, you also give it death. An uncarved pumpkin can last three months, but a Jack-O-Lantern rots in five to ten days. Imagine from the perspective of my pumpkin. Right now in the rearview mirror, it’s looking into the eyes of its creator, and I can’t help but feel it’s asking, ‘Why?’ … If your creator told you that the reason you exist is because they were a choir teacher doing a seasonal activity, how would you feel?
“Personally, pretty good.”
And as he finally ends his drive and removes the pumpkin from the backseat, he says “If I really gave this pumpkin a piece of my soul, it ought to be laid to rest the same way I hope to be someday.”
That’s what makes the show so perfect. In 11 minutes, it builds a character and creates a multi-layered narrative without sacrificing the comedy even once. If you’re paying attention, you know that Joe saying goodbye to his pumpkin is about more than just the rotting of a seasonal gourd. It’s about those pictures, and all the goodbyes that must have happened between them. It’s about the goodbyes still to come.
The episode ends with Joe crossing the woods, pumpkin clutched between his hands. He takes a seat on a slope overlooking a river, whispers something unheard into the Jack-O-Lantern’s ear, and then lowers it onto the water and lets it go. The episode ends as it floats down the river and over the edge of a waterfall, leaving Joe sitting alone on the bank, faintly smiling.
Oh, and then he says:
“Doesn’t that water look like root beer? I wish it were too. Unfortunately, it’s just colored by tannic acid bleached from cedar swamps upstream.”