What to Watch Verdict
Though the last few episodes were stronger, the finale for 'Mr. Corman' can't help but sputter out a frustrating 10-episode season.
Jamie Chung is both very charming and very able to push back against our lead character's neuroses
The chemistry between the two leads of the episode is very enjoyable and earned
Allowing other characters to pick at Josh's foibles makes them more tolerable
The big musical finish is baffling and self-serving
It's a strange and ill-defined way to close out an ill-defined show
The finale being stronger than prior episodes doesn't fix those episodes' problems
There is probably no better time than this review to talk about the music that Josh Corman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been creating throughout the first season of Mr. Corman.
What we know about the character from the outset is that his passions clearly lie with music, but when he gave it up to become a fifth-grade schoolteacher, Josh seemed to deliberately avoid playing music ever again. (Remember, in the first episode, all of his musical gear is in a room he seems to dread going into.) But throughout the season, Josh has been creating music to some mysterious point and purpose. What does it all mean? What’s the reason? What’s the big picture?
Well, “The Big Picture” is coincidentally enough the title to the season finale of Mr. Corman, referring to a famous picture of a small part of the known universe that you can see in the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. And yet, the big picture for Josh is still largely unknown.
As was the case in the past two episodes, “The Big Picture” takes place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, somewhere around the summer of last year. The bulk of the episode is focused on one of the many digital shifts of the pandemic: Zoom dating. Because Josh’s mom (Debra Winger, barely seen here) works with the mother of a single young woman, she gets Josh to do a Zoom date with said young woman, Emily (Jamie Chung). Though it doesn’t quite feel like a normal date, that may be a good thing. Despite Josh and Emily not sharing a ton of the same interests, they seem to hit it off.
That’s in spite of Josh being ... well, Josh. (Again, I can’t emphasize enough how much it has pained me to be critical of a lead character named Josh when I am also named Josh.) Emily notices a guitar of Josh’s in the background of his Zoom screen, and the simple question “Are you a musician?” sends him off into a neurotic tangent, wherein he talks about how he thought and overthought whether or not he should place the guitar in view. Somehow, eventually, magically, Josh and Emily are able to have something approaching a more normal conversation, one that extends well beyond the hour or two of regular Zoom dating. In fact, they talk so long that they move from their desks to their kitchens to eat together, and then to their respective bedrooms where they talk until Emily falls asleep.
When the morning comes, Josh is in a more sour mood (primarily because he’s ... well, Josh) even as Emily wants to virtually meet up with him for breakfast. When they do, Josh and Emily end up talking about the current state of the world, and Josh is mystified that Emily isn’t as nihilistic or existentially terrified as he is. When Emily notes that white men like Josh are freaking out more than others and that it’s because “you have a little bit of turmoil and it throws you into disarray”, he ends the call angrily. It’s not that Emily is wrong on a grander scale, but Josh is convinced that his own problems are more than just standard white-male privilege. (On the one hand, I too am a white man, but on the other, I have sat through this entire season and I am here to say that this guy’s problems are more than just not getting his way for once because of the pandemic.)
Emily also notes that Josh, who has mentioned his musical opus a couple times, doesn’t seem to finish things, perhaps because he thinks he’ll never get his way. Though Josh does wind up doing the right thing and apologizing to Emily (at least via a lengthy voicemail he acknowledges she may not hear if she avoids listening to her voicemail in general), he also takes it upon himself to finish the hardest part of the musical tracks he’s been compiling, the drum section, which has to be done with real drums.
That leads to the final montage, in which we cut between Josh on the drums playing along to the big song he’s been creating all season long, and then between moments from the season that have already occurred. Everything from glimpses of Josh’s dad (Hugo Weaving) to his mom to his friends and students seems to have inspired him on this aural journey of the soul.
But what’s the big picture? What’s the point of the music Josh has been making? In listening to it in full, I cannot help but make the same comparison I made last week, though I’ll add a new one here just for good measure. The first is of one of the many great bits from Friends, in which Ross Geller reveals that he used to make music with his keyboard when he was younger. When his friends goad him to pull out the keyboard and play some of his tunes, they’re baffled and horrified to hear that it’s musically garbled nonsense, with a cacophony of cobbled-together sounds that make no sense with each other. Now, it would be unfair of me to say that Josh Corman’s music is just as bad as Ross Geller’s. It’s not. It’s approaching being actual music, and avoids any sounds of farm animals. But for all the build-up, it’s kind of weak.
Which leads to the other comparison, Mr. Holland’s Opus, the 1995 film starring Richard Dreyfuss as a musician-turned-teacher who spends his teaching career writing a classical piece of music meant to sum up his life. When he’s forcibly retired after decades of teaching, many of his now-adult students return to send him off by playing that same piece of music to an adoring crowd. And it’s, y’know, fine. It’s OK. But for a movie relying on the notion of such a piece of music being a grand, triumphant thing, it’s a letdown.
Such is the case with Mr. Corman. Josh Corman’s music is fine. It’s OK. It has a reasonably OK vibe. But all the build-up and all the whispers and hints that Josh’s family and his past are why he had to give up his true passion, one that he’s quite talented at, have led to a piece of music that doesn’t really explain whether or not I’m supposed to think he’s any good at it.
During his Zoom date, Josh comes alive as much when talking about music as he does when he talks about the kids he teaches. Does the show realize that Josh’s artistic past may be a notable aspect of his emotional makeup, but it’s not the sole factor?
After 10 episodes, you’d think there would be a clear enough answer, but alas. Looking back on the season as a whole, it’s fair enough to say that the last few episodes of Mr. Corman — ironically those produced during the pandemic and acknowledging the real world — make for a less grating and unpleasant finale. Yes, this show seems to have some awareness of Josh Corman being exhausting and selfish — Gordon-Levitt co-wrote and directed the finale, so he’s not so unaware if one of the main characters points out Josh’s privilege. But it’s still frustrating to have to wait for half of a season for a show to eventually become tolerable. This show became tolerable. It would have been nice if it started that way instead of arriving at a big picture.
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.