Joseph Gordon-Levitt has become a rare and interesting case of a former child star who has found his own voice – starring, and then moving behind the camera on indie projects that have made him something of a thinking person’s pin-up.
Now with Mr Corman, his return to TV – or rather the AppleTV+ streaming service – he brings those sensibilities to the small screen, writing, directing and starring in a thoughtful, melancholic comedy-drama about a failed musician turned public school teacher whose life and ambitions haven’t gone to plan.
In the first episode we meet Josh Corman, an awkward but pleasant educator who is easily put off by his young charges’ questioning nature. In an opening classroom scene he’s rendered briefly tongue-tied by one pupil arguing that he shouldn’t be describing Sacagawea as a “female guide” for 19th-Century explorers Lewis and Clark. It’s a neat early depiction of a fear many of us have as we age: that we’re suddenly going to find ourselves out-of-step and left behind, despite just being ourselves and having the best intentions.
The titular protonagist is hung up over an ex (Juno Temple) and an initially successful date goes wrong when Josh finds himself unable to perform in bed – or in this case on the sofa. It’s an interaction that ends with him being slapped into a fantasy sequence – a motif that is used much more extensively in later episodes, which include a musical number with Josh’s mum (Debra Winger) and an altercation at a fancy dress party that descends into a comic book fight scene.
Amusing diversions as these are, the programme’s true strengths are Gordon-Levitt’s nuanced central performance and his skilful writing, which presents the troubles of going into middle age feeling unfulfilled with aplomb. Particularly strong among later instalments is a two-hander in which Hugo Weaving plays Josh’s wayward, feckless father. It’s also a rare example of series that explores the impact of the pandemic – inevitably someone as angst-ridden as Mr Corman does not cope with it well – without having it as an overriding premise and plot point. On top of this, an impeccably selected soundtrack adds to the atmosphere.
Despite the overriding melancholia at the show’s heart, there’s plenty of humour in the characters’ neuroses, with strong supporting turns from Arturo Castro and Shannon Woodward as Josh’s flatmate and sister respectively.
All in all then, in an entertainment landscape that often seems in thrall to youth, Mr Corman is a treat that brilliantly and sensitively explores what it means to grow older and more ordinary as our dreams become roads left untravelled, rather than hopes for the future.
Mr Corman is released on Apple TV+ on 6th August 2021.
Watch the trailer for Mr Corman here: