The COVID-19 pandemic inevitably rears its ugly head in 'Mr. Corman', in an episode that's effectively oppressive but not terribly entertaining.
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an excellent job of communicating the confusion and terror of the early days of the pandemic
- His performance is fittingly claustrophobic
- Incorporating the pandemic is undeniably logical for the character journey
- Even for 30 minutes, reliving the early days of the pandemic isn't much fun
- The way that Victor changes his tune regarding the pandemic shouldn't be handled offscreen
- The flight of fancy is strangely handled
I won’t pat myself too hard on the back for having presumed that the way last week’s episode of Mr. Corman, “Many Worlds”, ended was a hint to the future of the series. As you may recall, that episode spent its entirety asking what other lives Josh Corman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) could have lived had he made different decisions throughout his life. But it closed with an image of Josh in his actual life, as a fifth-grade teacher, getting ready to start a new week at the beginning of March 2020. That date was indeed no accident, as this week’s deliberately claustrophobic installment, “Hope You Feel Better”, makes clear instantly. Though the show never utters the word “pandemic” or “COVID-19”, it doesn’t need to. We’ve all lived through the last 18 months. We all know what it’s like to have been through this period of history.
But “Hope You Feel Better” is about living through that period, specifically the first few months. The episode begins as Josh is teaching his class remotely, having wrapped the first week of at-home schooling with a group of kids who look either sad and downtrodden or just like computer zombies having spent their week looking at a screen to ensure that they proceed in their educational endeavors. If you’ve made it this far in Mr. Corman, then you know that Josh Corman is a bundle of neuroses and a bit of a neat freak already. Or, as he explains to his roommate Victor (Arturo Castro), “this is my nightmare”, by which he is referring to the pandemic itself.
Remember that period in the early stages of the pandemic where it seemed as if everyone was supposed to wipe down every surface every time you touched something? Well, Mr. Corman is here to remind you; the opening stretch of the episode takes place at Josh and Victor’s apartment, where Josh spends a good 20 or 30 minutes (it must be) alternating between washing his hands vigorously and sterilizing the fast food that Victor got the two of them for dinner to avoid any presumed germs. Where Josh is leaning hard on the extreme of health and safety, Victor is far more laid-back. He’s still hard at work as a delivery driver for UPS, and laughs off the idea that UPS would close, as it’s one of the biggest businesses in the entire world. More to the point, when Josh asks if UPS is offering its employees masks or enforcing social distancing, Victor just says, “I’m not going to live in fear.” They have a nasty little argument -- 18 months later, Josh is largely correct in his concerns though he’s still exhausting to listen to -- that ends with Josh calling his mother Ruth (Debra Winger) and moving himself into the house where he grew up.
Ruth seems happy to have Josh over at first, until she realizes exactly how serious he’s taking things: Josh refuses to leave his old bedroom for 14 days so he can self-quarantine in case he picked anything up from Victor, and he asks her to leave him food at his door for each meal. The monotony of his routine is broken up when he realizes that Ruth is still spending time with her boyfriend Larry (Arliss Howard, AKA Debra Winger’s real-life husband). But soon, the 14 days elapse, and Josh spends time with Ruth and Larry, and is unable to stop himself from judging Larry for his passive-aggressiveness and his arguably kind of mean-spirited attitude towards Ruth. But even after they have a heart-to-heart, it’s clear that Ruth isn’t nearly as bothered as Josh is, taking the current state of the world in stride and snarking about the fact that Disneyland being closed must break Josh’s heart. So when Josh reaches out to Victor and learns that his old roommate has not only tested negative for COVID, but is now freely wearing a mask, the now longer-haired Josh hightails it out of his old bedroom and back to the apartment.
It does make some modicum of sense that if any new show was going to talk about the pandemic, even if somewhat obliquely, it would be Mr. Corman. Here’s a show where the lead character constantly has the hallucinatory vision of a meteor coming to strike him down to represent his anxiety. And that’s before the pandemic hit. So yes, it seems perfectly fitting with this show that Josh Corman would be beset upon by the pandemic in ways that feel particularly anxious and stressful. “Hope You Feel Better” largely eschews the fantastical aspects of the early episodes, too, with the sole exception of a scene where Josh listens to some old music of his and has an imagined conversation with a much younger version of himself. (We don’t see that younger version’s face, just their back and a haircut that’s reminiscent of the one Gordon-Levitt, who wrote and directed this episode, sported on Third Rock from the Sun.)
Music seems to be the only balm for Josh, even as every snippet of it that we hear calls to mind nothing less than the goofy electronic music that Ross Geller played for his friends on Friends. Otherwise, there’s no real escape for Josh, who is unable to tamp down his anxiety even on the drive from his apartment to his parents’ house. If there’s anything good about the episode, truly good, it’s that Gordon-Levitt’s performance works best as a study of his face, the sadness piercing through each time he works with his students on reading a story, one that seems a great deal more tragic simply for the circumstances in which they’re reading it.
Though Mr. Corman is a current enough show, it seems hard to imagine that the last two episodes of the season are going to give us a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. (Not that the pandemic is actually over, or close to it, but remember that brief stretch in the early summer of 2021? Ah, those were good times.) Last week, I guessed that two things would come back around, the pandemic being one of them. The other is Josh’s father, who comes up as a comparison point for Larry when Josh and Ruth have it out about her personal life. There are just two episodes left. Are we going to learn more about Josh’s dad? He seems to be the emotional key to unlocking our hero further. It’s a sure thing at this point. Right?
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