‘Mr. Corman’: A Study of a Sad Sack by Joseph Gordon-Levitt
As creator, writer, director, and star of this Apple TV+ series about a depressed music teacher who can’t seem to get out of his own way, the actor takes a big swing.
When Apple TV+’s Mr. Corman’s premiere episode concludes, the first four names in the credits all belong to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He directed, wrote, and produced it, as well as starring in it. He is also a producer and contributes to the composition of the music performed by his title character, a fifth-grade teacher in Van Nuys, California, who is unable to abandon his dreams of rock stardom. Given the variety of hats Gordon-Levitt wore on the project, it seems quite likely that he was also baking delectable snickerdoodles for the craft services table on a daily basis.
The combined director-writer-star role has become commonplace in Peak TV, owing to shows like Girls (Lena Dunham), Russian Doll (Natasha Lyonne), and Better Things (Natasha Lyonne) (Pamela Adlon). And Gordon-Levitt has done the multihyphenate thing before, with his feature directorial debut, the 2013 comedy Don Jon, and his 2014 television series HitRECord, where he added “genial variety-show host” to his resume.
Gordon-Levitt has been a household name since he was a teenager, when he starred as the wise-beyond-his-years alien Tommy Solomon on the hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. He transitioned into adult roles with an ease that many child stars lack. Yet when he takes on projects like Don Jon or, more recently, Mr. Corman, it feels as if he is still attempting to demonstrate that he is capable of exceeding our expectations.
On the one hand, that ambition seems perfectly suited to a character like Josh Corman, who has been forced to adjust to a more mundane life than he desired and can’t stop himself from locking himself in the bedroom of the apartment he shares with best friend Victor (Arturo Castro) to experiment with new electronic-music ideas on what appears to be an endless supply of instruments.
On the other hand, much of Mr. Corman appears to conflate “best directed” and “most directed,” and many of the techniques Gordon-Levitt and his collaborators (including Aurora Guerrero, who directed the two episodes JGL did not direct) employ — subjective handheld camerawork, photo-collage special effects, lengthy scenes shot in a single take, frequent lens flare, and much more — ultimately feel out of step.
Or perhaps it’s simply that Josh’s story is ultimately uninteresting enough to sustain a series, regardless of how Gordon-Levitt and company dress it up.
From the first moment we see Josh — pounding percussion against his bare chest in the shower until his skin becomes red and raw from the exertion — it’s clear that music is his passion, and nothing else makes him feel that way, or perhaps at all. He appears to be a well-intentioned, if slightly oblivious, teacher, but he is frequently going through the motions. His friends complain that he only contacts them when he is in need. His love life has been largely nonexistent since the disbandment of his band coincided with the disbandment of his relationship with Megan, the band’s lead singer (Juno Temple from Ted Lasso, who pops up in a few episodes). He adores his mother Ruth (Debra Winger, as always), but is estranged from his sister Elizabeth (Shannon Woodward) and avoids discussing his father.
“It just feels as though I blew it,” he laments to Victor. “As if I’m a bad person.” Mr. Corman attempts to walk a razor-thin line between being sympathetic to Josh and acknowledging his numerous flaws, and only occasionally succeeds. “You enjoy being a loser,” a woman tells him following a botched one-night stand, and the insult is not entirely unjustified. While the majority of the first season’s ten episodes center on Josh’s struggle to find meaning and joy in an increasingly oppressive world, a few experiment with the format in a way that has almost become a cliché in the half-hour drama genre.
One episode bounces between several alternate realities in which Josh has changed dramatically (FX’s Legion did a similar episode a few years ago), while another switches to Victor’s POV, temporarily renaming the show Mr. Morales. Josh makes a brief appearance in the latter installment and is depicted as the obnoxious, neurotic, and clingy roommate that Victor must frequently perceive him to be. That episode, as well as another later in the season in which Josh goes on a blind date with the daughter of one of Ruth’s friends, demonstrate that Gordon-Levitt and the other writers are not blind to Josh’s numerous flaws — most notably an endless capacity for self-pity. However, this also makes you wish they hadn’t chosen to center the show on this guy when so many others in his orbit appear to be more sympathetic while also dealing with complex issues of their own.
Because Josh is such a bore and so consistently one-note, even the show’s more impressive Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy — a musical number in which Gordon-Levitt and Winger dance across rooftops, or a video game-style fight sequence outside a Halloween party — ring hollow. They appear cool(*), but only in service to a frail, irritable protagonist.
(*) Gordon-Levitt explained to the TV’s Top 5 podcast that he had only completed three weeks of filming when the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020. Eventually, production moved from Los Angeles to New Zealand, and Covid protocols required him to alter many of the ways he shot, resulting in some of these fantasies being much more stylized than they would have been otherwise.
Later episodes (the majority of which take place during those early quarantine days) take a more pointed view of Josh and feature strong guest performances from actors such as Hugo Weaving and Jamie Chung. However, there never appears to be enough there to justify the effort.
When Josh inquires as to why his student Ramon does not wish to continue studying astronomy, Ramon responds, “I suppose it makes me feel small” — a sentiment Josh can painfully relate to. There is nothing wrong with small stories being told on television. Numerous multihyphenate shows to which Mr. Corman aspires are all about diminution. However, this brief story does not feel worthy of the time required to experience it, nor of the diverse talents demonstrated by its creator, writer, director, and star.