I said in last week’s recap of Mr. Corman that whatever else is true, this show is able to surprise me with each episode. Sometimes those are pleasant surprises, as was the case with the fourth episode, “Mr. Morales”. Sometimes the surprises are less pleasant and more obnoxious. And then there’s this week’s episode, “Many Worlds”, which is unquestionably a zig where the show may have otherwise zagged. But it is a baffling installment of a show that has felt like a feature-length indie film stretched out to close to five hours’ worth of television, and perhaps the clearest sign yet that Mr. Corman should never have been a television show to start with.
The basic hook for the episode is simple: what would the life of Josh Corman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look like if things had gone differently for him? More specifically, “Many Worlds” asks us to imagine the varying lives Josh could have had based on single moments in his life that could have gone differently. That’s the entire episode: after a brief scene set presumably in the past, when Josh and his girlfriend Megan (Juno Temple) were still performing as part of a band while indulging in their relationship, we simply see different depictions of Josh’s life. In one life, maybe he was a telemarketer. In another, he could’ve lived in Eastern Europe and gone to rave bars to hook up with anyone. In another, he was an obnoxious businessman with slicked-back hair whose enjoyment of a big financial win curdles into hatred when a waitress spurns his sleazy romantic advances. In another, it’s he who has the spouse and child and his sister (Shannon Woodward) whose life is spiraling out of control. Finally, there’s a version of his life where Josh dies and Dax (Bobby Hall) and Victor (Arturo Castro) attend his funeral instead.
This is the episode. That’s it. It’s a strange situation in part because the show makes no grand hint at clarifying just why we’re getting this glimpse into what could have been for Josh Corman now. Why now? And more importantly, why lead into this fantasy with a scene set before the main action of the series? There’s no context here, which is mildly thrilling — the first five minutes or so depict the performance and romance of Josh and Megan, before leaping headlong into fantasy without any clue that we’re about to go into Josh’s head. (Although even that is not clear: are we watching a series of scenarios that Josh has dreamt up of what his life could have been like, or are we meant to presume that these scenarios really could have been a version of his life?) But when it becomes clear that these dreamlike situations are all the episode is going to be, it’s all the more baffling.
There are a couple of key moments, both of which are likely going to pay off in some capacity before the season is over. If they don’t, they really ought to. The first involves the scenario in which Josh and his wife bring his sister over to their parents’ house, for a kind of intervention in which they implore their mother (Debra Winger) to leave their abusive father. This is the meatiest scene of the episode, and one that cuts away just as Papa Corman opens the door to the house, with us still not seeing the identity of this terrifying figure. (I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t aware that we will meet Josh’s dad before the end of the season, because I couldn’t help myself in reading up on the show, but let’s pretend otherwise and stay in the dark for now, shall we?) How much of Josh’s life is shaped by his dad? The way he’s described by both Josh and his sister implies that he continues to wreak havoc, even on their mom, who’s so unwilling to face the situation that she locks herself in the bathroom for a while.
Aside from the jumps to and fro around Josh’s psyche, the other big payoff is likely going to come with the final moment. In that final moment, we cut to Josh’s actual life, as he’s getting himself ready for a new day of school, greeting his class. The date? Monday, March 2, 2020, which seems to be intentional if only because that’s right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world and upended society. Considering that Mr. Corman had to shift its production from Los Angeles to New Zealand, it can’t be an accident that we leave “Many Worlds” as Josh is likely about to get more fuel for his existential despair in the form of a pandemic. So that should be fun.
“Many Worlds” exists primarily in a world full of CGI and Terry Gilliam-style animation, of everything from Josh’s parents’ house to the office setting where he works as a telemarketer to a rave bar. The various settings look fake — although this may well be a flourish that gets tweaked in post-production as opposed to the screener I have at hand, it seems particularly intentional that the audience is meant to see how unreal all of these settings, and even the audience for the show that Josh and Megan perform, are.
“Many Worlds” is not a bad episode, per se. Josh is far less grating and obnoxious here than he has been in previous episodes. And the visual flourishes are notable, even if they’re not exactly pitch-perfect, which they deliberately set out to avoid being. The problem is that an episode like this really asks us what level of emotional investment we have in our lead character, and why an episode like this — yet another form-breaker, coming so soon after “Mr. Morales” — should even exist. What’s the point of Mr. Corman? If it’s about us wondering when this guy will come to terms with his life, it would be a far more satisfying journey if it was a feature-length journey, not a ten-episode one. Josh Corman does not live in “Many Worlds”. He lives in this one. The audience gets that. It’s time for him to come down to Earth and accept it too.