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In some of TV’s best series, extraordinary ordinary people

‘Mr. Corman’ is the latest addition to a rich genre of TV portraiture

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the creator, writer, director, and star of "Mr. Corman," a series premiering Aug. 6 on Apple TV+.Apple TV+

A friend recently asked me what “Mr. Corman” is about. The series, due Friday on Apple TV+, is created, written, and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also stars.

It was a simple and straightforward question. But I hemmed and hawed because the answer is, at best, vague. There is no obvious elevator-pitch-like description. The 10-episode series is about a guy in his 30s in the San Fernando Valley who gives up his dream of being a musician, dutifully teaches fifth grade, and begins having anxiety attacks. There is no big crime afoot, no major fame or wealth in the mix, no hit men or drug addictions or cancer or domestic abuse to ponder.


It’s just about a guy.

It’s about a guy and his values.

It’s about a guy and his values and his masculinity and his identity and his stress over what to do with, you know, his life. It’s a study of a person — his private pain, his public arrogance-insecurity continuum, his psychological road bumps, his anger at his mother (a passive-aggressive Debra Winger), his need to be loved. And by the way, it is excellent.

“Mr. Corman,” so finely acted and filmed, is another work of TV portraiture, an ever-increasing category of uncategorizable shows. They’re low-concept stories, embedded with small ordeals and epiphanies, never plot- or action-driven. They are intimate invitations into a person’s subjective life, a ticket to ride with him, or her, or they, while going through one passage or another. They are the opposite of what we overwhelmingly see in movie theaters and, more and more, on TV outlets like the CW and Disney+, the broad superhero franchises in particular. And they tend to have auteur and indie-movie qualities, as the product of an individual and somewhat visionary creator-writer.

In this way, “Mr. Corman” shares a lot with many other shows of the past decade or so. I’m thinking of Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” as well as Mae Martin’s “Feel Good,” Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi,” Frankie Shaw’s “SMILF,” Louis C.K.’s “Louie,” Josh Thomas’s “Please Like Me,” Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None,” Abby McEnany’s “Work in Progress,” and, for four characters instead of one, the Duplass brothers’ “Togetherness.”


The reigning queen of this kind of portraiture is Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things,” which is about, you know, a woman dealing with her mother and her daughters ‘n’ stuff. It’s about the extraordinary facets of ordinary life. Adlon’s Sam takes care of her feverish daughter; one of Sam’s daughters is sent home from school; Sam stays alone at a motel — like that. Certainly more momentous matters arise in the course of the seasons, of which there are four excellent ones so far. In a way, the show has a memoir quality, in its effort to bring you into Sam’s reality, from her point of view.

From left: Mikey Madison as Max, Olivia Edward as Duke, Pamela Adlon as Sam, and Hannah Alligood as Frankie in Adlon's "Better Things."Suzanne Tenner/FX

Another royal in terms of low-concept TV: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag.” It began its life as a one-woman stage show, and even as it gained a full cast to come to TV for two glorious seasons, it remained a close look at the internal world of our troubled heroine, known only as Fleabag. She welcomed us into her consciousness, treating us like confidantes and, breaking the fourth wall, looking straight at us. What is “Fleabag” about? Well, nothing, and everything.

Generally, these shows are filed under “Comedy,” because they have half-hour episodes and they tend to feature humorous moments alongside the more emotionally challenging ones. But they defy that easy classification at every turn with plenty of dramatic developments, such as the mental illness of the mothers in “Please Like Me” and “SMILF.” And the appearance of half-hour dramas such as “Homecoming,” “I May Destroy You,” and “Normal People” muddies the waters even more. One of the problems facing the Emmys these days is the increasing blurring of boundaries, rendering the Television Academy’s preexisting categories inadequate.


I love this development, this spate of series that just don’t fit conventional boxes. They refuse binary genre definitions, and they give audiences enough credit to deal with that. Most of the best art out there in the world cannot be easily summarized, in the way the next installment of the “Fast & Furious” series can be.

The characters we view in-depth are as nonbinary as the genres, not necessarily regarding gender but regarding personality traits and moral orientation. Gordon-Levitt’s Josh Corman is likable and not-so-likable. He wants to do the right thing but sometimes acts out improperly. He is self-aware enough to want to break out of his depression, but he is unwilling to do the work — at least in the six episodes I’ve seen. If you’re looking for good vs. bad, or comic vs. tragic, or angry vs. gentle, you have no business here. These shows are pigeonhole-free zones.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.