One of the most common aspects of the human condition is also one of the most difficult to consistently and compellingly depict on TV: boredom. Typically, movies or series that open on a character who’s frustrated with the redundancies of their day-to-day life soon give way to an extraordinary and eye-opening adventure, where the subject (and audience) learns to appreciate what they have (like, say, “Groundhog Day”) and/or step out of their comfort zone a little more often (off the top of my head: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”). But if there is no adventure — if, instead, there’s just the struggling, stagnant lead going through his typical, unchanging life — those stories run the risk of trapping their audience in a headspace both limited and unwelcoming.
Enter “Mr. Corman.” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the creator, executive producer, and writer-director on multiple episodes, plays Josh Corman, a thirtysomething ex-musician who hung up his guitar strap to start teaching fifth graders. Single for over a year and living with his friend from high school, Victor (Arturo Castro), Josh goes to work, comes home, lays down on the couch, plays video games or watches TV, and then goes to bed to start the whole cycle over again. Though he loves his job — he really does — and regularly reminds himself how well-off he is compared to other people, Josh isn’t happy. He’s unfulfilled, and his unidentified frustrations are making him more moody, anxious, and angry by the day. “I have it really good,” he tells his mother (Debra Winger). “It just doesn’t always feel that way.”
Over 10 episodes, “Mr. Corman” examines how family, relationships, and the state of the world weigh on Josh’s outlook. Gordon-Levitt, always a formally ambitious creator, fills each entry with unexpected curiosities, whether it’s a spontaneous musical number with Winger, a solo episode dedicated to Castro’s “Mr. Morales,” or blending paper mâché animation into the sets and backgrounds for distinct visual flair. The score, credited to Nathan Johnson, creates an almost Lynchian surrealism, especially when it kicks in under kaleidoscopic shots of Josh staring at people without homes (a persistent theme brought into clarity by later episodes). Even an episode chronicling the early months of COVID clicks along with the assured pacing of an experienced filmmaker.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Despite all these enticing accompaniments, the core story struggles to match its creative veneer — and the main issue is Josh. Single-minded and smart, he’s the kind of guy with all the answers for everyone else, and no clue what to do with himself. Mr. Corman only comes alive in the classroom; the rest of the time, Josh is judging his mom for her choice in partners, his sister (a perfectly cast Shannon Woodward) for her newfound faith, and his friend for prioritizing his livelihood (as a UPS driver) over his health (or, more accurately, over Josh’s health — yes, he’s that selfish). Self-centered, stubborn, and prone to repeating the same mistakes, it’s not that Mr. Corman is unlikable — I mean, he is, but in a world where “Succession” is the only good show on television, that doesn’t matter. The issue stems from Josh being a bad TV character; an overly familiar protagonist who’s slow to change. Not only does “Mr. Corman” skip the adventure that whisks Josh (and viewers) out of his boring life, it lacks enough fresh insights into listless and unsatisfied thirtysomething white guys to make watching that life rewarding.
Nestled within its truths is its strongest ambition: “Mr. Corman” attempts, not always successfully, to be a critique on privilege. While it too often sympathizes with its lead (mostly in lingering long takes that highlight the cast’s skills), the series regularly condemns his blindspots and bad habits. About midway through the season, there’s a scene set at a party, where Josh gets called out by his casual friend Dax (played by Bobby Hall, aka Logic). Screaming and near tears, Dax — who’s been a pretty dim party bro until this point — claims the “nice guy” teacher doesn’t actually care about him; that Josh doesn’t text or ask about his life; that he only calls Dax when he wants to hook up with a lady or get into a party.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
All of these accusations are backed up by what we’ve seen Josh do over the previous episodes — whether it’s his literal interactions with Dax or his judgmental attitude in general — and it’s just as clear that Josh is in the wrong as it is that Josh himself doesn’t realize it. He thinks he’s self-aware, which only makes his lack of self-awareness all the harder to correct, and his brand of embittered nihilism fuels more misery, whether it’s by discouraging the beliefs of others or cutting his own dreams off at the knees. Gordon-Levitt and his fellow EPs are making an example of Josh, and they do so often enough over the next few episodes to let you know this isn’t a pity party; it’s a warning.
Such good intentions are commendable, even if Josh’s painfully slow acknowledgement makes for impenetrable packaging. Spending five-plus hours watching a very average man inch toward slightly greater self-awareness doesn’t make for the most powerful TV experience. There’s a sense throughout “Mr. Corman” that everyone in Josh’s life understands who he is; his mom, his sister, his friend, his ex (Juno Temple), and even his students. They may even know what he needs, whether it’s a hug, therapy, a slap upside the head, or all three. Similarly, we know this guy, and he’s not someone you’d want to spend time with. TV can turn the worst people into weekly houseguests (again, look at “Succession”), but it’s got to offer a richer perspective than that of one bored asshole.
“Mr. Corman” premieres Friday, August 6 on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.