Review: Despite Lazy Stereotypes, ‘Atypical’ Gets It Mostly Right
Netflix show ‘Atypical’ explores the life of an autistic teenager who wants to date and get laid.
With a number of refreshingly original, well-produced web series to its credit, Netflix has built a reputation of providing good quality entertainment.
Its latest offering is the eight-episode-long comedy Atypical, which follows the life of 18-year-old Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), who is on the autism spectrum and wants to take the plunge into dating.
Dating is hard enough for neurotypical teenagers, but Sam’s inability to gauge nonverbal responses makes it twice as hard for him. In its eight episodes, each of which runs slightly over 30 minutes, Atypical takes us through Sam’s experiences as he ventures into the world of girls and dating, and how this affects his family.
The first episode introduces Sam, his overprotective mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and his father Doug (Michael Rapaport), who is much closer to Sam’s athletic, tough-love sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), than to Sam. He also has a friend Zahid (Nik Dodani), a geek who so frequently, and so confidently transgresses into ‘player’ territory that he’s managed to blur the boundary between the two. He’s also managed to sufficiently convince Sam of his prowess, to the effect that he becomes Sam’s go-to guy for advice.
Sam’s decision to date also brings him closer to his dad, but for Elsa, his mom, the fact that Sam wants to date, combined with the signs of him growing up, doesn’t bring a lot of joy.
To aid our understanding of autism, the series offers plenty of scenes of Sam interacting with Julia (Amy Okuda), his therapist, who is the first person Sam expresses his desire to begin seeing someone to, and with whom he also candidly and unhesitatingly shares facets of his life. In one such scene, for instance, he talks to her about getting picked on:
Much of the show’s humour springs from Sam’s attempts at finding, at first, a girlfriend, and later, when he realises it’s Julia who he loves, a “practice girlfriend”. But she is already dating someone, and that leads Sam to research the art of girlfriend-stealing.
By making use of familiar tropes, such as nerd boy sets out to seek girlfriend and manages to find one after trial-and-error, and person-on-the-spectrum who fails to understand normative social behaviour, Atypical both succeeds and fails. It’s mostly been done before, with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, with Abed from Community, and several other depictions in popular culture that use characters with autism as figures in situational comedy.
This has, in fact, not gone down well with autistic audiences, as actor Michael Rowe, an actor who is on the autism spectrum himself, points out in his review of the series.
However, Sam isn’t merely a comic figure; he’s the protagonist, and we are privy to his stumbling forays into not just dating, but day-to-day communication as well. In one of the later episodes, in what I felt to be one of the best scenes of the series, Sam has a meltdown on a bus after Julia, caught up in being miserable over her breakup, very harshly turns Sam down, and expresses disappointment and anger at his failure to tell what is inappropriate despite all the work they had put in.
The plot is somewhat lacklustre, but what Atypical lacks in plot structure, it makes up for in the reasonably well-written characters.
Jennifer Jason Leigh does an excellent job portraying Sam’s mother. Unlikable at best, Elsa seems to have gotten so caught up in bringing up Sam that she’s forgotten how to be anything else, as Doug, her husband, points out in an episode. She constantly nitpicks Casey on her choice of outfits (“What is the point of working out so much if you’re not going to show off that cute little body?”), on punching a bully because said bully is a pretty girl, and therefore nice, and ultimately ends up cheating on her husband in a bid to build a life outside of being a mother. With Elsa, we can see why she’s doing what she’s doing, but we can’t find an ounce of sympathy.
Keir Gilchrist’s Antarctica-obsessed Sam manages to be unique despite whatever familiarity we may have due to media depictions of people on the spectrum. Gilchrist has mentioned having read David Finch’s A Journal of Best Practices as part of his preparation for the role. Finch was diagnosed with Asperger’s, also on the higher-functioning side of the spectrum, as a married adult with two children.
Michael Rapaport and Brigette Lundy-Paine also perform the roles of the father and the younger sister commendably. Rapaport plays the father who’s found it hard to deal with Sam’s autism (he’s revealed to have failed to mention it to a colleague of five years in an awkward dinner scene moment) and left his family for a period of eight months when Sam was first diagnosed, leaving his wife to deal with their son alone - something which he is never truly forgiven for. With Sam stepping into adulthood, however, they find common ground.
In another remarkable scene, Doug is repeatedly shot down by the coordinator of Elsa’s support group because he uses terminology like ‘autistic person’ instead of person-with-autism. Doug, and later Julia, too, point out how trivial something like correct usage is in this case; what’s more important is giving care to the autistic person (or person with autism, if you will.)
Atypical is not just Sam’s coming-of-age story; Casey begins dating shortly before her brother does, and generally has a far easier time than him. She’s also protective of Sam, but not in the way their mother is. A stellar athlete, she wins a scholarship to a prep school which she’s ready to turn down if Sam would rather she sticks around.
Following in the footsteps of other Netflix original series, Atypical is not just watchable, but is positively bingeable (the episode length helps). It remains light-hearted for the most part, even when, as in the penultimate episode, it raises such questions: how much should “normal,” neurotypical people have to put up with for the sake of atypicals like Sam?
While it could have done with a more original story, the well-written characters and the main cast do more than just save it from being outright bad. Since some questions are left unanswered in the last episode - Elsa’s secret is out in the open, Julia’s boyfriend proposes - the series might get renewed for a second season.
Atypical is a series you can relax with on a weekend, which is what it means to be a Netflix original series, right?
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