One of the most common and frustrating things that a contemporary television viewer can hear is, “Give it time, it gets better.”
You’re familiar with this advice. You’ve received it or possibly given it. If you’re a TV critic, you’ve definitely given it.
“The first season is just okay, but give it time, it gets better. Seasons two and three are masterpieces.”
“The first few episodes are not great, but give it time, it gets better. The show takes a major turn in the middle of season one and becomes something completely different.”
“The first three episodes of the show are a little frustrating, but give it time, it gets better. What seems frustrating at first serves a purpose by the end.”
That last sentence applies specifically to Mr. Corman, a new Apple TV+ series that exemplifies the “give it time, it gets better” ethos in more ways than one. The dramedy, created by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also directed and wrote several of the episodes, starts out bumpy. I didn’t care much for episodes one or two, and three signified only a slight improvement. But by the end of the ten-episode first season, when the pandemic syncs up with the narrative timeline, it becomes apparent that Gordon-Levitt laid out the arc of Mr. Corman to make a point about precisely the elements that may initially give some viewers pause. Because it’s releasing in batches — the first two episodes drop Friday, with the rest to roll out weekly — getting to that point admittedly will require some patience.
The first episode instantly centers our focus and sympathy around Josh Corman (Gordon-Levitt), a professional musician turned fifth-grade teacher in his 30s who is unhappy with his life. While he loves his job, he still yearns to create the art he used to make for a living. He is not thrilled with his social life. He broke up not long ago with someone named Megan (Juno Temple, currently starring on another notable Apple TV+ series, Ted Lasso), whose pivotal role in his life isn’t fully explained until midway through the season. His relationships with his father (Hugo Weaving), his sister (Shannon Woodward), and his mother (Debra Winger) are each fraught in different ways. He’s also starting to feel acute anxiety he’s never felt before.
Mr. Corman initially asks us to accept reality from Josh’s perspective and, by default, to take his side in all things, from arguments with his mother to clashes with his roommate Victor (Arturo Castro). But because Josh is such a pessimistic, somewhat sour person — and because so many films and TV shows about dissatisfied young, white men have demanded that we empathize with them before — that approach feels aggressive and culturally tone-deaf.
Gradually, though, the POV in Mr. Corman cracks open in a way that suggests the show knows that Josh is not, nor should be, the center of the universe, and that part of his awakening will involve recognizing that fact. The fourth episode, called “Mr. Morales,” shifts almost entirely away from Josh to temporarily become a show about Victor, a divorced UPS delivery driver struggling to connect with his teenage daughter during their brief time together on weekends. Victor, brought to life with upbeat resilience by Castro, is, frankly, a more interesting character whose experiences are not chronicled in television shows nearly as often as a guy like Josh’s. Spending time exclusively with him only makes Josh seem more self-involved. It may also make you wonder why this whole show isn’t called Mr. Morales.
Later episodes also dissect Josh’s relationships and prove that his assessments of people in his orbit can’t entirely be trusted. Dax, an influencer acquaintance whom Josh dismisses for being shallow (played by Bobby Hall, a.k.a. the rapper Logic), turns out to be far more sensitive and deep than he appears at first Insta-glance. The best episode of Mr. Corman, largely a beautifully acted two-hander between Gordon-Levitt and Weaving, lays bare Josh’s relationship with his dad and all the ways it has shaped him, for better and worse. Once COVID-19 enters the picture, Josh’s quarantine world gets physically smaller, but his attitude toward the world starts to widen as reflected in the finale’s title: “The Big Picture.”
It’s commendable and fascinating that Mr. Corman’s purpose comes into sharper focus as it progresses. But that doesn’t completely compensate for the show’s flaws. It often drifts into whimsical fantasy sequences with a mixed-media-collage aesthetic — one is a musical duet between Winger and Gordon-Levitt, another is a fight scene reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — that are visually arresting, but tonally a bit of a long journey from the earnestness that characterizes so much of the show. There are moments when it feels like Gordon-Levitt is throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks, and perhaps that’s on purpose, to reflect the creative process that enlivens Josh’s spirit. But as a viewer, that sensibility sometimes comes across as scattered. It also seems fair to ask whether a show that acknowledges how much the white, male perspective has shaped our understanding of narrative is pushing boundaries if, in the end, it’s still driven by a white, male protagonist.
Still, Mr. Corman is ambitious, well-acted, and committed to showing respect for and curiosity about all of its characters. When you think it’s going to zig all the way through ten episodes, it zags on you. It is by no means perfect. But it shouldn’t be dismissed.