This is truly a family show that feels both real and aspirational.
The word dream describes two different concepts in the English language. One: It’s what you do when you sleep and find yourself riding a flying turtle or walking to work in your underwear. Two: It’s what you hope to do in your waking life at some point, like becoming a rock star or an astronaut, maybe, or visiting Timbuktu or winning the lottery.
Many of us come to realize—maybe around the age of 30 or so—that our sleeping dreams and our waking dreams share something. Neither are real. And maybe, probably, they never will be. We also realize that some people can cope with that sad epiphany, and the ho-hum reality of life, better than others.
I’m looking at you, Josh Corman.
By his own admission, Josh is doing OK. He’s got an apartment in L.A. (which he shares with his pal Victor). He’s got a job—teaching fifth graders all the stuff that fifth graders should know. He makes enough to feed and clothe himself and can even afford hot water for his apartment, and that’s more than a lot of people can say.
But Josh is, also by his own admission, not OK. He’s not OK at all.
He used to dream of being a musician, but he gave it up when it looked like it was going nowhere. He broke up with his last girlfriend a year ago and hasn’t had a steady interest since. He’s seriously stressed about finances and family and love and climate change and the world in general.
And he’s particularly worried about himself.
Josh is tired of spending every night playing videogames with Victor, but he doesn’t know what he’d do otherwise. He’d like to get some professional help; but it either costs too much or the wait’s too long. And even when he does get help, it doesn’t. Help, that is. Or maybe Josh just doesn’t trust it to work.
His mom is a source of tired platitudes, reassurances and vaguely discouraging advice. His dad … well, he just keeps taking out credit cards in Josh’s name and never pays them off. His pals mean well, but they’re either too drunk or high or self-absorbed or weird to offer much: Even Victor fails miserably. When Josh reads that a weighted blanket might help his panic attacks but grouses that he can’t afford one, Victor forces Josh to lay down on the floor, covers him with a blanket and then lays down on top of him for a very uncomfortable two minutes. Even turning the Dodgers game on TV doesn’t help.
So Josh remains stuck in his anxiety and ennui—unable to go back in time and fix his life, unable to go forward to make better decisions. It feels, he admits to Victor, “like I blew the whole thing. That I suck as a person.”
We can’t speak for Josh’s qualities as a person, of course. That would feel judgy. But we can say the show that revolves around him could use some improvement.
Back in the 1990s, Seinfeld was renowned as being a show about nothing. To that, Mr. Corman says, “Hold my seltzer water.”
It’s hard to craft a compelling show around a character who doesn’t do much except worry that he’s not doing much.
The story is meant to be introspective, of course, pondering the perplexities of life and the existential frustrations we all experience in it. But that’s a tricky thing to pull off, and the show illustrates just how tricky by failing as it does.
Mr. Corman augments Josh’s anxiety and melancholy with clever animation snippets. When Josh is feeling panicky, for instance, an asteroid appears in the sky, apparently hurtling toward Earth for a killer collision. But there’s no getting around the fact that our titular character is … well, pretty boring. And even if most of us can see elements of our own lives and worries in Josh, let’s be honest: Our own mental and emotional struggles, while really compelling to us, wouldn’t necessarily make a great TV show, either.
But even when Josh does do something, it’s not necessarily good.
Josh tries to date every now and then, and such encounters often lead straight to the bedroom (or couch, or kitchen) and feature a whole bunch of uncomfortable visuals and movements. And while Josh doesn’t drink or smoke marijuana (at least early on in the show’s run), most of his buddies do.
Oh, and naturally, everyone swears, including uses of the f- and s-word. Why? Because that’s what characters on prestige-aspirant television shows do, that’s why, whether it’s necessary or not. Mr. Corman once dreamed of being a rock star and finds himself a teacher instead. I dreamed that Mr. Corman would be a thoughtful, funny and navigable show. This show, it seems, has something to teach us both: Get used to disappointment.
A lesson on the Lewis and Clark expedition leads to a class discussion about luck—and some deep introspection by Josh, the teacher in charge. One kid suggests that “good luck” is just a product of hard work, inspiring Josh to work a little harder to turn his luck around.
This leads him, eventually, to call an old friend to meet up at a bar. (We see loads of people drink, of course, but Josh sticks to seltzer water.) He meets a woman there, and the two wind up in her apartment where they try to have sex. He and the woman partly disrobe (he takes off his shirt, she strips down to her underwear) and engage in some serious erotic activity (which we see a great deal of). But Josh’s body won’t cooperate, which leads to a great deal of discomfort, recriminations. The woman eventually punches Josh in the face. In an accompanying animated sequence, Josh seems to fly out the window and heads through a stylized cloudscape/fallopian tube, accompanied by sperm heading toward an egg-like moon.
Josh and his roommate, Victor, discuss sex. Josh wonders why that seems like the goal for so many—where you pretend to like someone and listen to what they say so you can go to bed with them. “If they want to, why not?” Victor insists. There are some discussions on whether it’s appropriate to call women they meet at bars “girls” or “women,” and Josh is called out by a fifth grader for calling Sacagawea Lewis and Clark’s female guide. (Just calling her their guide would be preferred.) Another fifth grader makes a reference to genitals.
One of Josh’s friends smokes a bong while he and others play videogames. (Others drink beer.) Josh’s mother calls him to pick her up—announcing to him that she’s as “drunk as a box of birds.” Josh doesn’t drink, but he and his bar conquest smoke. When she asks Josh why he’s not drinking, she says, “You’re not Mormon or something, are you?” He jokes back that he’s Muslim. A man who appears to be transgender walks very briefly within sight of the camera.
Josh’s car is rear-ended. Characters say the f-word and s-word about seven times each. We also hear four misuses of God’s name and one of Jesus’ name.
Josh begins to have panic attacks (represented, in part, by an animated asteroid hurtling toward earth and some sharp, dissonant chimes when he feels particularly panicky). He tries to figure out how to stop or cope with them.
The story suggests that much of his (and our) panic is related to an absence of honest human connection, and a recurring theme of the show is Josh’s lack of real connectivity with other people. Josh’s overwhelming anxiety is heightened during a presentation given by a handful of his students on the habits of vampire bats. The female bats thrive, the kids say, because they groom each other more and thus develop friendships. The male bats? “They die,” someone says. Friendless.
During his first panic attack, Josh worries that he’s having a heart attack because of the chest pain he’s feeling. (He calls a doctor but gives up after he’s told it’ll be a two-month wait, and he rejects the idea of going into an urgent care facility or calling 911.) He eventually makes his way to a friend’s house, a guy who also struggles with anxiety and asks for drugs. He rejects the bong that the friend offers, but he accepts an anti-anxiety pill.
Victor lies on top of Josh in a comically uncomfortable scene. Josh seems to express some suicidal thoughts, and Victor puts Josh in a headlock—not allowing him to leave his presence until Josh comes up with a plan for how to deal with his anxiety. Josh eventually goes to a breathing workshop. He learns his father has taken out a credit card in his name and flips through pictures on a dating app, before he begins looking at pictures on his old girlfriend’s Instagram account (some of which are a bit flirty or provocative).
Characters say the f-word and s-world 10 times apiece. We also hear one misuse of God’s name and two of Jesus’ name.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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