When life gets to be too much for Josh Corman—which happens a lot—he drifts into flights of fantasy: sometimes rapturously musical and other times downright apocalyptic, with hallucinations of a flaming meteor hurtling toward Earth. And yet it’s the realism of the new 10-part Apple TV+ dramedy Mr. Corman that is most compelling in an indulgent but moving character study of disappointment, anxiety and, ever so possibly, hope.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the title role, has grown up considerably since coming of age on 3rd Rock From the Sun and achieving fame at the movies. As the series’ creator, star and often director of what is obviously a passion project, he cloaks his innate charismatic appeal within a prickly and moody carapace of mental self-flagellation. “It just feels like I blew the whole thing, like I suck as a person,” the 5th-grade teacher who could have been a rock star tells his supportive roomie Victor (the excellent Arturo Castro), a divorced UPS driver.
[Victor’s such a great character he even earns his own “Mr. Morales” spotlight in the fourth episode, with Josh fading into the background as Victor deals with his estranged teenage daughter, who’d rather be spending her weekend anywhere else than with these grown-up losers.]
Thankfully, Mr. Corman isn’t a lost cause. His dreams of music stardom may have stalled along with his romantic life—Ted Lasso’s fabulous Juno Temple plays his frustrated ex in a two-episode cameo—but he achieves harmony as a terrific and empathetic teacher to his fifth graders, even when the pandemic forces him to connect to them long distance via Zoom. Nearly every episode opens with Josh noodling with new sounds and beats, suggesting he hasn’t entirely abandoned his musical ambitions.
But the pandemic (which caused the production to shut down and move from L.A. to New Zealand) feeds the worst aspects of his free-floating anxiety, which manifests into panic attacks and an OCD regression when Josh moves back in with his exasperated mom (a wonderfully snappish Debra Winger). She isn’t the only one who has to remind him, “You have it better than a lot of other people.”
He already knows this, and yet we root for him even when we want to turn on him, because we relate to him. Because really, who didn’t panic a bit during the worst of 2020?
Mr. Corman, Series Premiere, Friday, August 6, Apple TV+