The star-studded production A World of Calm, airing on HBO Max Oct. 1, is made by the bedtime story and meditation app company Calm, which is known for its big-name celebrity collaborations. It’s unclear, at first, what the new series is meant to do. Keanu Reeves, Kate Winslet, Oscar Isaac, Mahershala Ali, Zoe Kravitz, and more say banal things about popular subjects while what sometimes looks like but actually isn’t stock footage rolls. It’s not so much relaxing as it is boring; maybe a sufficient tool to lull a baby but not necessarily the trick for anyone older than 4 (no offense to toddlers, who do deserve better).
Instead, I’d recommend watching an astonishingly calming episode of the Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks With You made during the shelter-in-place, called “Relaxing Old Footage with Joe Pera.”
Joe Pera is not a celebrity, and though he is technically not your friend, he feels like one. The at once earnest and dry comedian has one of the most unusual and comforting voices I have ever heard, and some surprising, funny, and hopeful things to say while accompanied by a deep and windy original score. The footage itself, which also highlights the natural world and other contexts, is actually relaxing without being tiresome or another exercise in spiritual bypassing (Henry Kissinger and the unpunished harms of the world are addressed).
“Relaxing Old Footage” has the same 22-minute runtime as the episodes in A World of Calm, but you won’t spend the duration waiting for it to end. If you want more, you can continue to watch Joe Pera Talks with You, which is otherwise live-action and more dynamic (and now also available on HBO Max), but has the same kind of refreshing and softening energy.
Why am I talking so much about a show I was not actually assigned to review? Well, because I want readers to actually have something calming to watch that’s good—but also to set up the contrast needed to explain to you why A World of Calm is so annoying and perhaps yet another example of how corporatism is gradually working to demolish art. The show has used its considerable budget to hire some of the most sought-after and recognizable actors to do voiceover alongside an experienced team of writers and directors; yet, as Apple TV+ has shown us, star wattage and resumes do not guarantee quality or insight.
The reign of Silicon Valley and venture capital means that boardrooms full of absurdly wealthy people—usually white, almost certainly men—get to decide what is worth investing time, money, and the attention of others in. As a result, we get a stream of “content” fashioned to appeal to the largest common denominator of hypothetical people. Actual art more likely ends up on fairly marginal platforms that have been gradually disappearing due to lack of institutional support while the dominant studios and streaming companies get to pick a handful of emerging or unusual voices to be plopped in an ocean of mediocrity (at best). If I sound excessively negative it’s because the landscape is.
It’s possible that Calm’s success is artificial, though they do have somewhat of a revenue-making structure. People can hand their dollars to the app in order to listen to Matthew McConaughey drawl them into a slumber. The utility of this is that listeners may be, yes, calmed—or, in fact, pacified and made complacent with the chaos they see around them. This mollified state of being is conducive to modern-day productivity and, of course, corporate culture. Art itself can be escapist, but at its best, any sense of escape is not geared to systematically disconnect you from the plight or joy of others. Instead, entering another realm can be about reconnecting with a state of unrefined openness; perhaps, for a moment, being able to put aside personal feelings of anxiety for a more external experience. That sort of thing is much harder to pitch to billionaires.