The first episode of Mr. Corman—a new Apple TV+ series created, written, and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt—is all about what a drag its eponymous lead character is. Josh Corman (Gordon-Levitt) is anxious, awkward around his public-school students, and unable to see the joy in the world around him. Luckily, that’s just the setup for the show to demonstrate how wrong he is.
Gordon-Levitt updates the familiar “sad man story” by pushing Josh to look beyond himself for salvation, adding the kind of whimsy that the protagonist might scoff at, but actually creates on his own. The magic of the series comes from the emotional and romantic asides that stem from Josh’s psyche. He admits in the first episode that he hasn’t played piano in a year, but once he does, that effort kicks off his season-long story. Gordon-Levitt is perfect for this role—he displayed remarkable nuance early on in 3rd Rock From The Sun, and his turn in (500) Days of Summer still feels fresh after 15 years—but you can see why he’s avoided taking on a singular lead role in a TV series until he created his own show. The play between music and imagery needs to be sold wholesale by its main actor, since most of the other characters are more self-assured in their personal identities, at least compared to Josh. The actor can tap into a kind of menacing anxiety and self-pity in a way that keeps even the audience at arm’s length, which makes his attempts to connect feel more earned. The breaks from Josh’s perspective add another layer, showing that his sad sack worldview is remarkably truncated, even when he’s right about things (like wearing masks).
Gordon-Levitt moved his whole family, along with the production of the series, to New Zealand near the end of last year, but the show doesn’t skip a beat. The pandemic changed a lot of things about the world, but what’s striking about Mr. Corman is how it weaves the reality of the pandemic into the story, so that it feels like it was always part of the character’s arc. Early on, Josh’s anxiety seems to appear out of nowhere and annoys his friends and family, but as the series unfolds, and the pandemic starts, his uneasiness starts to feel justified. That doesn’t mean he stops getting on the nerves of the people around him, but the way his mother Ruth (Debra Winger) and his roommate Victor (Arturo Castro) come around to his precautions helps them all meet halfway.
The interplay of form, imagery, and music throughout creates a stylish vehicle for Gordon-Levitt’s ideas: A crowd of people is shown to be made up of fuzzy, flickering pictures, while crosswords become a visual motif for Ruth. The way that the show uses music feels fresh as well, even though it has its precedents. Mr. Corman’s soundscape isn’t the manic musical theatre of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which demonstrated how music can offer TV writers the chance to be both sincere and satirical. It’s more comparable to Bo Burnham’s Inside, whose songs quickly went viral on TikTok for their acerbic references to mental health and fears about capitalism and climate change. As with Inside, Mr. Corman lets us see the main character playing with all different sorts of instruments: a keyboard, synthesizer, recorder, drums, and a few more instruments harder to identify. A loud gong provides a unique refrain when Josh’s anxiety rises. At one point, he looks at his mother and is filled with forgiveness for her that manifests as a song-and-dance number across a Los Angeles surrounded by crossword mountains. Meanwhile, a fight scene at Halloween is a cross between a video game and a superhero movie.
Like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, and Russian Doll before it, Mr. Corman suggests that part of dealing with mental health struggles is seeing the people around you as fully formed humans whose points of view are just as important as yours. Broad City alum and Alternatino creator Arturo Castro gets to shine in the episode “Mr. Flores”; a trip to the childhood home of Josh’s ex-girlfriend Megan (Juno Temple) reveals more about that character. Even background characters like Ruth’s boyfriend and UPS customers get their moments to exist outside of Josh’s story, as the camera follows their point of view. The show boasts several female characters—including Megan’s mother (Lucy Lawless)—who go beyond Josh’s judgments to voice their actual opinions in their messy glory. Megan, Ruth, Josh’s sister (Shannon Woodard), Victor’s daughter and ex, even a parent at one of Josh’s conferences—all of these women have a chance to share their own perspectives and philosophies.
Some episodes feel especially cognizant of Josh’s thirtysomething ennui, particularly “Many Worlds,” which plays with the different directions Josh’s life could’ve taken, after we learn how much of Josh’s current situation—specifically his job as a teacher rather than the musician he apparently longs to be—is his own doing rather than something to blame on the rest of the world. Mr. Corman has a few missteps, most notably in an episode that tries to take on the bureaucracy of insurance companies, but the series more than recovers in the last few episodes. All the Zoom meeting prep and frequent mask-wearing ground the show in real world, making Josh’s former anxieties about climate change and the end times feel relatable and justified without suggesting those anxieties should rule his life. As was probably the case for a lot of people, this uninterrupted time causes Josh to face himself (at times literally). He hashes things out with his roommate after a fight and time apart, approaches a heart-to-heart with his mom with gentleness instead of hostility, and better connects with his students when conducting class over Zoom. Most of all, he starts taking greater stock of the people around him.
The season finale is a neat bookend, a strong contrast to the premiere: While Josh’s anxiety predicted the disaster of the hook-up in the first episode, a Zoom date takes offers refreshing twists and turns rarely seen on television, with conversation that runs between surprising and authentic. These moments are often thrown in at the end of these sad sack narratives to show how a man has changed. But here, it feels earned, if only because Josh lets people’s words—Victor’s, Ruth’s, his date’s, his students’—actually get through to him. More importantly, he becomes someone who he (and the audience) can actually enjoy being around.