Three little words explain Apple TV+’s interest in “Mr. Corman,” and those are Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who created, produces, writes, directs, stars and even performs music in this melancholy series, elevating a concept that looks at roads not taken and that’s punctuated throughout by peculiar flights of fancy.
Gordon-Levitt’s Josh Corman is introduced as a fifth-grade teacher, treading cautiously when dealing with his young charges. Over time, however, it becomes clear that he turned to teaching when aspirations to be a musician fizzled, and that he’s pretty well sleepwalking his way through life.
The premise does not make, admittedly, for a particularly dynamic protagonist. The premiere finds Josh and his roommate/buddy Victor (Arturo Castro) deciding, after some debate, to go to a club, but his awkward encounter with a woman mainly highlights the “Those who can’t do, teach” aspect of his existence, which is to say that Josh is lost and unhappy, despite his blandly pleasant demeanor.
There is, in fact, a lot of awkwardness along the way, including Josh’s interactions with his mother (Debra Winger), and an ex-girlfriend (Juno Temple), who eventually comes into the story too.
The dour tone sort of turns “Mr. Corman” into the anti-“Ted Lasso,” the second-year series that has won Apple so many plaudits. Yet the series is also prone to fantastical flights of fancy, like having Josh and his mom burst into a song-and-dance number, or suddenly engage in what looks like a superhero fight with his friends.Those kind of moments also forge a connection to the indie film “500 Days of Summer,” in which Gordon-Levitt starred, at least in terms of sensibilities, taking chances in reasonably inventive ways. One chapter hands the story over to Victor, whose character is grappling with a broken marriage and raising a teen who does little to hide her hostility toward him. Later, Covid enters the picture, forcing the title character to conduct his class and date via Zoom.
The idea of TV series indulging the creative whims of movie stars is hardly new, but Gordon-Levitt brings a level of ambition to the storytelling that isn’t just dabbling. That said, “Mr. Corman” represents a thin premise — the travails of thirtysomethings, after all, had an entire 1980s series devoted to it — so its charms almost entirely consist of small moments and its protagonist’s thinly concealed angst.
Pencils down, the show earns a better-than-passing grade, delivering more satisfaction than the syllabus would suggest. Consider “Mr. Corman” one of those instances where Gordon-Levitt and company do enough extra-credit work to legitimately class up an otherwise basic course.
“Mr. Corman” premieres Aug. 6 on Apple TV+.