Mr. Corman S1E3: “Happy Birthday”

Josh and Ruth dance with arms outstretched towards one another and a brightly lit set of houses in the background
Courtesy of Apple TV+

The following contains spoilers for Mr. Corman S1E3, “Happy Birthday”

Mr. Corman S1E3, “Happy Birthday,” centers around Josh attending his niece Sara’s birthday party. We finally meet his sister Beth (Shannon Woodward), and the episode as a whole explores the dynamics of this family and how Josh Corman relates to them. It continues to be a character study, asking us to consider Josh’s upbringing (is this why he thinks the entire world is chaos, as Beth suggests?) and the difficulties of connecting to those you are supposed to be closest to. His mother hasn’t told him about the guy she’s been dating for a year (though Larry greets Josh as if they’re old chums, which is off-putting in a very particular way, even as you can’t blame him for it), and his sister told them what presents to buy, insisting on perhaps more control over others than is healthy.

Josh and Aaron stand with their hands in their pockets at the party, in a room that opens to the outdoors behind them

On the way to the party, Ruth believes that Josh has implied that he’s miserable because of her. It’s honestly a fair reading of his remark about how she chose his father, who it is strongly implied was an alcoholic (what with the remarks about dangerous driving and that time he almost burned the house down—there were firetrucks at least). But it’s also not what Josh meant. He loves his mother, as is made clear in the musical number that closes Episode 3.

The song is called “Oh, Here We Go” and is credited to Nathan Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sung by the latter and Debra Winger. The scene in the dark parking lot where Josh and Ruth face each other across the frame of his car breaks into a multicolored set with a tangerine sun in the background. In the lyrics, mother and son express their love to one another in spite of the trouble they have saying “I love you”—but it’s a fantasy, as we come back to that parking lot and the awkward silence we’d left the pair in. (Though it is noteworthy that the fantasy kicked off right there, with Josh singing an imagined line).

Their relationship is fraught and it is easy enough to understand Ruth’s side of it. She tried her best to be a good mother. She has two bookshelves of parenting books. And now she thinks maybe she just deluded herself into thinking that she’d done this one thing right. But is this because of what Josh said to her on the way to the party, or because of what he said to young Sara (Vivien Lyra Blair) at the party?

God is pretend.

Josh is just trying to be honest, and as he’s called out by his sister, I can’t help but feel with him how it’s the desire to avoid lying to a child that’s gotten him into this situation. Is Beth right that it’s not lying to tell a child a story and let them believe it? I’m not sure. I kind of think maybe it is lying. But it’s also not hard to see how Josh made the wrong move trying to explain how he thinks about God, instead of just telling little Sara, “yes we need to eat food because God made it that way” or something like that. I’m not really sure that would be lying even from an atheistic perspective.

But Josh is sorry. He’s finding these social situations to be fraught with difficulty. Honesty causes problems and it’s frustrating, as when he basically tells Aaron (Jonathan Runyon) he doesn’t care about his new car. I wouldn’t care about the new Subaru either, but you’re supposed to play along. You’re supposed to pretend to care because the other person cares, and this is what Josh fails to do. He doesn’t mean to be rude, he’s just struggling to find the energy to be polite. Or, more deeply, he’s struggling to think about how what he’s saying will land emotionally with the person he’s talking to, which is a problem. But I think Josh knows it’s a problem.

On the way to the party, Ruth and Josh talk about his anxiety, and she says she thought he was better now. It’s not clear exactly how much time has passed since the events of “Don’t Panic,” but regardless Josh responds that he is better—this is him better. But he still feels an uptick in anxiety in certain situations, such as driving on the freeway, and he notes that this is rational insofar as driving at high speeds is dangerous. That’s the thing, though; the dangers of the world are real and the lines between rational caution and paranoia are often less than clear. And all around you people are going about their business like everything is fine and there is nothing at all terrifying about this situation. Who is denying reality?

Josh talks to Sara as she sits on the steps

But this also can put what Josh was trying to say to young Sara in a different light. It’s true that he said that God is pretend like the mouse she’d just “eaten,” but before Beth cut him off he was continuing on to say something about the value of pretend, and how there can be truth in things that aren’t real. At least I think that’s what he was trying to say, and I can’t help but tie the thought further to the musical number towards the end of S1E3 and the moments in the previous episodes that I have characterized as tinged with magical realism. There may be a dichotomy between fantasy and reality, but not so between fantasy and truth—the truth is in “Oh, Here We Go” not in the parking lot with its awkward silence, even if they didn’t really break out into song.

“If You Were Sorry, You Wouldn’t Be This Way.”

Beth insists that if Josh were sorry, he wouldn’t have done what he did in the first place, while Ruth offers an iteration of a similar sentiment as she and her son leave the party, questioning not just what he’s done but his very being.

On the one hand, this is deeply unfair. I believe that Josh is sorry, insofar as this means feeling bad about what you’ve done, wishing you hadn’t done it, and aiming to apologize. The problem is that the issues Beth and Ruth have with his behavior at the party don’t just have to do with what he did but with who he is. Can I be sorry for who I am? Certainly, but it’s not the easiest thing to do something about it. I may not be able to do anything about it, and if I can, am I still me if I alter myself for you?

I may wish I could be who you wanted, but this is a lament. I cannot be, but this doesn’t mean Josh isn’t sorry.

The whole framing of these remarks presumes something about our characters as human beings that we might like to believe, but which is in fact false (and we all know it): that we are in control of ourselves in a deep way. Of course we must be at some level, this is what makes us responsible for ourselves and what we do, but to view every action and remark as stemming from a fully formed intention is to attempt to foist a kind of ideology onto the world. Reality is chaos; it’s a chaos we have to order and that’s hard. Sometimes we fail. I’m sorry.

Beth looks up with racks full of bins behind her

To ask for forgiveness is to ask the other to remember this frailty. In this way, it differs from trying to excuse oneself, which Josh does not do. But at a certain level this is who he is and we aren’t in control of who we are—at least not to the extent that Ruth’s comment implies. And she knows this. Everyone knows this, about themselves at least. They may repress it or otherwise try to foreclose it from consciousness, but there’s always that pesky return of the repressed…

Josh falls prey to fallacious thinking as the others do, however, when he quips to his mother that maybe he is the unlucky one after she’s said she’s always been unlucky with men. She chose his dad, sure, but did she know what she was getting into? Should she have known? Can’t they both be unlucky at the end of the day?

Happy Birthday

As he stands in the parking lot toward the end of S1E3, Josh sees a man pushing a shopping cart and fuzzy colors flash across the frame. This isn’t the first time this has happened in Mr. Corman, though I still don’t quite know what to make of it. Perhaps it involves some fantasy about operating outside of all of those social constructs that Josh grapples with—to simply escape symbolic inscription. Or perhaps it is a moment of nebulous anxiety and the soundtrack should key us in to that. Or perhaps there is more to it.

A man pushes a shopping cart at night, with circular fuzzy lens flares across the right side of the frame

Regardless, three episodes in, Mr. Corman has established itself as something unique and thought-provoking. I didn’t quite see the musical number coming, but it works to illustrate an imagined world where we could live carefree in the truth.

The real world is bound to remain much messier.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

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