Creative risks pay off in writer-director Gordon-Levitt’s magical-realist portrait of a school teacher battling ennui
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has had one of those careers that aspiring actors get down on their knees and pray for. It’s been 25 years since eccentric alien sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun made the Los Angeles native a star, and in that quarter century he’s built an enviable body of work that includes acclaimed romcoms (10 Things I Hate About You, 500 Days of Summer), indie mysteries (Brick), big-budget action (Inception) and his self-penned feature directorial debut Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt, it’s fair to say, is living the dream.
Mr Corman, a new 10-episode series created by Gordon-Levitt which starts this Friday on Apple TV+, explores what life might have been like for someone very much like him if his dreams hadn’t quite panned out. He plays Josh Corman, a depressed fifth-grade (the US equivalent of year six) school teacher who once harboured dreams of indie rock stardom in the She & Him-esque two-piece band he shared with ex-girlfriend Megan (Juno Temple). In the first episode, we meet Josh a year on from his split with both band and girlfriend. He’s still not feeling great about it. During an excruciatingly awkward date scene, he confesses to a woman he’s just met that he hasn’t picked up any of the instruments that lie neglected around his bedroom since.
Feeling creatively unfulfilled is just the start of Josh’s worries. The date doesn’t end well, which exacerbates his growing anxiety. In the next episode, he suffers a panic attack – which the show portrays with horrible accuracy. There is no rationalising your way out of the sort of frustrating, overwhelming anxiety that takes over your body as well as your mind, and it’s rarely been captured this well onscreen. There are no easy solutions, either, although there are breathing workshops and friends to fall back on, like Josh’s flatmate Victor, played with buoyant optimism by the excellent Arturo Castro. (A later episode focused on a day in Victor’s life is a series stand-out).
After comprehensively mapping out the bleak contours of the pit of despair in which Josh lives his life, Mr Corman shifts shape and flowers into something closer to magical realism. When Josh can’t find the words to say to his mother (Debra Winger), a musical breaks out. The world around him briefly becomes an animated collage before snapping back to reality. A meteor appears in the sky, on collision course with Earth, yet only Josh can see it. A full episode is given over to imagining all the alternative lives Josh could be leading if he wasn’t teaching school kids. Each of these are creative gambles, and not all of them land, but they do help shed a little more light on Josh’s tortured heart.
Given the weight of the subject matter, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the show is light on belly laughs, but Gordon-Levitt’s engaging presence and sharply observed scripts make Mr Corman the sort of teacher you really want to spend your extracurricular hours with.
Mr Corman is on Apple TV+ from 6 August