What to Watch Verdict
The first two episodes of 'Mr. Corman' feel like the overlong start to something that ought to have been an indie movie.
✖️ Joseph Gordon-Levitt remains a compelling screen presence.
✖️ The second episode's depiction of a panic attack is uncomfortably realistic.
✖️ The same episode has an unexpected but emotional catharsis.
✖️ It's hard to see why this story has been turned into a 10-episode series.
✖️ The main character is unpleasantly cruel when he's not being awkward
✖️ The "What if?" scenario is less interesting than JGL may think.
This post contains spoilers for Mr. Corman
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a rare actor; having started out as a child star in films like Angels in the Outfield and TV shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun, he managed to avoid the pitfalls of growing up in the rough-and-tumble world of Hollywood. By the mid-2000s, he had re-established himself as an indie actor to watch in Brick and (500) Days of Summer, before then starring in some major blockbusters like Inception and Looper. (Of course, it helps that his collaborator Rian Johnson has seen his star rise too.)
But in the last few years, Gordon-Levitt has mostly backed away from the spotlight, after starring in Robert Zemeckis’ real-life drama The Walk and as whistleblower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden. His recent appearance in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a fine reminder that he’s a solid screen presence, but also was a strange case of being reminded that he’d been absent for years from major roles. Now, he’s moved onto another streamer with Apple TV+ and the new TV series Mr. Corman, a ten-episode dramedy where he plays the title character, a fifth-grade teacher in the San Fernando Valley struggling to figure himself out.
Apple TV+ is, as is now fairly typical with its episodic shows, releasing multiple episodes this Friday, with the first two — “Good Luck” and “Don’t Panic” — being available before shifting to a fully weekly release for the next eight installments. The strategy here makes sense...somewhat. These opening episodes establish a few necessary details about Josh Corman (a name that sounds similar enough to “Joseph Gordon” that it’s likely not an accident), but maintain a maddeningly enigmatic air while setting the table.
Corman, when we see him in the classroom, seems like a reasonable enough teacher, connecting with students as much as he can while also stumbling sometimes. (A back-and-forth with one student about his identifying Sacajawea as “Lewis and Clark’s female guide” sticks with him, as he wonders if his progressivism is inadvertently inappropriate.) He lives in a nondescript apartment with his old friend Victor (Arturo), and is barely picking up the emotional pieces after the end of his relationship with his ex Megan (Juno Temple, who only appears in a few Instagram snaps in the second episode, but will presumably have a bigger presence moving forward because...well, you don’t cast Juno Temple just to appear in photos, do you?). And perhaps most importantly, Corman is grappling with his true passion for music — it’s alluded to that he pursued music in the past to no great end, and “Good Luck” climaxes with him opening up the door to a room where his musical equipment is stored and playing for what must be the first time in a while. That scene comes after an attempted dalliance Corman has with a young woman at a bar (Emily Tremaine), which fails due to an unexpected bout of impotence leading to a particularly nasty argument.
The second episode, “Don’t Panic”, is primarily about Corman having a very hard time following that advice, as he has an intensive panic attack, first visualized as a meteor heading straight towards him. It’s so bad that he has to call out of work, though he’s unable to get any medical attention. He only finds solace at the end of the episode, attending a breathing-exercise session at a local community center on a whim and connecting wordlessly with an older woman who’s clearly hurting emotionally as well.
Where Mr. Corman struggles so far is in the sense that this show could have just as easily been a feature film, much like Don Jon, the 2013 comedy-drama Gordon-Levitt directed, wrote, and starred in. (He not only created Mr. Corman, but wrote and directed the first episode.) Based on Gordon-Levitt’s own comments, Mr. Corman is partially inspired by the idea of what would have happened to Gordon-Levitt had he never become a successful actor. That kind of “what if…?” scenario can lead to interesting creative avenues, but these opening installments mostly raise a different question: ...What is going on here? Or, more importantly, is anything going on here?
Gordon-Levitt is working within a familiar emotional setting here, the same kind of mopiness that stood out when he played the lead in (500) Days of Summer. But the difference is that we know so little about Josh Corman from the start -- there are brief moments of striking and colorful fantasy that imply he’s got an overactive imagination, like the aforementioned meteor gag, but they’re few and far between -- that it’s hard to care about him as a person. (The argument that serves as the emotional climax of “Good Luck” culminates with Corman harshly asking his would-be one-night stand if she always knew she was going to die alone, which is...a sour note to conclude on, to say the least.)
The other emotional setting that wears thinner much quicker is something closer to the cringe comedy of Larry David. In the back half of “Don’t Panic”, after Corman finds the breathing-exercise session, he learns that attendees are allowed to pay as little or as much as they want to take part, and then spends the next few minutes trying to wheedle out of the desk attendant how much he’s supposed to give, and how much other people are giving. (Eventually, he relents and gives 20 dollars, leading to one of the only genuinely funny parts of either episode: when he sees how laid-back and not terribly professional the session leader is, he admits that he clearly gave way too much.)
For now, though, it’s the names involved in Mr. Corman that remain the highest point of appeal. (Aside from Gordon-Levitt, the most notable actor in the first two episodes is Debra Winger, who portrays Josh’s mother. Noah Segan, also a longtime collaborator with Rian Johnson, also makes an appearance in the first episode as a burnout friend of Corman’s.) Seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt back on screen -- small or large -- is a welcome return. But while his talents behind and in front of the camera are well-proven, Mr. Corman starts out as the kind of show that probably didn’t need to be a show.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.