Joseph Gordon-Levitt created, directed and stars in Apple TV+’s “Mr. Corman,” proving himself a thoughtful, unique filmmaker grappling in sweet, funny and subtle ways with nothing less than the existential dread at the core of our times. Here’s hoping viewers stick with the series long enough to find that out: Gordon-Levitt’s approach is so subtle, so quiet, that it would be easy to dismiss the show after the first episode or two and move onto another of the many, many great streaming options available. It’s an approach that allows us to absorb the everydayness of the title character, a fifth-grade teacher and lost soul. But it’s also an approach that builds slowly toward its best (and flashiest) moments, risking losing some of the audience before it gets juicy.
On paper, the premise sounds like that of a forgotten network sitcom from the 1990s. Josh Corman leads an exceedingly regular life a year after breaking up with his great love and leaving behind dreams of rock stardom for good, settling on a job as a middle-school teacher in California’s San Fernando Valley. You can imagine this going in sort of a “Single Guy”-meets-“Ted Lasso” direction. Maybe he’ll model functional masculinity for us while learning some lessons from the surprisingly wise young souls he teaches and perhaps find new love along the way!
Instead, “Mr. Corman” reaches for something deeper. The idea: Josh doesn’t need the high-stakes drama of a grand romance or a murder to solve or bad guys to fight. In a time of global warming, pandemics and dozens of other dark headlines every day, each of us is fighting a battle with the highest stakes possible each moment we’re alive on Earth. The series begins, deliberately, in August 2019, the most profound worldwide shakeup of everyday life looming silently on the horizon. We don’t know if we’ll see Josh deal with that directly, but we know what he doesn’t.
From this vantage point, we can see that the trappings of modern existence are just numbing us to reality. “All I’m saying is 200 years ago, it was definitely a lot worse, which is worth acknowledging,” Josh tells his students during a lesson about Sacagawea. But the show makes the argument that things might be a lot worse now, too terrible for us to comprehend. We go about our business, meeting hookups in bars as if that’ll help, treating jobs like they mean something, driving on the freeway as if it’s not wildly dangerous. The show isn’t scolding us, though. Maybe, it’s saying, this is us doing our best. This is us trying.
“Mr. Corman” wants us to know that plot is a farce, a distraction. Gordon-Levitt uses Hollywood techniques to instead heighten workaday emotions to the levels they deserve. Josh’s bouts of clinical anxiety manifest as a fireball hurtling toward Earth, “Armageddon”-style. A whimsical musical number underscores his unspoken love for his mother. (Debra Winger is realistically worn and frazzled in the role.) A fantastical action movie fight sequence stands in for a confrontation Josh and two male friends have with some other guys at a Halloween party. The reality, we learn, was both less exciting and much sadder.
While the series starts slow and quiet, it picks up steam by the fourth episode, which, interestingly enough, is the only one that breaks Josh’s extreme subjectivity to focus on his roommate, Victor Morales. Victor — inhabited naturalistically by Arturo Castro — gives us a literal alternate perspective. He’s pretty easygoing and generally happy, even as he struggles to connect with his increasingly onerous preteen daughter. He embraces his daily duties as a UPS driver without, it seems, asking too many of the tough questions that lead Josh into existential dread. At one point in the series, Victor tries to re-create the experience of an anxiety-reducing weighted blanket by lying on top of Josh. (Neither of them can afford the $250 price for a real one.) It’s pretty sweet and funny. It’s also an apt signifier for his entire character, a perfect foil for Josh.
There are plenty of other funny moments among the ruminations and acknowledgements of quiet dread. Josh attends a breath workshop in an attempt to tame his anxiety and has a hilariously frustrating conversation about the class’s “pay what you can” policy at the check-in desk. When the pandemic indeed does hit in the eighth episode, Josh’s dilemmas over how many times to wash his hands while dealing with takeout food and how to act while sheltering in place with his mom and her boyfriend are all too laughably relatable.
At one point during a lockdown heart-to-heart, Josh’s mother lays out what might be the show’s thesis — or at least one of its possible theses. “You take what you get,” she says, “and you’re lucky enough just to be alive.” The beauty of “Mr. Corman” is not just that it poses this as a possibility, but that it leaves it up to us to decide for ourselves if it’s true.