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We need to find a name for the increasingly common phenomenon of format-breaking standalone episodes in which primary characters are set aside so audiences can see the world through the eyes of a supporting character or a new set of characters entirely.
It should probably be named, in some way, after Netflix’s Master of None, which did this with Lena Waithe’s character in the “Thanksgiving” episode (season 2) — and then, when Waithe’s Denise became the star in season 3, did it again with Naomi Ackie’s character in a standout episode revolving around IVF. It’s a genre of episodes that includes “GaTa” from Dave, “Andre and Sarah” from Forever and “A Dark Quiet Death” from Mythic Quest.
The best-case scenario is that in expanding its perspective, the show gains in depth. The worst-case scenario is that the standalone episode makes you realize you’ve been wasting time with the main character, and offers a glimpse of an alternative series you’d rather be watching instead.
Four episodes into Apple TV+’s Mr. Corman, the series temporarily leaves Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s anxiety-ridden protagonist Josh Corman for a sweetly funny half-hour spent primarily with Josh’s roommate Victor (Arturo Castro), a UPS deliveryman who spends custody weekends with his moody teen daughter (Miley Delgado).
My initial instinct was to think that the episode, titled “Mr. Morales,” fell into that “worst-case scenario” category since Josh had already become a bit of a pill. But it turns out to be more of a transitional episode. Over the course of its 10 half-hour-ish installments, Mr. Corman never nails an overall narrative momentum or achieves true consistency, but the second half of the season features a few smartly conceived episodes and several audacious visual flourishes. It gets better.
In addition to starring, Gordon-Levitt created Mr. Corman, directed eight episodes (“Mr. Morales,” it should be noted, was directed by Aurora Guerrero) and wrote much of the series. That doesn’t mean he’s given himself a rock-solid foundation to work from. Josh is a fifth-grade teacher in Van Nuys, hobbled by doubts after a breakup and the abandonment of his dreams of music stardom. He suffers from loneliness, lack of direction, destructive romantic tendencies, a fraught relationship with his mother (Debra Winger, paired in some scenes with real-life hubby Arliss Howard) and sister (Shannon Woodward), and panic attacks during which he envisions a meteor headed for Earth.
Unfortunately, the character often comes off more as a string of familiar neuroses than a fully formed human we want to follow on a journey. Nor is it clear, for much of the time, where we’re supposed to want him to go — other than therapy.
The series’ behind-the-scenes journey is more compelling. Production began in Van Nuys in early 2020 and then resumed in New Zealand after an extended COVID shutdown. Gordon-Levitt and executive producer Bruce Eric Kaplan were able to build the pandemic into the season’s home-stretch; the development adds much-needed dramatic weight, both universalizing Josh’s sense of solitude and giving specificity to his anxiety.
COVID accommodations play an even more important aesthetic role here. In what was conceived as a filming workaround, the show presents most of Josh’s fantasies as collage-like animated sequences in which performers/characters (shot in front of a green screen) become part of whimsical musical numbers or video-game-flavored action sequences. Sometimes surreal, sometimes just reflecting a heightened version of reality, these are the funniest moments in a show lacking in punchlines.
In what may or may not have been a pandemic accommodation, certain episodes of Mr. Corman rely on two-hander intimacy, and these extended episodic conversations are — along with the animation — among the series’ highlights. The claustrophobic friendship between Victor and Josh, mostly confined to their dingy Valley apartment, is completely believable. Juno Temple and Hugo Weaving make memorable one-episode appearances as, respectively, Josh’s ex-girlfriend and father, each bringing out different layers in Gordon-Levitt. And an episode pairing Gordon-Levitt and Jamie Chung is a nicely written, bittersweet romantic duet handled with some real COVID-circumventing cleverness.
That interaction also lets Gordon-Levitt acknowledge some of the privilege inherent in centering this story around an attractive, if unremarkable white guy, and gives some scale to his mental health issues. It’s a self-awareness that’s not always clear in the early episodes (nor was it clear in the lesser moments of Gordon-Levitt’s flawed but promising 2013 feature writing-directing debut Don Jon).
Gordon-Levitt has spent much of the past seven or eight years working on projects for his crowd-sourced digital content platform HitRecord, and as Mr. Corman progresses you can see that brand’s messy resourcefulness manifesting. From the fantasy sequences to Josh’s one-man-band musical endeavors to the New Zealand-for-LA doubling, it’s all over the place. But it’s all over the place in an increasingly charming and creative way.
The “Mr. Morales” episode is the turning point, when Mr. Corman evolves from a show that doesn’t know what it wants to be to a show in which you can never predict what each new episode will bring. That’s improvement.
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